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Metaphor and Divine Love in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116

Updated on April 3, 2013
Illuminated book cover by Alberto Sangorski (1862-1932).
Illuminated book cover by Alberto Sangorski (1862-1932). | Source

Thesis

Taken together, Shakespeare’s Sonnets comprise a beautiful collection of love poetry that demonstrates the author’s mastery of the English sonnet form. As is nearly always the case with poetry, each of these sonnets can be interpreted in numerous ways. Most of them seem to have been written either to an unnamed youth or to a woman the speaker calls “my mistress” in Sonnet 130 (1,12). Though it falls within the group of sonnets written to the mistress, Sonnet 116 is a contemplation of the nature of love itself rather than a poem praising the beloved’s virtues or bemoaning her cruelty. There is nothing terribly original about poems on the nature of love, but Shakespeare’s adroit and extensive use of metaphor makes Sonnet 116 stand out as a particularly arresting example of the genre.

Love's Passing by Evelyn de Morgan (1855-1919).
Love's Passing by Evelyn de Morgan (1855-1919). | Source

Sonnet Structure, and What Love is Not

Like all of Shakespeare’s sonnets, Sonnet 116 is an English sonnet consisting of three quatrains and one couplet ("Sonnet: Introduction to a poetic tradition" 3). The first quatrain opens with the statement “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/Admit impediments” (1-2). The Norton Shakespeare gives “legal barriers to marriage” as the meaning of “impediments” (Greenblatt, 1707). From the very first line, then, the speaker seems to be saying that love transcends and even sometimes defies the bounds of legal marriage. At the same time, he is not necessarily advocating adultery, since “the marriage of true minds” indicates an intellectual and emotional attachment more than a physical coupling (1). From there, the sonnet continues to expound on the unchanging nature of true love “Love is not love/Which alters when it alteration finds,/Or bends with the remover to remove” (2-4). Love, then, is not a conditional state that changes with time or distance or even unfaithfulness on the part of the loved one (Greenblatt, 1707).

Author: aquatint by Karl Bodmer from the book "Maximilian, Prince of Wied’s Travels in the Interior of North America, during the years 1832–1834" by Prince Maximilian of Wied (Publisher: Ackermann & Co., 1839).
Author: aquatint by Karl Bodmer from the book "Maximilian, Prince of Wied’s Travels in the Interior of North America, during the years 1832–1834" by Prince Maximilian of Wied (Publisher: Ackermann & Co., 1839). | Source

Love as Aid to Navigation

Having introduced the unchanging character of love in the first quatrain, Shakespeare employs nautical imagery to further develop his theme of love as an unalterable force.

O no, it is an ever fixèd mark

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wand’ring barque,

Whose worth’s unknown although his height be taken (5-8).

The use of nautical terms or images in not unusual in and of itself; women have often been compared to the unpredictability, beauty and sometimes unforgiving nature of the sea. Shakespeare, though, is not referring to his mistress as being like the sea. Rather, he takes almost the opposite tack in comparing love itself to the landmarks and stars sailors rely on for navigation. Even during the “tempests” of life, love remains unshaken, a guide of immeasurable worth (6,7,8).

Salisbury Cathedral from the meadows - by John Constable
Salisbury Cathedral from the meadows - by John Constable | Source

Divinely Inspired Love

More subtle than the metaphors likening love to the points of navigation or time to a grim reaper, Shakespeare’s use of the male pronoun, “his” when referring to love brings to mind the ultimate source of love, God himself. In classical mythology, a source of inspiration for Shakespeare and many other poets, love is often personified in a goddess, who tends to be the representation of carnal or romantic love, but not necessarily the “ever fixed mark” of Sonnet 116 (5). Shakespeare refrains from mentioning any deities in this sonnet, mythological or otherwise, but the absolute constancy of a “…love/which alters not when it alteration finds,/Or bends with the remover to remove” (2-4), does put one in mind of the unconditional love of Christ. Since it is found amongst a collection of mostly romantic poetry and opens with a reference to marriage, the “love” of Sonnet 116 is almost certainly romantic and human in nature. This does not preclude the probability that Shakespeare drew on religious concepts for inspiration. The similarity of the speaker’s love to divine love ends with the third quatrain, for Shakespeare’s love “bears it out even to the edge of doom” whereas God’s love is eternal and therefore will not end even when the world does (12).

Romeo and Juliet by Frank Dicksee (1853-1928).
Romeo and Juliet by Frank Dicksee (1853-1928). | Source

Shakespeare's Neat Argument

The final couplet of Sonnet 116 declares the undeniable truth of the foregoing assertions in the form of a paradox, “If this be error and upon me proved,/I never writ, nor no man ever loved (113-114). Clearly, if one is reading Sonnet 116, then it was written. Therefore, everything in the first three quatrains must be true, or at least unable to be disproved. Furthermore, few people would agree that no man ever loved, so the reader is either forced to agree with Shakespeare’s description of true love or admit two impossible things; that the sonnet does not exist, and that “no man ever loved” (14). Thus, the final couplet neatly wraps up the sonnet while also providing a clever argument for its accuracy.

Conclusion

Viewed as a whole, Sonnet 116 exemplifies not only Shakespeare’s skillful use of metaphor but also his keen grasp of logic. Unlike many of his other sonnets, which praise a particular person, Sonnet 116 takes as its theme the steadfastness of love itself, exploring concepts which are at the core of human life and faith. Grounded in the same idea expressed many times in the Bible, Sonnet 116 is an expression of nearly incontrovertible truth, couched in a pleasing poem.

Works Cited

Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009. 1707. Print.

Shakespeare, William. "Sonnet 116” The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2009. 1707. Print.

Shakespeare, William. "Sonnet 130” The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2009. 1712. Print.

The Sonnet: Introduction to a poetic tradition. 12FA ENGL 377 Shakespeare (02), 2012. 3. PowerPoint.

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    • manatita44 profile image

      manatita44 

      3 years ago from london

      A truly great man. I was reading his works as a very young child. Great Hub.

    • MeagDub profile imageAUTHOR

      MeagDub 

      5 years ago from Western NY

      @kaybear012: Thanks for the compliments and the vote up!

    • kaybear012 profile image

      Kayla Hancock 

      5 years ago from Chicago

      Great Hub! I really enjoyed reading the analysis of Shakespeare's Sonnet 116 . You did a wonderful job pointing out the different perspectives and ideas underlying the poem and then showing how they tie together to create the whole. Makes me wanna go read some Shakespeare! =] Voted up!

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