Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 441
As the valediction to an affair or to a deeper personal relationship, Sonnet 87 conveys the mixed feelings, thoughts, and emotions that often accompany such moments. Although it is grouped among sonnets that have as their object, or auditor, a young man, the sonnet itself does not specify a particular person or sex. Removed from its immediate context, then, it has a more universal application and resonance. By the kinds of diction and metaphors it uses, it reveals a subtlety and sophistication worthy of any profoundly affected friend or lover faced with the ending of something once—and perhaps still—highly esteemed and cherished.
The ambiguities noted in the previous section reflect the kind of ambivalence typically found at the breakup of an affair. Examining the sonnet closely, one sees that the renunciation may be occurring on either side. In Shakespeare’s Wordplay (1957), M. M. Mahood remarks: “Either Shakespeare is saying: ‘You are so good and great that you may well end our friendship on the ground that there is no corresponding worth in me,’ or he means: ‘Because of your social advantage over me, you exact too high a price for our friendship, so I have decided to break free.’ In addition, there is a strong hint of the meaning: I have lavished affection on a creature who is just not worth it.” On the other hand, as Mahood recognizes, Shakespeare may be saying all three things at once. Contradictory feelings at such times are perfectly natural, and Shakespeare accordingly may be expressing them in this sonnet.
As in many of his poems and plays, Shakespeare shows himself to be aware of the ironies in human experience. That one can love a person who is undeserving of that love is one such irony; that one can praise a person while at the time being aware that the praise may not be fully—or at all—deserved is another. Both are found in Sonnet 87. The young man, handsome and attractive in many ways, may be too full of himself, too aware of his own “worth,” to merit the kind of devotion the speaker in the sonnet is foolishly willing to give him. The situation, however, cannot continue. In the context of the Rival Poet sonnets, Shakespeare as the speaker of the sonnets cannot compete with the other poet to whom the young man has turned. Nevertheless, the speaker knows his own worth, or rather the value of his love, which unlike the young man’s is neither shallow nor fickle. On this count alone he may deserve more, though the young man fails to recognize it, and their relationship therefore seems doomed.