7. I am that I am. Sonnet 121


Sonnet 121:

'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.

In January 1575 Oxford leaves England for Italy. In March he is in Paris and receives a letter from Lord Burghley that his wife is with child. Oxford is satisfied for two reasons. The first reason he gives relates to his travels, only the second to a possible successor. "For now it hath pleased god to give me a son of mine own (as I hope it is), methinks I have the better occasion to travel, since whatsoever becomes of me, I leave behind me one to supply my duty and service either to my prince or else my country." Knowing that he possibly will have a son to continue the ancestral line, he can more light-heartedly proceed with his travels.

In the same letter he stresses another time how primordial his journey to Italy is to him: "My Lord, whereas I perceive by your Lordship's letters, how hardly money is to be gotten, and that my man writes that he would fain pay unto my creditors some part of that money which I have appointed to be made over unto me, good my Lord let rather my creditors bear with me a while and take their days assigned according to that order I left than I to want in a strange country, unknowing yet what need I may have of money myself. My revenue I appointed with the profits of my lands to pay them as I may, and if I cannot yet pay them as I would yet as I can I will but preferring my owne necessity before theirs, and if at the end of my travel I shall have something left of my provision they shall have it among them, but before I will not disfurnish myself."  

From a letter of 24 September 1575 one could conclude he is less concerned about his health than about the restrictions his weakness will impose on the time available for traveling. "Yet with the help of god now I have recovered the same and am past the danger thereof though brought very weak thereby, and hindered from a great deal of travel. Which grieves me most, fearing my time not sufficient for my desire."

On 27 November 1575: "And as concerning my own matters, I shall desire your Lordship to make no stay of the sales of my land, but that all things according to my determination before I came away."

In Oxford's letter of 3 January 1576 emerges the fundamental and irreconcilable opposition between Oxford's and Burghley's worldviews. Oxford wants to go on with the sale of his land so that he may continue his travels; Burghley advises him otherwise. "In doing these things your lordship shall greatly pleasure me.  In not doing them you shall as much hinder me.  For although to depart with land your Lordship hath advised the contrary and that your Lordship for the good affection you bear unto me could wish it otherwise, yet you see, I have no other remedy, I have no help but of my own, and mine is made to serve me, and myself not mine.  Whereupon till all such encumbrances be passed over and till I can better settle myself at home I have determined to continue my travel the  which thing in no wise I desire your Lordship to hinder. Unless you would have it thus Vt nulla sit inter nos amicitia."[1]  "Mine is made to serve me and my self, not mine". In Italy Oxford was looking to satisfy his thirst for learning and art. The phrase expresses that aesthetic self-realisation was his supreme aim to which anything else was subordinated. Burghley was probably no less avid for learning. "And William Cecil plans obliquely to undermine the place of the baseborn in the service of the realm by forcing education on the nobility by act of parliament."[2] But learning had to serve practical political purposes; for Oxford it seems to have been an end in itself.  

A very important letter in connection with Shakespeare's Sonnet 121 - its importance seems to have passed unnoticed thus far - is that of 10 July 1576.  Oxford writes to Burghley: "Now if your Lordship shall do so, then you shall take more in hand than I have, or can promise, for always I have and I will still prefer mine own content before others." B.M. Ward and Conyers Read have transcribed it this way.[3] It is more appropriately written with genitive apostrophe: "for always I have and I will still prefer mine own content before others'," that is, "I'll do what contents me and not what contents others". Or: if what seems good to me but what others look askance at and think bad, I'll nevertheless do what in my view is right.

In lines 3 and 4 of Sonnet 121 Shakespeare expresses the same determination:

And the just pleasure lost, which is so deemed,
Not by our feeling, but by others' seeing.

"Others' seeing" are the "men's eyes" of the opening line of Sonnet 29.

            Then, in the letter of 30 October 1584: "My lord, this other day your man Stainner told me that you sent for Amis my man, and if he were absent that Lyly should come unto you. I sent Amis for he was in the way. And I think very strange that your Lordship should enter into that course towards me, whereby I must learn that I knew not before, both of your opinion and good will towards me. But I pray, my Lord, leave that course, for I mean not to be your ward nor your child, I serve Her Majesty, and I am that I am, and by alliance near to your lordship, but free, and scorn to be offered that injury, to think I am so weak of government as to be ruled by servants, or not able to govern myself."

            Oxford was then financially engaged in the theatre. He had leased the Blackfriars theatre in 1583 and released it to John Lyly. "Sportive blood" in line 6 of the Sonnet may refer to that. Probably it was for this reason Burghley had sent for Lyly.

            If not a perfect one, the correspondence between Oxford and Burghley between 1575 and 1584 offers a close match with Shakespeare's Sonnet 121. And, hence, provides an excellent background for it. An autobiographical background!


[1] „Ut nulla sit inter nos amicitia". Hamlet uses a similar phrase in English in V.ii.41-43 : "As peace should still her wheaten garland wear/And stand a comma 'tween their amities,/And many such-like 'as'es of great charge."

[2] Hexter, J.H.,  "The Education of the Aristocracy in the Renaissance" in The Journal of Modern History, Vol. XXII, March 1950, p. 17.

[3] Ward, B.M., The Seventeenth Earl of Oxford 1550-1604, London: John Murray, 1928, p. 126; Read, Conyers, Lord Burghley and Queen Elizabeth, Vol. II, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1960, p. 137. Alan Nelson so renders it on his website; it is not mentioned in Monstrous Adversary.