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Shakespeare's Sonnet 116: Analysis

Updated on August 20, 2014

Shakespeare's Sonnet 116 in a Modern Context

As a writer and avid reader, I often find myself ignoring older classics in favor of more modern writers. Especially concerning English literature, I consider myself much more interested in a Louis Stevenson and a Woolf rather than a Chaucer or Shakespeare. This is not to say I do not love all four, but it is easy to lose sight of old masterpieces with the influence of more modern genius.

Among Shakespeare’s works, his sonnets stand out as perfect for an online article context. As you may or may not know sonnets are poems consisting of 14 lines; often the first eight lines are a sort of question or subject for debate and the remaining six are an answer. A short poem with deep meaning and brilliant poetic feet, is the perfect size for online analysis and a line by line interpretation. Below is Shakespeare’s Sonnet #116 is a personal favorite and a great introduction into Shakespeare’s poetry.

Shakespeare writes:

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 within his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error, and upon me prov’d,

I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.

At a glance, one knows the sonnet is about love and a careful reader notices, Shakespeare defines true love between lovers. Upon analysis, we see controversial meanings, possibly biblical references, and the emotion of the author.


Line 1- 2.5 “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments”

Perhaps the most confusing line of the sonnet, Shakespeare opens with a combination of words that can be taken many ways. My initial thought was, in summary, “ When I or you are in love, do not let anything shake that.” another interpretation, upon conference with a fellow English major, seems a bit more fitting. “ Do not allow me to force you to question your love, if your love is true.” The problem with both of these interpretations is the following poem is an explanation of how true love cannot be changed. So why precede a poem warning against changing something that by Shakespeare’s definition, is unchangeable. After much thought and debate of whether the line was Option A or Option B, a C came to me, and I believe it to be the correct meaning. Instead of speaking to us the reader, Shakespeare is speaking to himself, as he often does in his sonnets. In this context, the line reads as almost a plead to himself or a prayer to God. “Do not let fickle love fool me, let me know that true love does not allow itself to be impeded.” In this way, Shakespeare follows the opening with what is essentially a self reminder of the characteristics of true love.

Line 2.5 - 3” Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds.”

This line and a half boils down to, “ If you are truly in love, that will not change no matter how your partner changes or what you may find out about them.” Shakespeare, though romantic, has an almost melancholy feel to his reminder, almost as if he has been scorned by a lover and is now giving himself a pick-me-up. As if to say, “she didn’t meaning anything, our relationship was not true love. This is what true love is.”

Line 4 “ Or bends with the remover to remove.”

A contrast to the above line, Shakespeare is now speaking to the other side of love. If the preceding line reprimands the person who loses interest when a lover changes, or more is revealed about them, then Line 4 speaks to the lover who resolves to change him or herself for a lover. Shakespeare says “ True love does not change in spite of people or to regain another’s fancy.”

Line 5 - 7 “O no! It is an ever-fixed mark, that looks on tempests and is never shaken; it is the star to every wandering bark.”

Love is constant and infallible. Like a star it is a symbol of consistency and perseverance. It can face tempests, storms, a metaphor for worse times in a couple’s relationship or life together and to everything else that changes in your life, it is a constant and a guide.

Line 8 “Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.”

Shakespeare comments on the mystery and equality of love. Though you may know how much money a person is worth, how tall they are, or the job they have it does not dictate whether or not you will love that person. You may be friends with movie stars and find yourself in love with a janitor, love is a beautiful equalizer. Again, if we accept that Shakespeare is speaking to himself, we gain a brighter view of the scorner, perhaps a woman of high class, or more probably, a woman that Shakespeare was much richer than, but still was scorned.

Line 9 - 10 “ Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks within his bending sickle’s compass come;”

Here it is confirmed to us that Shakespeare is speaking of a lover. One notices in the preceding lines ( the first 8 ) there is suggestion but no real reference to the type of love to which Shakespeare refers. Without the mention of rosy lips and cheeks, sexual images, one could argue Shakespeare is speaking of a close friend or his mother. Lines 9 and 10 explain that though, beauty is taken with time, love does not diminish. Hardly an issue with platonic love.

Line 11 - 12 “Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, but bears it out even to the edge of doom.”

The Bard tells us that love is timeless, everlasting, and resilient. True love faces and overcomes any problem and does so forever. If this seem far-fetched, I would make a comparison to a wedding vow “For better or worse, ‘til death do us part.” Though Shakespeare might argue that not even death parts true lovers.

Line 13 - 14 “ If this be error, and upon me prov’d, I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.”

Shakespeare finishes his sonnet saying “ I am right!” but perhaps more artfully. Literally, he says if you can prove what I said is wrong, then no man has ever loved nor has Shakespeare himself ever written.

Additional Notes:

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 stands out for its beauty and can be interpreted as an homage to 1 Corinthians 13:1 , as the King James Bible was released in William Shakespeare lifetime.

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    • profile image

      :) 

      7 years ago

      thanks, very helpful for school.

    • jemross profile image

      jemross 

      7 years ago

      love this and thanks for sharing

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 

      7 years ago from Taos, NM

      I have always learned that this sonnet and a number of others were written by Shakespeare to another man. That not withstanding, you do say at the beginning of your article that you are giving a modern interpretation to the sonnet. Therefore, I think you did a terrific job here and I would agree with your analysis.

    • profile image

      hiit 

      7 years ago

      This is a fantastic hub!

      Ron from Fitness http://www.intervalstraining.net

    • profile image

      None 

      8 years ago

      Shakespear is a representation of a lot of deep meanings that can eb interpreted many different ways. You can't acually be correct in your analysis as to what he is saying, but you can be close. There is still a range, and you, my friend, have nailed it. Nice Job!

    • profile image

      Tshiamo Tee Sethoba 

      8 years ago

      This is by far the best explanation of this sonnet.

      I rate it a 10 out of 10 (100%)

    • LoriSoard profile image

      LoriSoard 

      8 years ago from Henryville, Indiana

      I love Shakespeare. Good analysis. Voting up.

    • Alex Hebert profile image

      Alex Hebert 

      8 years ago from California

      Nice to see someone keeping the flame of Shakespeare alive. Sweet job, mate!

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