Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 741
Shakespeare’s sonnets differ from the Italian (or Petrarchan) form of the sonnet. Unlike Italian sonnets, his have three quatrains followed by a single couplet—instead of an octave (eight lines, rhyming abba abba) followed by a sestet (six lines, usually rhyming cdcdee). In some of Shakespeare’s sonnets the octave-sestet form may still be discerned, but Sonnet 87 is not among them. Sonnet 87, moreover, is unusual not so much in having all its lines end-stopped, but in the number of weak, or feminine, endings—twelve of a possible fourteen. These weak endings are generally held to be more appropriate to a comic poem (such as George Gordon, Lord Byron’s poem Don Juan) than to the solemn occasion that this sonnet ostensibly describes.
The poem begins with a firm “Farewell” and proceeds through the next twelve lines to explain, if not to justify, the parting of the two friends. The weak line endings signal and tend to underscore the ironies and ambiguities that pervade the sonnet. These devices bespeak the speaker’s underlying reluctance to let go as well as his sense of undeserved dismissal. The words “too dear” in the first line state that the young man is too precious or of too high a rank for the speaker, but they may also imply that his friendship costs too much. The last word in the line, “possessing,” introduces further ambiguities involved in the legal and commercial language of the next eleven lines. The second line is fraught with ambiguity; it may be interpreted to signify (among other possible meanings) “Very likely you know how highly I regard you,” “You probably know your own worth very well,” and “You know how much you deserve to be loved.” The “charter” in line 3 is a legal metaphor for privilege that his noble rank or intrinsic value bestows on the young man, a privilege that allows him to sever with impunity their relationship. Hence, the speaker’s “bonds” (ties plus legal covenant) are all “determinate”—that is, ended and outdated, as applied to legal bonds, but also circumscribed.
In the second quatrain, the speaker explains how all this has come to pass. His “possession” of the young man was in the first place made possible only by the latter’s voluntary granting, which the speaker’s merits perhaps did not justify. Since those “riches,” or the “fair gift” of the young man’s favor, were insufficiently deserved, they revert, as in any legal or commercial arrangement, to the owner. “Fair” conveys a multiple ambiguity: “handsome,” “legally equitable,” “desirable,” and perhaps “flattering.” The “patent” in line 8 refers to a license or exclusive privilege that the young man had granted the speaker, which now returns intact to the grantor.
By the third quatrain the underlying resentment bordering on hostility becomes more acute. The young man had freely given himself, possibly without knowing how much either he or the receiver of his love was “worth.” The misjudgment thus has led to a withdrawal of his “great gift,” his love, once he has evaluated the relationship more precisely. By framing the situation in terms that carry suggestions of commercial trading, the speaker reveals his bitterness that their relationship—or any such relationship—should be measured in this way. The resentment deepens further, since “misprision” in line 11 signifies “contempt” as well as “error”: What once was mutual affection has now turned into near despising, mutual or otherwise.
The final couplet summarizes the speaker’s attitude in succinct terms, using a quite different but nonetheless appropriate metaphor. It has all been like a dream, and on awakening, the poet sees the reality of the situation. If in dreaming he felt like a king, possessing the “fair gift” of the young man (with a possible pun on the sexual significance of “had”), upon awakening he sees himself and the situation for what they are: He is not at all like royalty, and their friendship was merely illusory. Since “king” may also refer to the young man, the further implication is that the young man is something less than the speaker believed while he was dreaming. The emphasis on “matter,” with which the poem ends, conveys disgust both in its ambiguity and in its enunciation, for “no such matter” means “nothing of the sort” but also “real substance” (as opposed to illusion), with a further allusion to the sexual sense of “matter” (as in Hamlet’s reference to “country matters” in Hamlet 3.3.111).