Sonnet 88

Shakespeare Sonnet 88

VVHen thou ſhalt be diſpode to ſet me light,                                     diſpoſde
And place my merrit in the eie of skorne,
Vpon thy ſide, againſt my ſelfe ile fight,
And proue thee virtuous, though thou art forſworne:
With mine owne weakeneſſe being beſt acquainted,
Vpon thy part I can ſet downe a ſtory
Of faults conceald, wherein I am attainted:
That thou in looſing me, ſhall win much glory:
And I by this wil be a gainer too,
For bending all my louing thoughts on thee,
The iniuries that to my ſelfe I doe,
Doing thee vantage, duble vantage me.
Such is my loue, to thee I ſo belong,
That for thy right, my ſelfe will beare all wrong.

Sonnet 88 is the adversative to Sonnet 87. The poet envisages a time when the friend might undervalue or despise him (“When thou ſhalt be dispode to set me light”). ‘To set light’ was a colloquialism intending to ‘underweigh’ or ‘underestimate the worth.’ It introduces the sonnet’s main metaphor, that of the balance and the balance register. ‘To dispose the balance’ was to arrange the weights equally on the scales with neither side too heavy nor too light (like the figure 88); a false balance was said to be ‘light-poised,’ while a false account was said to be ‘light.’ The pivot on which the scales’ beam was poised was sometimes called the “eye,” which to weigh correctly must be kept upright and not inclined to a side. (Compare the extended conceit in Rom. 1.2.93-4: “Herselfe poys’d with herselfe in either eye: / But in that Christall scales, let there be waid . .” or Wecker’s instruction to the reader of his Chyrurgerie, “with  . . an vpright eye, weigh, and consider.”) 1 The suggestion of the feet (of a balance) being unequal (‘dis’ + ‘pode’) is lost sadly, if the quarto’s “dispode” is emended, as is customary, to ‘disposed.’ The poet conceives a time when the friend will be prepared to “place my merrit in the eie of skorne,” scornfully to weigh his worth with the hint of placing it in the centre of scorn as ‘in the eye of the wind.’ At that time the poet will weigh in on the friend’s side and fight against himself (“Vpon thy side, against my selfe ile fight”). Coming down on his side, the poet will prove him virtuous, even though he has been unfaithful (“forsworne”).

Since the poet knows his own shortcomings better than others (“being best acquainted”), he can record in an account (“set downe”) on the youth’s side of the ledger (“Vpon thy part”) a history of entries (“a story”) detailing hidden betrayals (“faults conceald”), by which he becomes subject to dishonour or attainder (“wherein I am attainted”), thus losing all his possessions including the youth and extinction of all his rights including his rights to the youth. Sonnet 87’s “misprision” is here used in its technical sense of faults or treasons not disclosed, the punishment for which in the case of “Misprision of treason” was, in Cowell’s words, “to loose their goods” (see Sonnet 87 commentary). The poet will manipulate the accounts, so that the youth, relieved of any obligation to the poet (“thou loosing me”), will “win much glory,” the balance being to his credit.

The poet can now claim that in rigging the balance of the accounts, he also will be a winner (“be a gainer”), because, by not being upright and inclining (“bending”) all his “louing thoughts” toward the youth and in directing towards him all the harms the poet does himself (“the iniuries that to myself I doe”), he will be working to the youth’s advantage and will thus doubly profit himself (“duble vantage me”). A ledger contained ‘sheets of advantage’ or profit, while ‘to vantage’ meant to falsify accounts: the falsifying works to each’s advantage. The couplet returns to Sonnet 87’s idea of possession: “Such is my loue, to thee I so belong.” The poet’s love is such that he will carry the whole weight of any wrongs (“beare all wrong”) for the sake of what is properly the youth’s or for the sake of his being correctly weighed (“for thy right”).


88.1. Johann Wecker,  A Compendious Chyrurgerie: Gathered, & translated (especially) out of Wecker . . by Ihon Banester (London: Iohn Windet, 1585) *6v.