Sonnet No. 121

Oh, go on then. Here’s another post for the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. I’ve posted quite a few of Shakespeare’s sonnets over the years, and my book of them goes with me whenever I travel, so it seems appropriate to post another as a personal way of marking the quatercentenary. This is Sonnet 121, another in the “fair youth” sequence, although to some extent it stands apart from the verses preceding and following it.  It was apparently written about the time a mysterious scandal was circulating about the poet and it’s presumably a specific reaction to that. The message is basically that having a bad reputation  is even worse than actually being bad. The poet does not claim to be blameless, be argues that he is being insulted by those whose sins are far worse than his and who therefore have no right to criticise him. So he decides to reject hypocrisy and be himself no matter what people say. It’s a poem that will resonate for anyone who has been falsely, perhaps maliciously, accused of something they did not do.

‘Tis better to be vile, than vile esteemed,
When not to be, receives reproach of being,
And the just pleasure lost which is so deemed
Not by our feeling, but by others’ seeing:
For why should others’ false adulterate eyes
Give salutation to my sportive blood?
Or on my frailties why are frailer spies,
Which in their wills count bad what I think good?
No; — I am that I am, and they that level
At my abuses reckon up their own:
I may be straight, though they themselves be bevel;
By their rank thoughts my deeds must not be shown;
Unless this general evil they maintain,
All men are bad, and in their badness reign.


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