Sonnet 121

Shakespeare Sonnet 121

TIS better to be vile then vile eſteemed,
When not to be, receiues reproach of being,
And the iuſt pleaſure loſt, which is ſo deemed,
Not by our feeling, but by others ſeeing.
For why ſhould others falſe adulterat eyes
Giue ſalutation to my ſportiue blood?
Or on my frailties why are frailer ſpies;
Which in their wils count bad what I think good?
Noe, I am that I am, and they that leuell
At my abuſes, reckon vp their owne,
I may be ſtraight though they them-ſelues be beuel
By their rancke thoughtes, my deedes muſt not be ſhown
Vnleſſe this generall euill they maintaine,
All men are bad and in their badneſſe raigne.

Sonnet 121 opens with a maxim, “Tis better to be vile then vile esteemed:” ‘it is better to be of a depraved or base nature than to be thought depraved or of little worth.’ To the Elizabethan the line would have evoked Isaiah’s words of the suffering servant or ‘man of sorrows:’ “when we loke vpon hym, there shalbe no fairenesse, we shall haue no lust vnto hym. He is dispised and abhorred of men . . We haue reckened hym so vile, that we hyd our faces from hym” (53.2-3; BB). The adage is true, since ‘not being vile’ (“not to be”) already suffers the slur (“reproach”) of being vile: compare the psalmist’s complaint identified with the servant, “I am become also a reproche vnto them: they gase vpon me [and] they shake their head” (Ps. 109.25; BB). It is true also, because licit (“iust”) pleasure is lost, which is adjudged vile (“which is so deemed”) not by experience of it, but in the view of others (“but by others seeing”).

Why, the poet asks, should eyes that are “false” and “adulterat,” those given to seeing things as adulterous or spurious, greet (“Giue salutation to”) his “sportiue blood,” his sexual appetite, which they presume vile or adulterous? (The semi-homophone of ‘eye,’ ‘’ey,’ the Elizabethan ‘hey’ or ‘aye’ of salutation is probably also present; Florio gives as a “Coniunction Of Calling,” “Oh or Hey.”) 2  Why, finally, should morally weaker eyes (“frailer spies”), whose desire (“in their wills”) is to account as bad what the poet values as “good,” spy on his weaknesses?

In response the poet firmly asserts, “Noe, I am that I am,” less a citing of God’s self-definition to Moses, “I AM THAT I AM” (Exod. 3.14; BB) than of Paul’s celebrated use of the phrase as an affirmation of honesty, “For I am the least of the Apostles . . by the grace of God, I am that I am” (1 Cor. 15.10; BB), a verse much cited by preachers, for example, Gervase Babington, the Bishop of Exeter, “Shall I hoyse sayle and looke bigge vpon others, when onely by grace I am that I am?” 3 The poet is similarly straightforward and clear-sighted in contrast with those who look upon his misdeeds (“leuell / At my abuses;” to ‘level the eye’ was to direct the eye towards), or who take aim or get the poet’s misdeeds in their sights (“leuell / At”), or even those who ‘guess at’ his misdeeds (compare Ant. 5.2.333, “She leuell’d at our purposes”). They should tally up (“reckon vp”) their own abuses.

While the poet may be “straight,” not misaligned or mis-sighted, his detractors are “beuel / By their rancke thoughtes.” A bevel, like a “leuell” which measures straightness, is a mason’s or carpenter’s tool made up of a level rule and a moving tongue, which is used to set angles or bends in wood or stone and to inscribe lines or ranks. (The Geneva Version’s sidenote to Matt. 19.9 contrasts the commandment against adultery with law “that boweth and bendeth as the carpenters Beuell.”) The poet’s slanderers are presented as standing out from a plane, distorted by or bowed under by their gross or “rancke thoughtes.” The poet’s actions, however, because straight, need not be disclosed (“shown”), except in the case that they are used to support (“maintaine”) the general axiom about man’s sinful state, “All men are bad and in their badnesse raigne,” or, ‘all men are fallen and in their fallen state thrive.’


121.1. Compare Err. 2.2.142, “I am possest with an adulterate blot, / My bloud is mingled with the crime of lust.”

121.2. John Florio, His firste Fruites: which yeelde familiar speech, merie Prouerbes, wittie Sentences, and golden sayings (London: Thomas Dawson, 1578) 155r.

121.3. Gervase Babington, A Sermon Preached at Paules Crosse the second Sunday in Mychaelmas tearme last. 1590 (London: Thomas Este, 1591) 19. Its reverse, “I am not that I am,” was quoted by Iago (Oth. 1.1.65) and loosely by Viola (TN 3.1.139.