‘Sonnet 88,’ also known as ‘When thou shalt be disposed to set me light,’ is number eighty-eight of one hundred fifty-four sonnets that the Bard wrote over his lifetime. This particular sonnet and those which are numbered 1-126 belong to Shakespeare’s famous Fair Youth sequence. These poems are devoted to a young, beautiful man whose identity remains unknown to this day. There has been a great deal of speculation about who this young man could possibly be, but no single identity has ever been decided upon.
In these lines, Shakespeare explores themes of relationships, self-worth, and devotion/obsession. The speaker’s obsessive love, whatever form one thinks it takes, is fully revealed in ‘Sonnet 88’ as he describes his willingness to destroy himself for the youth’s sake.
Sonnet 88 William Shakespeare When thou shalt be disposed 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 concealed, 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.
Throughout the poem, the speaker tells the young, beautiful man that he cares so deeply that he’s willing to do anything for him. Specifically, this sonnet is concerned with perceptions. If the youth decides to speak poorly of the speaker and malign him to everyone they know, the speaker will not fight it. In fact, he’ll join in and make the youth’s job even easier. By doing this, the speaker will hopefully make the youth happier and therefore make himself happier.
‘Sonnet 88 ’ by William Shakespeare is a single stanza poem that is made up of fourteen lines. It is a good example of the English or Shakespearean sonnet (sometimes also known as the Elizabethan). This form requires that the sonnet be made up of three quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one concluding couplet or set of two rhyming lines. The poem follows a consistent rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG and it is written in iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter means that each line contains five sets of two beats, known as metrical feet. The first is unstressed and the second stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM.
The last two lines (known as a couplet) are a rhyming pair. They often, but not always, bring with them a turn or “volta” (in Italian) in the poem. They’re sometimes used to answer a question posed in the previous twelve lines, shift the perspective, or even change speakers.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 88 ’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, enjambment, and caesura. Caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might precede an important turn or transition in the text. Take for example line seven which reads: “Of faults concealed, wherein I am attainted” or line thirteen which is part of the final couplet. It reads: “Such is my love, to thee I so belong”.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For instance, the transition between lines one and two as well as that between lines six and seven.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For instance, “being best” in line five and “doing” and “double” in line twelve.
When thou shalt be disposed 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.
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 88,’ the speaker begins by telling the youth that he is welcome to describe the speaker in a poor light. He can think badly of his friend and the speaker won’t be any. This will remain true even if the youth is able to convince others to “scorn” the speaker. In fact, he adds, he will agree with everything the youth says. The speaker is willing to argue “against” himself.
By doing so, he’d hope to “prove” the youth to be “virtuous” and correct in his opinions.
With mine own weakness being best acquainted,
Upon thy part I can set down a story
Of faults concealed, wherein I am attainted,
That thou in losing me shalt win much glory.
He continues on in the next quatrain to say that he is well aware of his “own weakness”. He is “best acquainted” with them, even more than the youth is. Because of this fact, he’d be able to “set down a story” about himself that would reveal all the “faults” that are normally “concealed”. These revelations will reveal the speaker to be as worthy of scorn as the youth might suggest. Everyone will see that he is tainted. The speaker knows that if all this comes to pass, it is best that everyone thinks poorly of the speaker. Therefore, they can praise the youth for shaking him off.
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
In the third and final quatrain of ‘Sonnet 88,’ the speaker goes on to say that it is not just the youth who is going to benefit from the speaker’s words. The speaker believes that he too will benefit by doing injuries to himself. These injuries will help the youth achieve his goal of maligning the speaker and all the speaker really wants, as should be clear by this point, is to make the youth happy. A reader should also take note of the fact that the phrase “double vantage” comes from tennis and means to win.
The speaker is willing to do anything to himself to allow youth happiness. To the youth he “so belong[s]” and this sonnet is a demonstration of that. He’s willing to “bear all wrong” for the youth’s sake.