Sonnet 116 was written by William Shakespeare and published in 1609. William Shakespeare was an English writer and poet, and has written a lot of famous plays, amongst them Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare lived in the Elizabethan era. At that time, the literature and art was in bloom, and his works are clearly characterized by that era both as language and theme goes.
A sonnet is a poem consisting of 14 lines, three quatrains and a couplet, in which the beat follows the iambic pentameter. Sonnet 116 is, like the most of Shakespeare’s sonnets, about love. In this sonnet, Shakespeare tries to define love by using comparisons, metaphors and personification. The theme of the sonnet is definitely “true love” because of all his attempts to define it by describing what true love means, and why it is so important to human beings.
The first quatrain is sort of the “introduction” of the sonnet, while the two next quatrains are the body of the sonnet, where he elaborates the two first lines. The couplet in the end is the conclusion, and is used to sum up and close the sonnet. In Shakespeare’s sonnets, the last two lines are often about Shakespeare himself in some way. Either by sharing his own opinion on the topic he is writing about, or to praise himself as an artist. In the first one and a half line, he says “let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments”. That means, that he won’t declare any reasons to why two people with true love towards each other shouldn’t get married. He continues with: “love is not love which alters when it alteration finds, or bends with the remover to remove”, which can mean that love is not love if it changes or fades away when a better opportunity comes up. He elaborates this in the next quatrain, where he uses a metaphor and compares love to an ever-fixed mark, leading the ships like the North Star. The ships are meant to be the human beings lost in the search for life’s true meaning. The last line of the quatrain says: “whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken”, which is a clear comparison to love, and how it is measurable, but still more valuable than words can ever explain.
This metaphor makes the message more clear, because you can imagine this star guiding the lost sailors in the middle of the ocean and you understand the meaning of the words in an other way than if he had just written: “love is priceless”. In the third quatrain, he begins with: “Love is not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks within his bending sickle’s compass come.” First of all, “Love is not time’s fool” is a personification, because “time” is given a human quality by being a fool. The whole sentence means, that time is meaningless to love and that love doesn’t care about aging or death. The next two lines: “Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, But bears it out even to the edge of doom.” Empathizes the fact that love is a constant concept and goes beyond death. This last quatrain is really powerful and to say that not even death can stop love makes it even stronger. This is actually the whole message in the sonnet, that true love is so strong, not even death can defeat it. With the couplet in the end, he turns the focus on himself by saying: “ If this be error and upon me proved, I never writ, nor no man ever loved.” He kind of says, that if what he has just written is proved wrong, no one has ever loved, and he isn’t a poet. He probably means that he is so certain about this never-ending true love, that he would swear on his most precious ability, namely his skills as a writer. In some way, you can say that he ends up praising himself a little bit in this sonnet too. The same thing happens in the couplet of sonnet 18 “shall I compare thee..” where he ends up proclaiming that his poems makes people immortal. Another thing that sonnet 18 and sonnet 116 has in common is their many comparisons. Although the comparisons in sonnet 18 are a little more obvious in sonnet 116, it is still kind of the same concept, comparing love and beauty to nature. And of course, the theme of love is consistent through so many of his sonnets. The difference between these two sonnets is mostly the fact that sonnet 18 is written to a specific person (at least, we assume that), while the receiver of sonnet 116 can be anyone who is curious to know the definition of true love.
The “love” issue takes up a lot of space in both Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays, and I think that it is the reason that his works never go out of fashion. It is simply a timeless theme, interesting no matter what race, age or gender you are. His works are known around the world, and can be
interpreted so it fits every mind everywhere in the world. With this sonnet, Shakespeare has defined love for the entire human race.
By Jenna Jauregui
What is love?
Just go ask that playwright poet, that sixteenth century love guru: William Shakespeare. In answer, he’d likely whip out his notebook and orate to you his latest sonnet—the one we now call simply Sonnet 116—in which he would proceed to tell you exactly what love is, and what it is not. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, which is sometimes titled with its first line, “Let me not unto the marriage of true minds,” makes skillful use of various poetic devices in order to convey a clear and accurate definition of true, real love.
Shakespeare’s use of the 14-line sonnet meant that he could organize his ideas into three quatrains, ending the poem with a rhymed couplet. This organization enabled him to shift the focus every four lines while drawing to a conclusion in the ending couplet. His rhyme pattern (ABAB CDCD EFEF GG) also lends itself to this endeavor, as each quatrain is independent of the other’s rhyme diction and is free to elaborate upon previous thoughts or introduce new ideas.
The poem’s speaker opens the first quatrain with the statement “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments.” He defines love as “the marriage of true minds” and claims that he does not wish to find fault with people who are already in love, but in order to be real love there can be no impediments. The word “impediments” interrupts the second line’s iambic pentameter with its irregular syllables—it impedes the line itself. The period that follows “impediments” causes a caesura in the middle of the line and draws further attention to the word. With this, the poem’s focus is shifted from simply “love” to what prevents love from becoming true love. The speaker continues the quatrain’s idea with “Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds, / Or bends with the remover to remove:”. Here, the speaker discusses what true love is not: it does not change when the beloved changes, and it does not disappear when one partner leaves. Shakespeare’s use of repetition with “Love is not love,” “alters when it alteration finds,” and “remover to remove” further emphasizes his point. True love, the speaker tells us throughout the first quatrain, becomes impaired when it fails to remain constant through time and space—love fails when it adjusts to fit the circumstances.
“O, no!” comes the exclamation at the beginning of the second quatrain: “it is an ever-fixed mark, / that looks on tempests and is never shaken”. The interjectory “O, no!” suggests that the speaker is excited, ready to further illuminate the subject. The poem’s focus shifts with the new quatrain—the speaker will no longer discuss what love is not, but rather what love is. True love, according to the speaker, is exactly the opposite of the fickle love described in the first quatrain. Instead of altering when it sees fit, love is an unchanging force that can outlast the storms of unfavorable circumstance. In these lines, love is metaphorically likened to a lighthouse which stands sturdy through the wind and rain, its light fixed and unchanging through the night. The quatrain continues with “It is the star to every wandering bark, / whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.” The speaker again uses metaphor to describe love like a star, mysterious and priceless. Stars allow sailors aboard a bark (a ship) to navigate the seas through use of a sextant, which measures the angle between a star and the horizon to determine latitude. A star’s worth is priceless as it guides a wander-weary traveler safely to his destination. Shakespeare’s choice of navigation and sea imagery in the second quatrain presents a clear definition of how true love should subsist—it is steadfast like the lighthouse and offers reliable direction to lost ships; invaluable as the stars are to a sailor.
The focus changes again in the third quatrain, which elaborates upon the ideas presented in the first quatrain regarding the definition of true love. “Love’s not Time’s fool,” it begins, “though rosy lips and cheeks / Within his bending sickle’s compass come”. Here, the speaker states that true love can withstand the test of time, even in death. Shakespeare uses apostrophes and capitalization with Love and Time in order to personify them as matched forces. Time is powerful—even the sweetness of “rosy lips and cheeks” (synecdoche referring to the lovely, youthful beloved) must succumb to age and wither under Time’s influence. However, Love is unaffected by the changes that Time imposes. Shakespeare’s use of alliterative consonance with the “s” and hard “c” sound in the words “sickle’s compass come” brings a dissonant end to the line, calling attention to the sad fate of youth and beauty. The speaker concludes the quatrain’s argument with the statement “Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, / But bears it out even to the edge of doom.” Again, true love is unfazed by the passing of time, but lasts through death into eternity. Shakespeare employs assonance with “brief” and “weeks” to give a melodic ring to the line—an apology for the harsh end to the previous one. This line is the light-shedding positive opposition to the dismal outcome of Time’s effect—though Time may murder the fairness of youth, Love remains an unchanging force that stays constant through the end. Time possesses only brief increments of forever—hours and weeks— but Love’s endurance stretches beyond Time’s reach.
The sonnet reaches its final conclusion with the rhymed couplet: “If this be error, and upon me prov’d, / I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.” Here, the speaker is revealed to be Shakespeare himself, the poem’s not-so-humble author. He supports the argument that he developed in the previous three quatrains with a fallacy. Shakespeare appeals to his own authority when he claims that because he, a great and notable author, wrote his definition of true love; it is a true and acceptable definition. He hyperbolically assumes that if his argument about love is proven to be wrong, then no man has ever really loved. Therefore, in Shakespeare’s reasoning, he is entirely correct in his definition of love since it is improbable that no man has ever known true love. In spite of this fallacy, he manages to bring his argument to a satisfying conclusion. After establishing in the quatrains what real love is and is not, he attests to the idea that true love is a realistic goal for man. His tone and message are reassuring: men must have known love since Shakespeare really did write the poem, and therefore there can be no error.
Sonnet 116 presents a beautiful and optimistic view of real love, comparing it to the unwavering lighthouse and priceless star. Shakespeare promises that true love will not falter with the passing of time, even in the face of Time’s deadly sickle. Through the storm and stress of life, true love always wins. You can take Shakespeare’s word for it.
About jennajaureguiI have a Bachelor's of Arts degree from California State University, San Marcos in Literature and Writing Studies with a minor in Film Studies. I love to read, write, think, and expostulate. My blog "something says this" is a collection of my own writings. All posts done by me are strictly for public viewing and may not be copied or stolen in any way. I retain full copy rights for my personal work. All work on my blog is mine unless otherwise noted.
View all posts by jennajauregui »