THat thou haſt her it is not all my griefe,
And yet it may be ſaid I lou’d her deerely
That ſhe hath thee is of my wayling cheefe,
A loſſe in loue that touches me more neerely.
Louing offendors thus I will excuſe yee,
Thou dooſt loue her, becauſe thou knowſt I loue her,
And for my ſake euen ſo doth ſhe abuſe me,
Suffring my friend for my ſake to approoue her,
If I looſe thee, my loſſe is my loues gaine,
And looſing her, my friend hath found that loſſe,
Both finde each other, and I looſe both twaine,
And both for my ſake lay on me this croſſe,
But here’s the ioy, my friend and I are one,
Sweete flattery, then ſhe loues but me alone.
Sonnet 42 opens with the poet accepting that the youth has possessed, sexually or otherwise, the poet’s mistress (“That thou hast her”). But, he claims, that is not the totality of his grief: although he had extended to her his dear love (“lou’d” is past tense), the larger factor in his grief (“of my wayling cheefe”) is that she has possessed the youth (“she hath thee”). (The relationship’s ongoing nature is confirmed by the two present tenses.) Her possessing the youth is for the poet a “losse in loue,” and that which affects him most intimately (“touches me more neerely”).
Yet the poet extends forgiveness (recalling Sonnet 40.9, “I doe forgiue thy robb’rie gentle theefe”). “Louing offenders,” is a hanging participle which can be attached to the poet, ‘I, loving offenders, will excuse you,’ or attached to the other two, ‘I will excuse you, loving offenders (offenders who sin through love).’ The poet will find excuses for both offenders: the youth for loving her, because he knows the poet loves her; her for loving the youth and thus permitting him to test or experience her (“approoue her”) for the poet’s sake, even if for his sake she is prepared (sexually) to betray or misuse him (“abuse”). The lines are marked by the too plaintive repetition of “for my sake.”
The sestet continues the hairsplitting: in losing the youth the poet’s loss would be her (“my loues”) gain. If the woman were to be lost to the poet, then the youth has discovered or “found that losse” (suggestively the ‘lost woman’). As a result, “Both finde each other” and the poet loses each separately (“I loose both twaine”). Both, the youth and the mistress, “lay on me this crosse” with its Christic echoes (see Sonnet 39). Throughout the paradoxes Shakespeare has played with the biblical adage common to the adjacent parables of the lost sheep, the silver piece, and the prodigal son, where what “was lost . . is founde.” In each parable the finding of what was lost is marked by joy; in the case of the lost sheep the shepherd, “when he hath founde it, he layeth it on his shoulders with ioy” (Luke 15.5; BB). Although both “lay on” the poet a cross, he construes it as a joy: “But here’s the ioy.” His joy lies in the fact that he and the youth are “one.” Since they are “one,” and since the woman loves the youth, then she also loves the poet: “she loues but me alone.” Any “Sweete flattery,” however, carries an element of the self-delusory, emphasizing the sonnet’s continuous sophistry.