William Shakespeare 1609
An affirmation of the certitude and the enduring qualities of love, “Sonnet 116” (first published in 1609) is nevertheless remarkably negative in tone. Rather than learning what love is, the reader is taught what love is not; even when the speaker begins to use metaphors to describe the constancy and endurance of this emotion, he discusses what love does not do, what is not known about it—and prefaces these observations with a “o, no.” To add to the confusion, the poem’s simultaneous and opposing messages are conveyed in simple words, but with complicated logic. The final couplet uses a monosyllabic vocabulary in an especially difficult example of reductio ad absurdum. But perhaps the strangest juxtaposition regarding “Sonnet 116” is this: though the sonnet is probably one of the least understood in Shakespeare’s 154–poem sonnet sequence, it is a perennial favorite and a popular anthology poem.
Shakespeare was born in Statford-upon-Avon on or about April 23, 1564. His father was a merchant who devoted himself to public service, attaining the highest of Stratford’s municipal positions—that of bailiff and justice of the peace—by 1568. Biographers have surmised that the elder Shakespeare’s social standing and relative prosperity at this time would have enabled his son to attend the finest local grammar school, the King’s New School, where
he would have received an outstanding classical education under the direction of highly regarded masters. There is no evidence that Shakespeare attended university. In 1582, at the age of eighteen, he married Ann Hathaway of Stratford, a woman eight years his senior. Their first child, Susanna, was born six months later, followed by twins, Hamnet and Judith, in 1585. These early years of Shakespeare’s adult life are not well documented; some time after the birth of his twins, he joined a professional acting company and made his way to London, where his first plays, the three parts of the Henry VI history cycle, were presented in 1589-91. The first reference to Shakespeare in the London literary world dates from 1592, when dramatist Robert Greene alluded to him as “an upstart crow.” Shakespeare further established himself as a professional actor and playwright when he joined the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, an acting company formed in 1594 under the patronage of Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon. The members of this company included the renowned tragedian Richard Burbage and the famous “clown” Will Kempe, who was one of the most popular actors of his time. This group began performing at the playhouse known simply as the Theatre and at the Cross Keys Inn, moving to the Swan Theatre on Bankside in 1596 when municipal authorities banned the public presentation of plays within the limits of the city of London. Three years later Shakespeare and other members of the company financed the building of the Globe Theatre, the most famous of all Elizabethan playhouses. By then the foremost London Company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men also performed at court on numerous occasions, their success largely due to the fact that Shakespeare wrote for no other company.
In 1603 King James I granted the group a royal patent, and the company’s name was altered to reflect the king’s direct patronage. Records indicate that the King’s Men remained the most favored acting company in the Jacobean era, averaging a dozen performances at the king’s court each year during the period. In addition to public performances at the Globe Theatre, the King’s Men played at the private Blackfriars Theatre; many of Shakespeare’s late plays were first staged at Blackfriars, where the intimate setting facilitated Shakespeare’s use of increasingly sophisticated stage techniques. The playwright profited handsomely from his long career in the theater and invested in real estate, purchasing properties in both Stratford and London. As early as 1596 he had attained sufficient status to be granted a coat of arms and the accompanying right to call him-self a gentleman. By 1610, with his fortune made and his reputation as the leading English dramatist unchallenged, Shakespeare appears to have retired to Stratford, though business interests brought him to London on occasion. He died on April 23, 1616. and was buried in the chancel of Trinity Church in Stratford.
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixèd mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his heighth be
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But beats it out even to the edge of doom:—
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
The speaker seems to have in mind the marriage vow, as it appears in The Book of Common Prayer: “If either of you do know any impediment why ye may not be lawfully joined together in matrimony.…” But if he is in fact responding to this question, his meaning is ambiguous. He might be saying that no one should let him acknowledge that there are obstacles to the marriage; conversely, he may be vowing that he will never recognize any problems interfering with a true union. The difficulties encountered in the meaning of the first sentence are reflected in its negative cast (“let me not”) as well as its construction. Not only is it a run-on line, but it fights against being placed in the regular meter of iambic pentameter from its beginnings. The sentence does not conform to poetic conventions, much as the speaker refuses to give an easy or expected answer.
The last half of line 2 seems absurd, unless the reader realizes that the speaker may be addressing two different types of love. Unconditional “Love,” not the “love” that changes or causes change, is the subject of this sonnet; coincidentally or not, the more desirable emotional state is distinguished by a capital “I” each time it is mentioned (line 9 and line 11).
In this line, the speaker continues to stress that true love is unbendable, and cannot be transferred from one site to another. But there is clearly a deeper meaning in lines 2 through 4, suggested by the repetition or doubling of many of the words, such as “love,” “alter,” (repeated for a third time in line 11), “remove,” even “bend,” which is reused in line 10. These verbal pairings may represent the harmony of “Love”—or, on the other hand, a lesser lover’s desire to imitate or become like his partner.
In the second quatrain, the speaker begins to describe what real love actually is, after using three lines to inform the reader of what love is not. It would seem that he has at last moved to an affirmative statement about this emotion. Yet he begins with a negative exclamation, and continues to cite what love does not do: like a guiding light over rough waters, love is unvarying and unswerving.
- There are several audio recordings of readings of Shakespeare’s sonnets, including Sonnets of Shakespeare, by Spoken Arts, Inc.; Living Literature: The Sonnets of Shakespeare, by Crown Publishers, Inc.; and Shakespeare: The Sonnets, by Argo Records.
- Videos include The Sonnets of William Shakespeare (1993) by Goldcrest Films for the Humanities, in which fifteen sonnets are performed and analyzed, both individually and as a sequence; Selected Sonnets (1988) by Films for the Humanities, in which such notable critics as Stephen Spender and A. L. Rowse read and comment on Sonnets 65, 66, 94, and 127; and Shakespeare’s Sonnets, a Films for the Humanities & Sciences production featuring an indepth look at the poems and recitals of selected sonnets by such actors as Ben Kingsley and Claire Bloom.
The nautical metaphor used to describe true love in lines 5 and 6 is continued in the next two lines. First a lighthouse, and now a star, help travellers find their way. Because a star’s altitude must be calculated in order to use it as a guide, its distance from earth is no longer a mystery; what remains unknown is its value, or its very nature. Similarly, love provides direction for those who are searching or lost, and though its status is established, its true value is limitless.
The first quatrain explained what love is not; the second one attempted to define what true love is; now, in the third quatrain, the speaker alternates between naming what love’s characteristics are, and are not. Thus the “mirroring” noted in the language of lines 2 through 4 can also be seen in the construction of the sonnet’s quatrains, and probably has similar implications. Using the figure of speech known as personification, the speaker refers to the scythe-wielding Father Time in lines 9 and 10. Though beauty and youth are eventually the victims of his blade, true love remains unaffected by his wrath. The idea of “bending”, first used in line 4, has multiple meanings here: not only is Time’s sickle bent or curved, but it also bends or lays low the metaphorical “roses” of a young person’s complexion. The “compass” of Time’s scythe is its sweeping arc, but it is also a device used to guide ships, and thus reminds the reader of the preceding nautical metaphor.
The pronouns of these lines are ambiguous. “His brief hours” are probably Father Time’s, but the phrase may also be referring to Love’s ability to make time fly, or any mortal’s short life span. In line 12, “it” is part of a phrase that means to endure, but the pronoun may also refer to Time or his sickle. In any case, the eternal consistency and constancy of love is once again stressed—to the lover’s death, or even until doomsday. The accents of line 12 conjure up the sounds of a tolling funeral bell.
With their monosyllabic diction and seemingly straightforward reasoning, these lines are deceptively simple. But what actually is “this”; is it the preceding statement, or the entire argument? And even if the speaker was proven false, how could it be that he never wrote (when the reader knows full well that the speaker is the composer of the son-net), and no one ever fell in love? The twisted logic of this “if-then” statement leaves no room for errors of any kind. The speaker’s difficult argument thus draws to a forced conclusion, though nothing has been affirmed or denied.
Shakespeare struggles with time in most of his sonnets. For example, in “Sonnet 18” (Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?), one of Shakespeare’s best known poems, he writes about summer’s mutability and the effects of time on beauty and youth:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance of nature’s changing course untrimmed:
The theme of time reappears in “Sonnet 116,” yet in this poem time is so significant that it is actually given a physical presence in the third quatrain.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom:
Here, the aged figure of Father Time, frequently dressed in a black cloak and carrying an hourglass and a scythe, swings his “bending,” or curved, blade, and destroys all within his “compass,” or range. Time ruins the beautiful “rosy lips and cheeks” of youth. Even so, he can not alter Love (also treated as a proper noun), which is “not Time’s fool” and “bears it out even to the edge of doom.”
Whereas Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18” addresses the relationship between time and beauty, this sonnet appears to be concerned primarily with the relationship between time and constancy. The speaker of the poem is concerned about the fidelity of the object of his affection. This is most evident earlier in the poem, when Shakespeare questions whether love “alters when it alteration finds, / Or bends with the remover to remove.” The negative tone in this first quatrain changes dramatically at the start of the second quatrain, when the poet declares “O, no! it [love] is an ever-fixed mark.” In the third quatrain, which introduces Father Time, Shakespeare proclaims love’s sovereignty over time with “Love alters not with his [Time’s] brief hours and weeks.” The concluding couplet presents an even stronger assertion: “If this be error and upon me proved, / I never writ, nor no man ever loved.” At the sonnet’s conclusion the poet is so certain that love prevails over time that he rests his career and the entire history of love on his proclamation, in actuality proving nothing but the intensity of his own desire for it to be true.
Truth and Falsehood
In “Sonnet 116” Shakespeare sets out to define true love. In the first two lines, he asserts, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments,” implying through the word “true” in “true minds” that love can have cerebral qualities, not only emotional ones. His language further suggests that only a select few—“true minds”—are fit to comprehend and embrace true love. In fact, the poet could be implying that there are some who might better understand love, excusing him from any errors he might make elsewhere in the sonnet.
The poet continues with his definition of abiding love by differentiating between true and false love: “Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds, / Or bends with the remover to remove.” The first form of love cited, which is treated as a proper noun throughout the remainder of the poem, is considered lasting, whereas the latter form of love is false, as it “alters” and “bends” with time. He continues to define the former, true love, but in an odd way. In an effort to determine what love is, Shakespeare concentrates on what love is not. The sonnet begins with a series of denials that—almost—deny love’s existence entirely. The author appears to catch himself momentarily in the second quatrain, asserting “O, no! it [love] is an ever-fixed mark, / that looks on tempests and is never shaken.” Here, love is likened to a permanent landmark. Even so, Shakespeare again presents love through negative language, by stating that enduring love “is never shaken.” The third quatrain follows this pattern with “Love’s not Time’s fool” and “Love alters not.” The themes of truth and falsehood are therefore given equal regard in “Sonnet 116.”
By discussing both forms of love Shakespeare remains truthful to the human experience, noting man’s greatest potential but also his failings. It is perhaps this honesty that has made this sonnet, however complex, one of the best loved and most frequently anthologized sonnets in Shakespeare’s canon.
The sonnet (from the Italian “sonnetto,” meaning “little song”) owes much of its long-standing popularity to the Italian poet Petrarch. By the mid-sixteenth century, this fixed poetic form was adopted by the English, who borrowed the fourteen-line pattern and many of Petrarch’s literary conventions. English writers did, however, alter the rhyme scheme to allow for more variety in rhyming words: while an Italian sonnet might rhyme abba, abba, cdc, dcd, an English or Shakespearean sonnet rhymes abab, cdcd, efef, gg.
In all but three of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets (“Sonnet 99,” “Sonnet 126” and “Sonnet 145”) the first three groups of four lines each are known as quatrains, and the last two lines are recognized as a couplet. The three breaks between the quatrains and the couplet serve as convenient places where the writer’s train of thought may take a different direction. In “Sonnet 116,” the second quatrain
Topics for Further Study
- Why did Shakespeare write this poem? Explain what experiences he might have had that would make him write a statement like this.
- Rewrite this poem in modern language and in the modern poetic style of free verse, making the same points that Shakespeare makes and using his imagery.
stands apart from the first and the third because it attempts to describe what love is, instead of what it is not. The couplet continues the line of thinking of the quatrains, offering a formal logical proof of the sonnet’s assertions and negations.
A few of this sonnet’s lines, such as 3 and 13, are written in perfect iambic pentameter. Iambic meter, the most familiar rhythm of the English language, is the succession of alternately stressed syllables; an iamb is a group of two syllables in which the first is unstressed and the second is stressed. The use of “penta” (meaning “five”) before “meter” means that there are five iambs per line.
Most of “Sonnet 116,” however, fights against the establishment of any regulated rhythm. The first line begins with a hammering of stressed syllables, as if a judge were rapping a gavel; the meter is also disrupted because of the line’s lack of an end-stop, and its continuation on the next line. More obstructions to the poem’s rhythmic flow are presented by such heavily accented tongue twisters as “Love’s not Time’s fool” (line 9) and “But bears it out even to the edge” (line 12), and another run-on line between lines 9 and 10. As is often the case with Shakespeare’s sonnets, the mood and meaning of the words is reinforced by their rhythm, or lack thereof.
Shakespeare wrote his sonnets during the Renaissance, an exciting period of political, cultural, and social change in Europe that began in Italy in about
Compare & Contrast
- 1590s: In Shakespeare’s time, average life expectancy was forty years. Yet many people never made it this far. War, famine, poverty, and disease—especially frequent outbreaks of the plague—claimed many lives. One out of every five children died before the age of ten. Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet, died in 1596 at age eleven. Recurring images of death, even violent death, which appear in the third quatrain of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 116,” possibly reflect this time period.
Today: Despite violence, war, and life-threatening diseases, such as cancer and AIDS, for which there are no cures, average life expectancy for men and women in modern industrialized civilizations in 1992 was somewhere between 80 and 88 years.
- 1609: The English East India Company ship Hector travels east and lands at Surat, becoming the first Company ship to reach India. Over the seas to the west, Henry Hudson voyages to America where he explores the New England coast and the Hudson River, as far north as Albany, New York.
Today: The Russian Mir Space Station orbits the Earth, and the American rover Sojourner explores the surface of Mars; Tokyo and New York City are the major centers of trade.
- 1609: By royal decree, Catholic Spain’s Moriscos, converted Muslims who continue to practice their former religion, are expelled from the country. The regions of Valencia, Castile, Aragon, and Andalusia suffer from a significant decline in population.
Today: “Ethnic cleansing” becomes the catch phrase for mass killings in Bosnia, Kurdistan, and in many African nations. Otherwise stable regions find themselves threatened by the movement of refugee populations as a result.
1350 and spread to England in the late-sixteenth century. During the Renaissance, the influence of the Catholic Church, which had dominated all aspects of life throughout Europe during the Medieval period, gave way to more secular, less spiritual forces. In religion the Reformation challenged the absolute authority of the pope in spiritual matters and emphasized the faith and devotional practices of the individual. Along with the dispersion of spiritual authority came a redistribution of political power in Europe. Art and culture likewise experienced a reawakening (renaissance is French for “rebirth”) as traditional sacred themes in sculpture, painting, drama, and poetry were replaced by human concerns, such as love, honor, and physical beauty. Writers and painters sought to create new standards, new definitions of what was considered true, good, or beautiful, based on direct experience rather than on received knowledge or traditions. This is clearly evident in Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 116,” where, rather than simply glorifying love, Shakespeare questions love’s constancy. Although, at the close of the sonnet, the speaker of the poem concludes that love, enduring love, is indeed constant, the love defined in this sonnet is somewhat compromised. It is a realistic form of love, one that is “not Time’s fool,” meaning that it “bears it out” even after beauty and youth have long since departed.
Petrarch (1304-1374) was the first great Renaissance poet. Best known for his Rime, a series of love sonnets to a woman named Laura, Petrarch developed the Italian sonnet, a 14–line poem divided into an octave (abba abba), which presented a problem, and a sestet (cdc dcd), which provided the resolution. This form reached England in the mid-sixteenth century when Sir Thomas Wyatt translated several of Petrarch’s sonnets into English. Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, is credited with adjusting the rhyme scheme of the Italian sonnet to the one used by Shakespeare and other English poets (abab cdcd efef gg). The sonnet form was immensely popular in the late-sixteenth century. In fact, 1,200 sonnets published in the last decade alone have survived in print. Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella, which was published posthumously in 1591, includes some of the most famous sonnets of the period. Like Petrarch, Sidney’s sonnets were passionate love poems to a single woman, in this case Penelope Devereux. Though Shakespeare borrowed from the same English sonnet tradition as Sidney, Shakespeare’s sonnets are thematically quite unique. In “Sonnet 116,” for example, Shakespeare breaks the traditional pattern of the English sonnet with run-on lines that follow an irregular meter. This technique serves to emphasize an emotional undercurrent in the poem. Moreover, “Sonnet 116” is not addressed to any one person. Rather, it is a deeply moral, complex, and contemplative work focusing on the constancy of love.
“Sonnet 116” is one of the most widely admired sonnets in Shakespeare’s sequence. Its language is generally regarded as strongly persuasive and resonant; its style has been touted as grand, even noble. But critics cannot seem to agree on the meaning of “Sonnet 116.” In Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Self, Love, and Art, Philip Martin recognizes the negative cast of its lines but nevertheless affirms that it is a “resonantly certain statement of the certitudes of love.” Stephen Booth also admires the absoluteness of “Sonnet 116,” but claims in Shakespeare ’s Sonnets that the more one thinks about the poem, “the less there seems to be to it.” Other critics, such as Hilton Landry, argue that the work is continually misinterpreted because it is considered independently, instead of part of its sequence; in his article in Shakespeare Studies, Landry argues that the sonnets preceding and following “Sonnet 116” provide revelationary insights concerning the poem.
Annemarie S. Muth is a freelance writer who has worked professionally as both a book editor and graphics designer. In the following essay, Muth defines “Sonnet 116” as a soliloquy sonnet, a sonnet “clearly written for the poet himself rather than the public.” Muth then offers an interpretation of “Sonnet 116,” focusing on the contradictions within the poem.
Scholars have long speculated on the identity of the speaker in William Shakespeare’s sonnets, that is, whether the poet is baring his soul in these works or taking on another’s persona. In his introduction to The Sonnets, poet W. H. Auden suggested that apart from the first sixteen works in which the poet urges his friend to marry, and another handful of “elegant trifles,” the sonnets do represent Shakespeare’s own thoughts and feelings. He believes this because of the “impression they make of naked autobiographical confession.” Yet this is astonishing to him because Elizabethans “were not given to writing their autobiographies or to unlocking their hearts” for the public. However, nothing approaches the candor of Shakespeare’s sonnets until the time of Rousseau when confession becomes a literary genre. Thus Auden contended that Shakespeare wrote his sonnets for himself alone, like entries in a diary, rather than for the public. Furthermore, he contended that Shakespeare never meant to publish them, and the fact that their eventual publication in 1609 was apparently unauthorized supports this. Auden’s claims mirror a recent theory proposed by scholar David K. Weiser concerning Shakespeare’s purpose in writing the sonnets. In his book Mind in Character, Weiser classifies Shakespeare’s sonnets as either dialogues or soliloquies. In the dialogues, which make up the majority of his sonnets, the poet explicitly addresses another person in terms of “you” or “thou.” For instance, in most of the first 126 sonnets, he addresses a young man, and in many of the remaining 28, he addresses a woman. However, “Sonnet 116” and a number of others from the first 126 are written from the perspective of Shakespeare addressing himself. These soliloquy sonnets seem clearly written for the poet himself rather than the public. They differ from the dialogues in several aspects. First, they “speak of” rather than “speak to” another person or issue. Essentially, the reader eavesdrops on the poet as he sorts out his personal concerns and alternatives. Second, they share a common theme of selfdiscovery that is defined at the beginning of the soliloquy sequence in terms of Shakespeare’s own experience, but evolves to definitions of universal ideals by the end of the sequence. Third, in contrast to the dialogues, in which the poet employs irony to mock the shallowness of rival poets and lovers, in the soliloquies, he uses it to expose his
What Do I Read Next?
- Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets in all. The first 126 are addressed to a young man or “Friend” as he is called by the poet. Sonnets 127-152 are addressed to a mysterious “Dark Lady,” the poet’s mistress, who may have seduced the Friend. The last two do not fit into either of the two main groupings. Some of the most famous of Shakespeare’s other sonnets are “Sonnet 18” (Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?), “Sonnet 29” (When in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes), “Sonnet 30” (When to the sessions of sweet silent thought), and “Sonnet 130” (My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun).
- Though the collected sonnets are considered Shakespeare’s most significant poetic achievement, he did author additional poems, the most important being Venus and Adonis (1593), an Ovidian mythological-erotic poem, and The Rape of Lucree (1594), which exalts a chaste woman. Both works were excessively popular in Shakespeare’s lifetime. In fact, they were better received than his plays.
- The sonnet has been perhaps the most popular form in English verse. Countless people have employed it. Among Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Sir Philip Sidney, Michael Drayton, and Edmund Spenser composed important sonnet sequences (groups of sonnets in which the poems are thematically related) Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella was published in 1591, Drayton’s Idea’s Mirror was published in 1594, and Spenser’s Amoretti was published in 1595. The fourteenth-century Italian poet Petrarch was a significant innovator of the sonnet form, and his works influenced Shakespeare and other poets. His sonnets are available in a number of English translations, including Rime Disperse (1991), translated by Joseph A. Barber.
own flaws and contradictions. For example, in “116,” one of the final soliloquies, Shakespeare attempts to define his ideal of constancy in love. Tragically, he is unable to reconcile this ideal with his own experience of inconstancy as illustrated in sonnets “110,” “119,” and others. Perfect constancy transcends his own experience. Nevertheless, by the end of the piece he has convinced himself to put his doubts aside and believe that such constancy in love is possible. According to Weiser, such introspection and final resolve helps Shakespeare come to terms with himself and develop personal values. If Weiser is right, then the soliloquies are Shakespeare’s most intimate self-portrait, and “116” is his tragic view of love.
“Sonnet 116” is Shakespeare’s profession of faith in the ideal of constancy in love. Generations have shared his sentiments, but none has expressed them so poignantly. Weiser, in fact, called “116” love’s “perfect definition.” This is Shakespeare at his best, invoking man’s noblest aspirations in the name of love: constancy, commitment to another, purity of heart, and perseverance that defies all of life’s storms. How is it, then, that such high-mindedness vanishes in “Sonnet 119”? For “119” boasts that inconstancy actually strengthens love:
What potions have I drunk of Siren tears,
Distill’d from limbecks foul as hell within,
Applying fears to hopes and hopes to fears,
Still losing when I saw myself to win!
What wretched errors hath my heart committed,
Whilst it hath thought itself so blessed never!
How have mine eyes out of their spheres been
In the distraction of this madding fever!
O benefit of ill! now I find true
That better is by evil still made better;
And ruin’d love when it is built anew,
Grows fairer than at first, more strong, far greater.
So I return rebuked to my content,
And gain by ill thrice more than I have spent.
“Sonnet 116” gives the impression that Shakespeare is innocent of the inconstancy he condemns. “Sonnet 119,” on the other hand, clearly reveals a poet whose actions are the object of the condemnation in “116.” This obvious contradiction of philosophies points to the poet’s deliberate suppression of certain undesirable aspects of his personality in “116” in order to affirm his ideal of constancy in love. Yet beyond the contradictions that exist between these two sonnets is “116”’s internal paradox. For rather than celebrate the joys of love in this piece, Shakespeare extols its steadfastness in the face of love’s betrayal. Rather than show love’s constancy and endurance in strictly positive terms, he defines these qualities through metaphors depicting their opposites, inconstancy and death. In short, he says as much about what love is not as what love is, as if negative definitions are more within his understanding. Such contrast of imagery marks a development in the soliloquy sequence from the self-definition of his earliest works, to facing the consequences of being what he is in his later works, namely, an inconstant lover. Drawing on his awareness of contradiction and impermanence in nature and society, he employs dramatic irony to point out his own particular flaws and contradictions. The resulting paradox reveals his recurring doubts about the subject. Nevertheless, as the sonnet progresses, Shakespeare convinces himself to believe in his ideal. The development of his conviction is worth noting.
Shakespeare begins “116” in the pensive voice of the abandoned lover. He states that he cannot object to marriage between two persons who truly love each other, who are “of true minds.” Yet his use of the negative “Let me not …” in the very first line of the sonnet gives the impression that the speaker doubts, in the case of a particular marriage, that it is of true minds. Such negativity sets the poem’s ironical tone (lines 1 and 2):
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
In lines 2 through 4, he begins to define love as a universal concept, one which transcends his personal experience, but in terms of what it is not:
Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds.
Or bends with the remover to remove …
The impression given in these lines is of the poet reflecting on a lesson about love, made more emphatic by his defining what it is not. Yet in these lines, Shakespeare refers to it in terms of a universal concept rather than in personal terms, as was the case in lines 1 and 2 above: “Let me not … Admit impediments.” He will continue referring to love in this way until the ending couplet in which he reverts to his personal convictions. Also at this point, Shakespeare introduces metaphor. Fickle
“Rather than celebrate the joys of love in this piece, Shakespeare extols its steadfastness in the face of love’s betrayal.”
love, an abstract idea, takes on the characteristics of something alive, that is, it alters and bends, but these characteristics allude to change, not constancy. As his convictions gel, his expression grows more didactic; his personification of love more vivid.
Introducing the next quatrain with a negative exclamation as if to dismiss any doubts (his own), he transforms the concept of love into something positive (lines 5 and 6):
O, no! it is an ever-fixèd mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken …
Love takes on a positive identity for the first time in line 5 where before it was a mere negation of something else. Now it is a symbol of constancy and trustworthiness, a seamark that guides mariners through life’s storms.
Lines 7 and 8 once again betray the poet’s doubts. Despite his previous impersonal references to the universal concept of love, Shakespeare is unable to conceal his personal belief that constancy in love is not appreciated. While the “star” (the faithful lover) in line 7 protects and guides the “wand’ring bark” (the object of his love), the faithful lover’s “worth’s unknown” (line 8). In other words, although the one who receives love may use it to his advantage (“although his height be taken”), he may not return it in kind. I will repeat these lines in full for clarity’s sake:
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be
This revelation leads to an emotional declaration in the third quatrain, as defiant in tone as if the speaker were defending his own honor. This is because, by the third quatrain, the poet takes to heart the standards of his ideal. Strengthened by his new found convictions, his statements become his credo. Love now appears as a sage, not taken in by youthful beauty. Love perseveres long after youth’s beauty fades:
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and
Within his bending sickle’s compass come …
For the sake of emphasis, Shakespeare repeats as if a vow, in line 11, the same sentiment of lines 2 and 3, that love “alters not,” throughout life, but endures even until death (line 12):
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom …
By the ending couplet, Shakespeare has lost all memory of past inconstancy in love and makes his profession of faith:
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
His qualification “If this be error …” in line 13, implies that if this idea of love is wrong, then no other can exist. At this point, Shakespeare so wants to show that he believes in the value of constancy in love that he is willing to stake his career and all his past experience on this belief. Yet this is only because no other satisfactory idea of love is imaginable to him.
Thanks to the publication of his sonnets, generations of readers have gained insight into the mind and soul of perhaps the world’s greatest poet. His sentiments concerning affairs of the heart are beautifully expressed, his failings, touching. Beyond this, the soliloquies tell an extraordinary story of Shakespeare’s personal struggle for self-knowledge and personal values. Especially striking in “Sonnet 116” is the poet’s discovery of lost ideals. By measuring the distance between his ideal and his reality, he has come to realize the extent to which perfect constancy in love surpasses his own experience. Reflection shows him what perfect love should be, although it has so far tragically eluded him. Yet he must believe that it exists somewhere, if not for him, because without this conviction, he sees only despair. His profession of faith in his ideal is truly an expression of hope against all reason, but it is, in the final analysis, what gives him a sense of purpose. His profession of faith gives him his future.
Source: Annemarie Muth, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1998.
In the following essay, Booth explains how, in “Sonnet 116,” Shakespeare successfully makes general but substantial statements about love that defy challenges to their truth.
“Sonnet 116” is the most universally admired of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Its virtues, however, are more than usually susceptible to dehydration in critical comment. The more one thinks about this grand, noble, absolute, convincing, and moving gesture, the less there seems to be to it. One could demonstrate that it is just so much bombast, but, having done so, one would have only to reread the poem to be again moved by it and convinced of its greatness.
A major problem about literary art is that abstract general assertions do not feel any truer than their readers already believe them to be; they carry no evidence of their truth and very little of the life (and thus very little of the undeniability) of the physically extant particulars from which they derive. Descriptions of those particulars, or exempla, or metaphoric allusions can bring life and conviction to a generalization, but they also limit its range and its value to the reader. The attraction of abstract generalization is the capacity they offer us to be “certain o’er incertainty,” to fix on a truth that allows for and cannot be modified by further consideration of experience or change in our angle of vision One means of achieving universality and vividness at once is bombast: high-sounding, energetic nonsense that addresses its topic but does not indicate what is being said about it, and thus rises free of human intellectual limitations like a hot-air balloon. Bombast, however, is rarely satisfying for long or to any listener who pays attention to the signification of the words he hears strung together. Bombast overcomes the difficulties of language by abandoning its purpose; a general, nobel, vibrant utterance that conveys no meaning operates like a bureaucracy that functions perfectly so long as it ignores the purpose for which it was established.
“Sonnet 116” has simple clear content; indeed, its first clause aside, it is one of the few Shakespeare sonnets that can be paraphrased without brutality. That alone excludes it from classification as bombast, but much of its strength and value is of the same sort that bombast has. “Sonnet 116” achieves effective definition unlimited by any sense of effective limitation. One obvious source of that success is that its positiveness is achieved in negative assertions (a definition by negatives is minimally restrictive because the thing so defined may be thought to possess all qualities but those specifically denied). Some of the means by which negative definition is made efficient, convincing, and satisfying in this sonnet are those that can be used to give grandeur to nonsense.
The sonnet combines extreme generality—even vagueness—with locutions that imply some degree of personification and thus invest abstract statements with the urgency, vividness, and apprehensibility of concrete particulars. That occurs in obvious fashion in the straightforward navigation metaphors of quatrain 2, but the equation of love with a seamark or a star only explains the speaker’s meaning, is a chosen substitute for the speaker’s topic, a substitute that acknowledges by the necessity of its use that the actual topic remains a distant impalpable essence, sensorily apprehensible by imperfect proxy. Other, less openly supportive effects do more toward achieving the special grandeur of this poem than the navigation metaphors. Consider the effects of the remover, looks, and bears it out; each operates differently, but they have a common denominator in giving effective concreteness to the identity of ideal love, in at the same time reasserting that that essence is indeed disembodied and incapable of comprehension in images, and in insisting that what is here encompassed and made apprehensible is nonetheless too big, too grand, to spiritual to be grasped. In line 4, the remover presents an embodied characteristic left free of any specific body or kind of body; it suggest all—but specifies none—of “people who are inconstant,” “time (which is the remover of beauty, the alterer)” and “a departed love (one who has ceased to requite the love given him, or one who has literally gone to another place, or one who is dead).” The shadowy personification of the remover lets us do something like visualize an actor and action without knowing at all what they are.
Similarly, bears it out in line 12 means only “persists,” “endures,” but suggests positive particular action, allowing a reader to visualize action, motion, and power, without visualizing any actor, mover, or wielder of power; it suggests specific objectivity, but has no antecedents and therefore no more particularity than in the modern phrase “stick it out,” meaning “endure.” Bears it out suggest an heroic striding forth, but no visualizable strider; it is not limited or diminished, and, not being ostentatiously figurative, does not advertise its identity as mere translation of the unknowable into knowable terms.
Lines 5-7 present another instance of abstract statement that has the vividness of sensually perceived action. The assertion that love is an every fixèd mark is simple metaphor; it explains. The statement that a seamark looks on is another matter. The sense is clear enough; the focus of concern dictated by ever-fixèd makes looks on an effective synonym for “endures,” “persists in the face of.” That a seamark should be said to “look” also makes sense (as does the same action by a star in line 7); the most effective seamark is a beacon; a Renaissance reader would recognize the aptness of the image both from the way a beacon looks at night and because Shakespeare’s contemporaries were used to speaking of eyes as if they emitted the light they reflect and see by. The statement that a seamark looks on tempests and is never shaken is also apt; a tiny distant flame that withstands the wind and water of a tempest is as fitting an emblem of steadfastness as the ever-fixed North Star in the next line. None of that is poetically remarkable. What is remarkable is that the logic in which looks on indicates “persists,” the logic in which a seamark is eye-like and can be considered capable of looking, and the logic in which a feeble but constant flame is emblematic of steadfastness are independent of one another; each supports the assertion without reference to its relation to the other two. As a result the statement gets all the validity of the seamark’s concreteness but remains mystic and wonderful, made as resistant to comprehension as available to it—and by the same locution. Moreover, whatever else it does, looks on personifies the insensate seamark as a beholder, although the function of seamarks is exactly opposite. On the other hand, the beholders, the sensate mariners who are guided by seamarks and stars, are presented (by metonymy) as every wand’ring bark, i.e. as boats.
None of that is at all complicated until it is explained. The lines do not demand any explanation; they are immediately clear, but they derive much of their power from being both simple and straightforward and simultaneously so complexly wondrous that beholder and beheld are indistinguishable from one another in a statement that makes their ordinary relationship perfectly clear.
A similar blend of substantial and insubstantial fabric occurs on a larger scale in Love is not love (line 2) and in I never writ nor no man ever loved (line 14). In those two cases the speaker’s meaning is clear and immediate, uncolored by the incidental supernaturalness inherent in metaphoric perception; at the same time, both assert absolute nonsense. Love is not love is a traditional (and traditionally pleasing) kind of incidental paradox in which a straightforward response is phrased so as to be meaningless if taken literally. Similarly, the hyperbole of the couplet is so extreme that it merely vouches for the speaker’s intensity of feeling; it gives no evidence to support the validity of his statement because on a literal level it is ridiculous (we cannot doubt that what we read was written). Moreover, though the special meaning “truly loved” is obvious in no man ever loved, that assertion, like Love is not love, gets its rhetorical power from the ostentatious falsehood of its unmodified literal sense.
The discussion of Shakespeare’s devices for simultaneously emphasizing particularity and vagueness, substance and emptiness, brings us to a related technique in “Sonnet 116” that has related effects: the poem is both singleminded, presenting constancy as the only matter worth considering, and heterogeneous in ways that do nothing to diminish or intrude upon its singlemindedness. In examining the special appeal of “Sonnet 116,” it may be well to remember that in saying anything—no matter how general—one advertises the fact that one has not said everything else—everything else pertinent to one’s topic and everything else impertinent to one’s topic. That may sound less simple-minded and more worth saying if one considers the related proposition that the literary creations we value most are works like Hamlet, King Lear, Paradise Lost, and Ulysses, works so full—so full of matter, so full of different kinds of matter, and so open to being viewed from so many angles of vision—that their particulars seem to include all particulars, and the experience of them seems to take in all experience and all attitudes toward it. “Sonnet 116” is overlaid with relationships established in patterning factors that do not pertain to or impinge upon the logic and syntax of the particular authoritative statement it makes. The most obvious of them, of course, are the formal iambic pentameter rhythmic pattern and the sonnet rhyme scheme. This sonnet, however, also contains patterns of a kind that falls between the ideational structure (what the poem says) and the substantively irrelevant phonetic patterns of the sonnet form: patterns established by the relationship of the meanings of its words—in this case meanings that are irrelevant to, and do not color, the particular sentences in which they appear here but which do pertain generally to the topic about which the sentences isolate particular frames of reference.
Let in line 1 and Admit in line 2 both have the general sense “allow,” but Let can mean “stop,” “prevent,” [or] “impede”.… Similarly, “to admit,” meaning “to allow to enter,” and impediments, as things that prevent entrance, also have an extra-syntactic relationship. (Also note O no in line 5: the exclamation not only contains the sound of the casually auxiliary imperative “O know [that]” but also presents a logically incidental example of a suitable prefatory exclamation introducing an impediment volunteered by a parishioner responding to the injunction in the marriage service that “if any man can show any cause, why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak.…”)
The meanings of true in line 1 are “faithful” (“constant to one another”) and “steadfast” (“constant in intent,” “unwavering”), but, since marriage of true minds has overtones of the Christian and Platonic ideals of purely spiritual love, of true minds can also suggest “which is truly of minds (or souls) rather than merely of bodies”; true meaning “not a lie” pertains generally to truth-telling, the topic of this sentence, even though that sense of true is not evoked by the syntax or admissible in it; true meaning “straight,” “not bent,” implies the rightness, the spiritual health, of constant minds and is balanced by the ideas of “becoming bent” inherent in bends in line 4.
Bends, which is used to mean “turns aside,” “changes its direction,” contains untapped potential for nearly contrary meanings irrelevant to its use in line 4 but relevant to the general topic of constancy: “to bend to” means “to apply all one’s energy, attention, and concern on one object”; the “to bend to” construction here adds the idea of fixed intent on removing to the contrary idea of turning aside …; bends also suggests stooping (as opposed to the staunch uprightness of the seamark in the following line) and submission (as opposed to the steadfastness required to withstand time’s bending sickle in line 10—a line in which bending echoes bends but describes the curving blade of a sickle, the curving stroke with which a sickle is wielded, the binding of the grass before it, and the submission of grass to blade). In line 11, alters echoes alters and alteration in line 3 where they follow immediately upon a precise echo of a church service performed at an altar.…
In line 10, the reference of his is specified by sickle(because Father Time has traditional association with a sickle, and the other available antecedents do not). In line 11, the same reference of his is dictated by the model of the previous his, by the obvious substantive link between time and hours and weeks, and—most importantly—by the context of the poem’s general argument that love is permanent. However, the line includes—and thus acknowledges within the poem’s triumphant sweep—the altogether arguable proposition which the whole poem denies, the proposition that love is fleeting, the proposition which Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks would imply if those words stood alone as a paradox in which the syntactic norm prevailed, Love were the antecedent for his, and the line presented this paradox: “Love, with its brief hours and weeks (love, which is characterized by its brevity), alters not.” As read in context the line says, “Love alters not with time’s brief hours and weeks,” and that straightforward and single-minded sense is absolute—is absolutely undiminished, is absolutely unmodified, and is, in fact, absolutely strengthened by the self-contradiction engulfed within it.
Compass means “encircling reach” and “sphere of influence” in line 10, but appears in context of a quatrain-long metaphor of navigation to which “mariner’s compass” pertains.
One sense of error in line 13 is a synonym for one sense of wand’ring in line 7. As one comes upon the word, error suggests “that which is erroneous,” “not true,” and thus recurs to the specific concern of the portion of the marriage service echoed in lines 1 and 2: telling the truth; upon me proved is an obvious legal metaphor, and its juxtaposition with error narrows the meaning of that word to “heresy,” “a false creed,” and makes the whole line a specific metaphoric allusion to formal accusations of false belief (see “Sonnet 105”) and inconstancy in religion. The completed line, however, still refers back to the marriage service echo but takes another ideational route to get there: the passage echoed in lines 1 and 2 comes from the general section of the service where the congregation is asked to present evidence that the marriage cannot morally or legally go forward. The idea of doomsday (introduced by to the edge of doom in line 12) is also abstrusely relevant to matrimonial impediments; the priest asks the bride and groom if they know any impediment why they may not be lawfully joined together and charges them to answer as they “will answer at the dreadful day of judgment.”
That tangle of incidental relationships surely never enters into a reader’s understanding of the lines; presumably it never touches his consciousness even to the extent that rhythm, rhyme, and alliteration do; every habit of purposefully used and purposefully comprehended language leads a reader to ignore the ideational static in what he hears. In this sonnet, however, the denseness of incidental meaning patterns and their close ideational relevance to what the speaker is saying are sufficient
“That is not to say that ‘Sonnet 116’ is an elaborate dirty joke masquerading as a grand statement of grand principle.…”
to make the poem’s assertions sound as if they took cognizance of all viewpoints on all things related to love and were derived from and informative about every aspect of love.
The best example of effective expansion of the scope of a narrowly based generalization is the undercurrent of frivolous sexual suggestiveness in the poem. High-principled definitions of true love are ordinarily inefficient because they exclude not only sexuality but the human habit of taking the topic of sexuality lightly, joking about it. Many of the metaphors and ideas of this sonnet seem just on the point of veering off toward puerile joking about temporary male impotence—loss of tumescence—after sexual climax and about temporary abatement of female sexual desire; quatrain 2, for instance, is always ready to turn into a grotesquely abstruse pun on “polestar.” Most of the sexually suggestive elements in the poem are obvious and in more danger of being exaggerated that missed.… That is not to say that “Sonnet 116” is an elaborate dirty joke masquerading as a grand statement of grand principle (any more than “Sonnet 115,” which in technique and effect in the mirror image of this one, ins a solemn philosophic statement masquerading as a toy): here one cannot find a coherent sexual undermeaning as one can in schoolboy jokes like “My dame hath a lame tame crane” or even [in English poet Michael] Drayton’s “Since there’s no help,” but the poem does offer a substratum of random bisexual references that suggest preposterous teasing based on the ridiculously logical argument that a male lover is inconstant, not faithful, untrue in love, if his sexual potency is not constant, and a female is likewise inconstant if she is temporarily sated.
“Sonnet 116” is probably valued not because it assets the value of absolute fidelity, but because it is itself so absolute, so “certain o’er incertainty,” that is can both recommend and successfully demonstrate singleminded allegiance to one governing principle. The poem testifies by example that singlemindedness, authority, and certainty can exist—or seem to exist—without a fanatic narrowness of reference.
The triviality, irrelevancy, and baseness of the sexual innuendo in “Sonnet 116,” its indecorum, is a source of the poem’s value, its success, and its grandeur. As with the incidental complexities, contradictions, and by-meanings discussed previously, the very pettiness of the sexual overtones contributes to the impression the poem gives that its general, all-inclusive, absolute, grandly simplistic moral imperative is genuinely general, that it presents a genuinely definitive definition, one that excludes no particulars or attitudes that might modify or challenge it, one that has been tested by all exceptions that might prove its rule wanting, one that is both absolute and absolutely true.
Source: “Sonnet 116” in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, edited by Stephen Booth, Yale University Press, 1977, pp 387-92.
Auden, W. H., introduction to The Sonnets, edited by William Burto, New American Library, 1964.
Booth, Stephen, “Sonnet 116” in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Yale University Press, 1977, pp. 384–92.
Landry, Hilton, “The Marriage of True Minds: Truth and Error in Sonnett 116” in Shakespeare Studies, Vol. III, 1968, pp. 98–110.
Martin, Philip, Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Self, Love, and Art, Cambridge University Press, 1972, pp. 88–96.
Weiser, David K., Mind in Character, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987.
Baldwin, T. W., On the Literary Genetics of Shakespeare’s Poems and Sonnets, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1950.
Part III, which pertains to the sonnets, includes both a sequencing approach to the sonnets, as well as a series on themes.
Evans, G. Blakemore, ed., The Riverside Shakespeare, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974.
A complete anthology of Shakespeare’s works.
Stirling, Brent, The Shakespearean Sonnet Order: Poems and Groups, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.
Asserts that the 1609 text implies coherence among the sonnets. The author presents them in groupings that he sees emerging from the text.