'Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed
'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?
This is, frankly, one of my favorite passages in Shakespeare.
The poet, in a complex sonnet full of ironies and paradoxes,
challenges common notions of what is and is not "vile," and
somewhat diabolically embraces as his good what the world thinks
bad. "'Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed" means "it's better
to actually be 'bad' than to be thought bad." If what
we do is judged "vile" not "by our feeling" but by the way others
see things, then we may as well at least enjoy our pleasures, so
long as not being vile invites the accusation anyway, without any
of the attending pleasure. In other words, though the poet cares
what other people think—he wouldn't complain if he didn't—he
objects to their self-righteous condemnation of pleasures which
seem "just" (innocent or proper) to him. These pleasures, clearly
erotic, are part of what makes us human: they are a gift of nature,
not a vile indulgence. The speaker concludes that if others think
his lifestyle is vile, that says more about their imagination than
"Sportive blood" is another phrase coined in this sonnet, and
its sexual connotations should be apparent. Shakespeare often uses
"blood" as a metaphor for passion, and "sportive" derives from a
bawdy sense of "sport." "He had some feeling for the sport," Lucio
confides in Measure for Measure (Act 3, scene 2),
insinuating that the Duke was a womanizer. The speaker in this
sonnet bristles at others' estimations of his own "sport"; "give
salutation to" is a difficult phrase, perhaps meaning "judgmentally
address themselves to."