Columbian Exchange

Ramy Gadalla
Professor Alok Yadav
ENGH 305-002
Friday, October 9, 2015

The Narrator’s Indignant Indictment of his Accusers

Shakespeare’s 121st sonnet, “[’Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed],” shows the narrator’s indignation against his indictment and condemnation. He starts off lamenting at his accused state and lost sense of feeling just (lines 1-4). Then, he accuses his indicters, saying, they have adulterate eyes and are spies that are weaker than him (5-8). He dismisses their accusations based on their dishonesty and subjectivity (9-12). Finally, he resolves to listen conditionally; they have to prove that all men are bad, presuming that all men are like him (13-14). Formal features, like rhetorical statements, repetition, rhyme scheme and terminal modification as well as thematic features, like word choice, contrast, and paratactic and dialectic structures, strengthen the poem but it is weakened by the narrator’s logic. This paper will, first, determine the context for the sonnet. Second, it will analyze formal and thematic features, showing how they work to shape the reading experience and reinforce the theme. Third, it will analyze the narrator’s logic, showing how it weakens the theme.

First, the “circumstantial context” is to be elucidated from the content (Smith 143). From the paradox in desiring evil (line 1), the narrator exposes his wicked inclinations. Describing his actions as, “sportive blood” (line 6), shows that he is a womanizer ( Calling his accusers “frailer spies” (line 7) shows that, being “spies,” they witness the whimsical crime he commits by his frailty. “I am that I am” (line 9), shows that he is unabashed. Also, the hyperbole in claiming that “all men” are like him (line 14), while it may only be a certain clique, exposes his exaggeration, and therefore carelessness. From this analysis, a likely context would be that the Duke ( adopts a careless attitude, womanizing, and he receives rebuke from the society. Finally, he desires to be evil to retaliate against their accusations. His like-minded friends support him and represent to him “all men” in the world.

Having considered the poem’s context, this paper will analyze the interplay of formal and thematic features strengthening the theme. The poem opens with a strong rhetorical statement, “’Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed” (line 1). Repeating such a harsh word, “vile,” delivers the narrator’s indignation at his accusers. The next line explains the word, vile esteemed: “When not to be receives reproach of being,” (line 2). The contrast in “not to be / being” emphasizes the conflict in his mind from feeling innocent yet being condemned unjustly. The repetition of “be” along with the alliteration in “receives / reproach,” emphasizes the process of his condemnation, and therefore feeling indignant at his state. Next, Shakespeare explains the driving force behind the narrator’s anger: “And the just pleasure lost, which is so deemed, / Not by our feeling but by others seeing” (lines 3, 4). “Logical sequence” in the contrast between “not by / but by,” (Smith 132) shows that although he is confident in his actions yet he is not enjoying them fully, because others condemn him “by” their standards. This contrast gives continuance also to the 2nd line’s theme of lamentation. Over all, the first quatrain, establishes the narrator’s pathos to deliver his lamentation and convince the reader of his innocence.

Next, the narrator uses “dialectic structure,” posing a rhetorical question (Smith 139): “For why should others’ false adulterate eyes / Give salutation to my sportive blood?” (5-6). Describing his accusers’ eyes as “false [blind or detracted from seeing the truth]” increases his credibility. Furthermore, likening his actions to blood shows that he is invaluable like blood and trying to achieve a sense of pleasure by helping other people. The following couplet uses also a rhetorical question: “Or on my frailties why are frailer spies, / Which in their wills count bad what I think is good?” (7-8). The “Or” conjunction triggers thematic “continuance” of the previous couplet (Smith 99); the narrator can go on praising himself incessantly as honest and invaluable and criticizing the accusers as blind and subjective. The alliterated internal rhyme in “which / wills” (line 8) emphasizes how the accusers judge him subjectively according to their whimsical “wills.” The contrast in “bad / good” emphasizes the contention between him and his accusers based on his practices. Repetition of “frail” in “frailties / frailer” (line 7) emphasizes the inner conflict based on the comparison he is making between him and his accusers. He retaliates by describing himself superior over them. Through the second quatrain, the narrator establishes his ethos and retaliates the accusers their accusations.

Now that he has established his ethos, the narrator, in the final quatrain before the terminal couplet, makes a turn in tone towards assertion rather than posing rhetorical questions: “No, I am that I am and they that level / At my abuses, reckon up their own:” (lines 9-10). This turn in tone serves as an “unqualified assertion;” although it comes after a long line of more qualified assertions that articulate more his innocence, yet it is “the most convincing” (Smith 182). Using “I am that I am,” which is a biblical reference to the name of God (Cliffnotes; New International Version, Ex. 3:14), emphasizes the narrator’s confidence through accepting his actions. Next, he displays his confidence by retaliating the criticisms: “I may be straight though they themselves be bevel:” (line 11). Through repeating the pronoun, “I,” he links this couplet with the previous to continue the theme of reassurance. Repetition of “be” twice followed by the contrasting words, “straight” and “bevel,” respectively, emphasizes the contrast between his truthfulness and the accusers’ digression. Similarly, linking “straight” with “pleasure” in the 3rd line, by the concealed alliteration involving “s/p” (Smith 163), emphasizes that his sense of “pleasure” is from feeling “straight,” not being guilty. Next, he utilizes a syntactic arrangement (Smith 137): “By their rank thoughts my deeds must not be shown” (line 12). Switching the regular Subject (S.), Verb (V.), and Object (O.), as in their rank thoughts must not show my deeds, to S.O.V. yields a tone of a person who has finally found an answer to his question. In the third quatrain, the narrator retracts into a state of feeling self-righteous and not needing to listen to his accusers.

After being determined to oppose his accusers, he disturbs the continuance, in the terminal couplet by giving the reader a false expectation that he will listen to the accusers conditionally: “Unless this general evil they maintain: / All men are bad and in their badness reign” (13-14). “Unless” marks a turn in thought that might have finally downed on the narrator, that is, to change and listen to his accusers. However, “All men” and the repetition between “bad / badness’ highlights the impossible condition he has set before his accusers in order to listen to them. Therefore, he makes sure that they will never reach his condition, and he will never listen to them.

So far this paper has discussed the formal features that strengthen the poem. On the other hand, there is illogic in the argument because his discussion relies entirely on feelings rather than substantial evidence. It is considered argumentum ad hominem to criticize his accusers personally to pacify himself, as in “They themselves be bevel” (line 11), rather than reply to their accusation logically. Moreover, if the duke were truly honest, he would not wish to be evil as long as he is with his love. Furthermore, could not this trial present an opportunity for him to strengthen his love? For example, if he were truly “straight” about his love, people criticisms would likely strengthen it more. Could not that trial teach him humility? For example, life is not too easy after all. Later, if he is accused again undeservingly, he may be more attuned because he has learned from that situation. He will not worry but respect everyone, even his accusers. Or could it not present an opportunity for him to learn to relate to others who may be condemned falsely like him? For example, if he sees someone who may be in the same situation as he has been, he could care for him or her, rather than condemn them like others do.

The dialectic and paratactic structures, unqualified assertion, contrasts, and true ABAB-CDCD-EFEF-GG rhyme present attention-grabbing thematic as well as formal features. Despite they engage the readers in the narrator’s dilemma, by creating a lyrical pattern, the poem is built on a false assertion. The narrator is abusing women and still considers himself as “sportive blood” because he is a “duke” and has a clique who support him (line 6;; line 14). We, likewise, in our lives may be thinking highly of ourselves because of overestimating little achievements, but be missing on great things, reluctant in keeping up with an elderly or greedy giving an impoverished person.

The question remains for us, then. When we consider ourselves as righteous and refusing to listen to other people’s advice or our own conscience, are we truly so? Or are we overfond of certain little achievements and forgetting to see the bigger picture—that we still have a long way to go till perfection?

Works Cited “Summary and Analysis Sonnet 121.” Cliffsnotes, n.d. Web. Aug 22 2015. “'Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed – Shakespeare Quotes.” Enotes, n.d. Web. Aug 22 2015.

Shakespeare, William. “[’Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed].” Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poems End. By Barbra Herrnstein Smith. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1968. 143. Print.

Smith, Barbra Herrnstein. Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poems End. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1968. Print.

Walsh, Jeffrey. “What is Normal? Exploring Folkways, Mores, and Taboos.”, Khan Academy, n.d. Web. 5 Aug 2015.