Analysis of Shakespeare Sonnet #87


The Sonnet:

Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing,
And like enough thou know’st thy estimate:
The charter of thy worth gives thee releasing;
My bonds in thee are all determinate.
For how do I hold thee but by thy granting?
And for that riches where is my deserving?
The cause of this fair gift in me is wanting,
And so my patent back again is swerving.

 Thyself thou gavest, thy own worth then not knowing,
 Or me, to whom thou gavest it, else mistaking;
 So thy great gift, upon misprision growing,
Comes home again, on better judgment making.
Thus have I had thee, as a dream doth flatter,
In sleep a king, but waking no such matter.

My analysis that I used as teaching material – how to closely critique a poem:


Mr. Ries

Shakespeare Elective

Breaking Up is Expensive to Do:

An Exegesis of Shakespeare Sonnet 87

In his plays and poems, the Bard fails not to explore all aspects of love – including rejection. Sonnet 87 is a testimony of breaking up, not because of relationship issues, not due to external forces (such as an affair), but because on some social scale in the poet’s eye, the woman is higher up. Yet the sonnet is deliberately ambiguous. As is characteristic of Shakespeare’s writing, a close reading reveals that we can’t tell if he is talking about a too-expensive call girl, or the love of his life. Perhaps on some level to a genius it is both.  In either case, in the rich language of Shakespeare’s poetry, financial and sexual images mingle once again while a host of other literary tools reinforce the theme of letting go of a lover that is out of your league.

There is no guessing what this sonnet is about based on the first word. “Farewell!” (1) presents a rather stark, seldom-used caesura which immediately engenders a sense of finality. Immediately on its heels, “thou art too dear for my possessing” (ibid.) commences classic Shakespearean wordplay which will be utilized throughout the sonnet, as “dear” can mean “expensive” and “possessing” has connotations of both ownership and sexual triumph. Thus it is unclear to us if he has paid for her affections with his wallet or with his heart. “Possessing” also begins a tone of employing progressive tense “ing” words to end most lines of the body of the sonnet, (ten out of twelve lines, surely not an accident) which reinforces senses of movement and currency.  These “ing” words are “in the present.” They evoke emotion.

The rest of the first quatrain emphasizes these linguistic somersaults.  “Estimate” (2), “charter,” (3), “worth” (ibid.) and “bonds” (4) clearly further the theme of preciousness (for money seems to be the lingua franca of the English speaking peoples, if not all peoples) and “releasing” (3) can mean release from a debt or obligation just as easily as it can mean release from a hug or embrace. “Determinate” (4) ends the first quatrain and two things make sense: that the word itself means “finish,” and it is followed by an end-stop.  While the poem “seems” to ask many questions of self-doubt about one’s worth, there is in fact only one question mark used by the sonneteer, and it is found in the second quatrain. First, line five perpetuates the sexual/financial blurred imagery, as “hold thee” underscores the whole ownership theme, and “granting” connotes a grant – a financial gift. From this “gift,” (7) which he calls “riches” (6), he questions “where is my deserving?” (ibid). To indicate that he, the poet, is simply not worth the woman, he asserts in line 7 that “the cause of this fair gift is wanting” (lacking on his part). The quatrain ends with more imagery of ownership with “patent” (8) and ambiguous language, as “back” (ibid). can mean remembering back or his own back that he must now remove from his lady.

That this unnamed lady gave something is clear: she gives herself (“thyself thou gav’st”) (9). Did she give just her body or her heart or both?  Certainly Shakespeare makes the gift important enough to alliterate it – he refers to it as a “great gift” (L.11) which has simply been “misprisioned” (ibid) in the wrong man. The great gift returns to the woman in both a potentially erotic way (“comes home again”) and a legal way (“upon better judgement making”) (12). Ambiguity strikes yet again in the couplet, as “had thee” (13) ties into the theme of possession, yet we all know that to “have” someone has a secondary meaning.

The simile utilized in the penultimate line is interesting, because the image created lacks clarity: we don’t know if the poet felt like a king in general in a dream, was actually with the woman in a bed, or felt like a king with the woman in life or sleep. Such imagery without definite borders is part of Shakespeare’s genius. Whatever the case may be, the “er” endings of the couplet, juxtaposed against the general trend of “ing” endings – indicates that the relationship, be it imagined, real, illegal, or otherwise – is unambiguously over.

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