Sonnet 116 by William Shakespeare: An Analysis

Sonnet 116 – Let me not…
by William Shakespeare
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-fixed mark
        That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
        Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
        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.
If this be error and upon me proved,
        I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Sonnet 116 by William Shakespeare is about love with a capital ‘L’; the love we have read about in novels, have heard of in song, and seen a thousand times on the silver screen.  He is talking about love as “the marriage of true minds” (line 1) or as Mabillard phrases it, “love in its most ideal form”. (Mabillard 2000)

In the first quatrain Shakespeare uses repetition of the word “love” (line 2),  the words “alters” and “alteration” (line 3) and “remover” and “remove” (line 4) to create a feeling of constancy and strength.  This complements his allusion to the marriage ceremony in line one. (Grimes, 2007)

William Shakespeare - Sonnet 116 analysisThe second quatrain uses two metaphors to describe love, both concerned with light, navigation and the sea.  The first metaphor compares love to “an ever-fixed mark” such as a lighthouse, used by sailors during bad weather to avoid peril.  The second compares love to a star, a light in the heavens which can be used to navigate by, but “whose worth’s unknown”.  This second image is the most interesting for how many decisions are made on a daily basis in the name of an emotion that is not really understood?

“Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks within his bending sickle’s compass come:” (Lines 9 – 10)

The first two lines of quatrain three (lines 9 – 10) tell us that although physical beauty, “rosy lips and cheeks”, may fade and die, love is not affected by time. This sentence is interesting for a few reasons. Firstly Time is personified by referring to it as “him” but it is also compared to Death, always a close relative anyway, by giving “him” a “bending sickle”, the Grim Reapers scythe. There is also a synecdoche here where the “bending sickle” stands for Death. Lines eleven and twelve reaffirm love’s unchanging nature saying it will last even to doomsday, “the edge of doom”.

The final couplet simply tells us that if the poet is wrong about love then he has never written a thing and “no man has ever loved”, two statements that are clearly impossible. So, he is declaring “I am right about love!”

Ultimately, in Sonnet 116, Shakespeare tells us of the constancy of love, of how it is unchanging over Time and impervious to Death.

References

Mabillard, A., 2000, An Analysis of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, Shakespeare Online. Access here.

Grimes, L. S., 2007, Shakespeare Sonnet 116, suite101.com. Access here.

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