Shakespeare Sonnet 88: "When thou shalt be dispos’d to set me light"

Updated on April 21, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

The real "Shakespeare"
The real "Shakespeare" | Source

Introduction: Text of Sonnet 88 and Paraphrase

When thou shalt be dispos’d to set me light

When thou shalt be dispos’d to set me light
And place my merit in the eye of scorn,
Upon thy side against myself I ’ll fight,
And prove thee virtuous, though thou art forsworn.
With mine own weakness, being best acquainted,
Upon thy part I can set down a story
Of faults conceal’d, wherein I am attainted;
That thou in losing me shalt win much glory:
And I by this will be a gainer too;
For bending all my loving thoughts on thee,
The injuries that to myself I do,
Doing thee vantage, double-vantage me.
Such is my love, to thee I so belong,
That for thy right myself will bear all wrong.

A rough paraphrase of sonnet 88 might sound something like the following:

When you show my faults and your disdain, I will not argue against you. I will, in fact, argue with you for you are so valuable. I know my own weaknesses quite well, and am aware that they may show up in my work. But even if my faults appear, they attest to my life in you, and my work is credited by my deference to you. It is only love that drives my work and I am possessed by that work. That my sonnets may deliver only expressions of love and truth, I will take upon myself any flaws because you are the goal of my life’s expression.

The speaker has stumbled up on a unique position: even his flaws reveal nothing but genuine love for truth, beauty, and spiritual honesty. His skillful rendering of that idea results in one the most intriguing sonnets in any language.

Reading of Sonnet 88

Commentary

The speaker in sonnet 88 admits that he is a flawed human being, but he avers that his blessings of talent and pure motivation keep his art worthy.

First Quatrain: Addressing His Poem as Critic

When thou shalt be dispos’d to set me light
And place my merit in the eye of scorn,
Upon thy side against myself I ’ll fight,
And prove thee virtuous, though thou art forsworn.

The speaker addresses his poem as if it were a critic or an adversary. He tells the poem that when it has a mind to make him look superficial and without worth, he will agree with the poem.

The speaker will "prove [the poem] virtuous" above his own worth. Even though the poem may, in fact, be speaking out of prejudice, the speaker, nevertheless, will argue on its side, instead of trying to defend his own position.

Second Quatrain: Aware of His Own Value

With mine own weakness, being best acquainted,
Upon thy part I can set down a story
Of faults conceal’d, wherein I am attainted;
That thou in losing me shalt win much glory:

The speaker/poet knows his own value and position, including his own weaknesses. Thus, in his art he believes he is wont to display, from time to time, remnants of those weaknesses. Even when the speaker's "story" tries to cover his flaws, he knows that they will show through the work, for he also knows his unique talent is employed for truth-telling.

But when the speaker is fortunate enough to rise above his flaws, it will be tantamount to the poem’s "losing [him]"; at least, the poem will have dispensed with the writer’s serious blemishes and therefore will "win much glory."

Third Quatrain: The Way to Strength and Power

And I by this will be a gainer too;
For bending all my loving thoughts on thee,
The injuries that to myself I do,
Doing thee vantage, double-vantage me.

When the poem establishes itself in glory despite the faults of the poet, the poet also grows in strength and power. This poet/speaker knows that because he has been "bending all [his] loving thought on" the poem, the failures that might slip into the poem to harm him will, instead, be advantageous to the poem, and doubly beneficial to the poet.

The poet/speaker cannot take advantage of the poem, just as the poem cannot reflect more than the store of wealth owned by the speaker. The defects of the speaker molded by the unique talent of the poet will prove the value of each. The speaker’s confidence grows with each sonnet, and he can toast his failures as well as his best efforts.

The Couplet: Glory to Love

Such is my love, to thee I so belong,
That for thy right myself will bear all wrong.

The speaker attributes his glory to the love of the sonnet; he is always most interested in the theme of love, and when the sonnet shines with the glory of his love, he feels he is most successful.

The speaker/poet is then able to "bear all wrong" for the sake of the sonnet to which he has committed his talent and ability. Any wrong the speaker might commit in his poems he fully accepts, knowing that his motivation is genuine, his effort is tireless, and his spiritual understanding is impeccable.

Shakespeare Sonnet Titles

The Shakespeare Sonnet sequence does not feature titles for each sonnet; therefore, each sonnet's first line becomes the title. According to the MLA Style Manuel:

"When the first line of a poem serves as the title of the poem, reproduce the line exactly as it appears in the text."

APA does not address this issue.

A Brief Overview: The 154-Sonnet Sequence

Scholars and critics of Elizabethan literature have determined that the sequence of 154 Shakespeare sonnets may be classified into three thematic categories: (1) Marriage Sonnets 1-17; (2) Muse Sonnets 18-126, traditionally identified as the "Fair Youth"; and (3) Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154.

Marriage Sonnets 1-17

The speaker in the Shakespeare “Marriage Sonnets” pursues a single goal: to persuade a young man to marry and produce beautiful offspring. It is likely that the young man is Henry Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton, who is being urged to marry Elizabeth de Vere, the oldest daughter of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Many scholars and critics now argue persuasively that Edward de Vere is the writer of the works attributed to the nom de plume, "William Shakespeare." For more information regarding Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as the real writer of the Shakespearean canon, please visit The De Vere Society, an organization that is "dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford."

Muse Sonnets 18-126 (Traditionally classified as "Fair Youth")

The speaker in this section of sonnets is exploring his talent, his dedication to his art, and his own soul power. In some sonnets, the speaker addresses his muse, in others he addresses himself, and in others he even addresses the poem itself.

Even though many scholars and critics have traditionally categorized this group of sonnets as the "Fair Youth Sonnets," there is no "fair youth," that is "young man," in these sonnets. There is no person at all in this sequence, with exception of the two problematic sonnets, 108 and 126.

Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154

The final sequence targets an adulterous romance with a woman of questionable character; the term “dark” likely modifies the woman’s character flaws, not her skin tone.

Two Problematic Sonnets: 108 and 126

Sonnet 108 and 126 present a problem in categorization. While most of the sonnets in the "Muse Sonnets" do focus on the poet's musings about his writing talent and do not focus on a human being, sonnets 108 and 126 are speaking to a young man, respectively calling him "sweet boy" and "lovely boy." Sonnet 126 presents an additional problem: it is not technically a "sonnet," because it features six couplets, instead of the traditional three quatrains and a couplet.

The themes of sonnets 108 and 126 would better categorize with the "Marriage Sonnets" because they do address a "young man." It is likely that sonnets 108 and 126 are at least partially responsible for the erroneous labeling of the "Muse Sonnets" as the "Fair Youth Sonnets" along with the claim that those sonnets address a young man.

While most scholars and critics tend to categorize the sonnets into the three-themed schema, others combine the "Marriage Sonnets" and the "Fair Youth Sonnets" into one group of "Young Man Sonnets." This categorization strategy would be accurate if the "Muse Sonnets" actually addressed a young man, as only the "Marriage Sonnets" do.

The Two Final Sonnets

Sonnets 153 and 154 are also somewhat problematic. They are classified with the Dark Lady Sonnets, but they function quite differently from the bulk of those poems.

Sonnet 154 is a paraphrase of Sonnet 153; thus, they carry the same message. The two final sonnets dramatize the same theme, a complaint of unrequited love, while outfitting the complaint with the dress of mythological allusion. The speaker employs the services of the Roman god Cupid and the goddess Diana. The speaker thus achieves a distance from his feelings, which he, no doubt, hopes will finally liberate him from the clutches of his lust/love and bring him equanimity of mind and heart.

In the bulk of the "dark lady" sonnets, the speaker has a been addressing the woman directly, or making it clear that what he is saying is intended for her ears. In the final two sonnets, the speaker is not directly addressing the mistress. He does mention her, but he is speaking now about her instead of directly to her. He is now making it quite clear that he is withdrawing from the drama with her.

Readers may sense that he has grown battle-weary from his struggle for the woman’s respect and affection, and now he has finally decided to make a philosophical drama that heralds the end of that disastrous relationship, announcing essentially, "I’m through."

The real "Shakespeare"

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    © 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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