Sonnet 88 - 1

The rationalizations humans indulge in when a relationship has begun to break up can be convoluted and confusing. This hasn’t changed since Elizabethan times. In Sonnet 88, even though the Rival Poet is gone, too much damage has been done, and the Poet appears to be reconciling himself with the imminent loss of his Young Man:

88

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 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.

The Poet seems to be trying to argue that even though he’ll continue to praise the Young Man and take the blame for everything, it will be a win-win, or what Shakespeare calls “double-vantage”:

For bending all my loving thoughts on thee,
The injuries that to myself I do,
Doing thee vantage, double-vantage me.

This sonnet, in all its confused logic, seems to be describing a kind of abusive relationship: You, Young Man, think little of me and trash me in public, but I’ll take your side and agree with you, because I love you so much that I consider your gain my gain, even if I take the wrongs upon myself.   Good grief.

Even this interpretation only scratches the surface of this poem: some readers see a tennis metaphor (yes, they had tennis in Shakespeare’s time): A ‘set’ was bet or a stake in a tennis game: the word ‘set’ is used twice. ‘Vantage’ is a tennis shorthand for a player’s ‘advantage’ in a set: ‘vantage’ is used twice. And ‘Double-vantage’ was most especially a tennis term. There are other references.   Why, even numerologists have gotten into the game, claiming there are sports-based significance in the number 88.

As with so many of Shakespeare’s sonnets, there is always much more going than what appears on the surface, and this emotionally messed up one is no exception.

The image is an Elizabethan wood carving of two tennis players.

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