Sonnet 116 is one of Shakespeare’s most well-loved sonnets. This iconic Shakespeare sonnet sits alongside other classics such as Sonnet 18 (Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?) and 130 (My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun). However, though the opening lines may be familiar, we plan on diving a little deeper into the text to see if we can unpack what sonnet 116 is all about!
This sonnet deals with the nature of love, investigating what it is, and what it is not. The core notion that love is “never shaken” and an “ever-fixed mark”. This is a theme that has carried on through our poetic tradition and modern storytelling tradition: true love that never ends. Basically the theme of every romantic film ever; in Twilight, they take this idea to next level by literally becoming immortal to be together forever. This oft-quoted sonnet is a stable of weddings for this very reason.
This is a truly beautiful sonnet and definitely worth exploring further. I believe this is a testament to what love is really about. Though marriage is a theme, in my eyes it has nothing to do with getting married, which is so often for the wrong reasons but instead about a true, everlasting, and deep connection between two people.
This poem, like most of Shakespeare’s work, is written in Iambic Pentameter. This sonnet also follows the standard rhyming structure of most sonnets: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. For example in the first quatrain, you can see “minds” rhymes with “finds” and “love” with “remove”. (Wair, WHAT – REMOVE???) We have to take into account the change in accent and pronunciation (more on Original Pronunciation), so in modern English, in most accents, this no longer rhymes. Do not force this rhyme, it is simply something we have to accept.
The rhythm throughout is fairly consistent, but there are examples where Shakespeare plays with the standard Iambic Pentameter. Generally, when Shakespeare breaks up his rhythm we see a character who is more agitated. One example of where the normal rhythm is broken is in the first line where we have a trochaic substitution. Without going into the details here, we basically are hitting the first beat “let” rather than “me”, as we normally would do in a standard Iambic line. There are a few other examples of this throughout, but for Shakespeare, who loves to play with the standard de-dum de-dum, he is fairly regular within this sonnet.
Shakespeare also uses polyptoton within this sonnet. If we look at the first quatrain we see alters/alteration and remover/remove. Polyptoton simply means the repetition of words derived from the same root word, but with altered endings such as “enjoy” and “enjoyable”. For me, these are worth observing, but always from an actor’s perspective not an intellectual perspective. Why does Shakespeare do this?
There is obviously a lot more to explore but these were just some of my initial observations. It’s great to be reminded that Shakespeare was an absolute master. Nothing was done accidentally and ever word, every syllable agonised over, to give the piece balance and flow.
Now let’s take a look at the sonnet itself. Here is the full original Shakespearean text…
Sonnet 116 (Shakespeare Text)
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.
Analysis of Sonnet 116
First of all Sonnet 116 is the companion piece of Sonnet 115, and reading them together always is helpful. Let’s take a look:
Those lines that I before have writ do lie,
Even those that said I could not love you dearer:
Yet then my judgment knew no reason why
My most full flame should afterwards burn clearer.
But reckoning Time, whose million’d accidents
Creep in ‘twixt vows, and change decrees of kings,
Tan sacred beauty, blunt the sharp’st intents,
Divert strong minds to the course of altering things;
Alas! why, fearing of Time’s tyranny,
Might I not then say, ‘Now I love you best,’
When I was certain o’er incertainty,
Crowning the present, doubting of the rest?
Love is a babe, then might I not say so,
To give full growth to that which still doth grow?
115 is all about growth and change. 116, by contrast, is all about constancy even until the “edge of doom”. I think it’s helpful to read this sonnet to get a sense of where the poet is at.
For me, the most tricky part of this sonnet is the start. Though it’s widely quoted and easy enough to understand in the context of the sonnet, what did Shakespeare mean by “true minds”. This was the tricky word for me, but to put it simply, Shakespeare is denying that anything can come between (be an impediment) to true/faithful love.
In Church of England wedding services, this line used to be used “If either of you know any inward impediment” so this piece is redolent of formal marriage, but is perhaps a comment on “true” marriage or connection of two people deeply and spiritually, not just for the convenience of marriage as it often was at the time. Shakespeare is perhaps saying that if two people truly love each other there can be nothing that will stop them having that loving relationship (no impediments).
Once we break past that first thought, the piece opens up and for me became much simpler. We basically see Shakespeare talking through what the nature of “true” love is.
There is a fairly consistent throughline of the nature of true love, but Shakespeare investigates this from different angles. We see in the first quatrain: What love is not – changeable. In the second quatrain: What love is “ever-fixed”, then we see in the third quatrain: What love is not – this time stronger than before. At the end of the speech, as is common in Shakespeare, we have a volta (or change in tone). We see the poet become quite strong on his personal opinions in the final couplet, after being more poetic and reflective through most of the poem. Almost like a guarantee at the end of the speech. So this is the structure of the piece but let’s take a look at some of the poetic devices in the poem…
Below I have attempted to put this sonnet into a more modern format…
116 Modern Translation of Sonnet 116
May I never stand in the way of two people who are truly in love.
Love is not true love
which changes whenever an issue comes up
or ends when the beloved disappears.
No, it is a permanent thing
that goes through wild storms and is never shaken.
It is the constant North Star used as a guide by all lost ships,
whose value is immeasurable, although is often taken for granted.
Love is not dependent on time, though your youthful rosy lips and cheeks
are inevitably affected by the cruel effect of time, |
love alters not with over the course of a few brief hours and weeks,
but bears it out even to the end of the world!
If this is wrong and you can prove otherwise,
I have never written anything of value, and no one ever truly loved.
True: loyal, faithful
Admit: accept or let in, acknowledge, allow for,
Bend – change
Mark – target
Bark – ship
Wandering – lost, straying from the path
Star – lodestar, a guiding star, or more specifically the pole star or north star. The brightest star that appears in the sky and is used for navigation.
Height – elevation
Compass – range, scope
Bear out – endure, weather
marriage of true minds – this is a tricky and often debated line. I believe “true minds” means a total relationship, meaning more than they are completely faithful to each other. This is also a reference to the working used in traditional marriage ceremonies of the time.
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken – the star’s worth cannot be measured as it’s invaluable to the ships, but the height of the star can be measured mathematically. Or it could be taken that the second clause “although his height be taken” as it’s taken for granted and no appreciated by captains, even though it’s so important.
Edge of doom – doomsday, end of the world.
So there you have it. A look inside one of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets. If you are passionate about how to better perform Shakespeare, working on the sonnets is one of the best ways to improve your craft. You don’t have to read a full play, or understand a character, simply find your own connection with the text. I hope this page has helped clarify and unlock some of the magic hidden within Shakespeare’s marvellow sonnet 116.