In his cycle of 154 sonnets, Shakespeare directs the first 127 to a handsome young man usually identified as his patron, Henry Wriothesley, the earl of Southampton (1573-1624). Sonnet 87 concludes a series of ten known as the Rival Poet group. It is unknown who the rival poet was, and in fact it is possible that he never really existed. Among Shakespeare’s contemporaries who have been suggested are Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, Samuel Daniel, and others, although because certain lines in Sonnet 86 seem to allude to George Chapman, he is the most favored candidate. On the other hand, some of the sonnets in the series, for example, Sonnet 85, suggest that more than one poet may rival Shakespeare for the young man’s attentions.
Throughout the Rival Poet group, the writer reveals an increasing amount of self-deprecation as he realizes that he is losing out to his rival. Sonnet 87 thus brings the competition to an end by renouncing the speaker’s claims to the young man. It is a moving farewell but not an unambiguous one: Shakespeare’s sonnet operates at several levels simultaneously. Although the speaker recognizes that the young man has grown quite beyond his ability to hold, and that he no longer deserves his favor, his sense of regret and loss is sharp. If the relationship was once based upon an acknowledgment of reciprocal worth, or deserving, that no longer appears to be true. The young man apparently overvalued the writer’s qualities and, since he now can more clearly see their true worth, has withdrawn his love.
The final two lines of the sonnet express the speaker’s regret most poignantly. For him, the relationship with the young man has been like a dream, in which he ruled like a kind of sovereign or prince. Now that the young man has withdrawn his love, the speaker has awakened to reality. It is a brutal awakening, at once destroying the “flattery” with which his “dream” deluded him.