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

Updated on October 24, 2017
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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.

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.

The real "Shakespeare"


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

First Quatrain: "When thou shalt be dispos’d to set me light"

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: "With mine own weakness, being best acquainted"

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: "And I by this will be a gainer too"

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: "Such is my love, to thee I so belong"

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.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes


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