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Shakespeare Sonnet 116: "Let me not to the marriage of true minds"

The Shakespeare sonnets play an essential rôle in my poetry world. Those 154 classic sonnets masterfully dramatize truth, beauty, and love.

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 116: "Let me not to the marriage of true minds"

The speaker in sonnet 116 from the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence is offering a definitive description of the nature of love—not physical lust nor even the casual attraction that so often masquerades as love, only later to break and fall apart. This careful speaker dramatizes the nature of love as he specifies that nature in three qualities: "the marriage of true minds," "an ever-fixed mark," and "not "Time's fool."

The speaker devotes a quatrain to each quality, and then makes an indisputable conclusion in the couplet: if he can be proven wrong in his description of love, then no one ever did any writing and also no one ever loved. Thus, he puts an end to any rebuttal that might even attempt to prove him wrong.

Sonnet 116: "Let me not to the marriage of true minds"

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 prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.

Reading of Sonnet 116

Commentary

In Sonnet 116, the speaker is dramatizing the nature of love, not lust or ordinary affection, but the abiding love that he declares is the "marriage of true minds" that time's fickleness cannot destroy.

First Quatrain: Biblical Injunction

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:

Alluding to the biblical injunction, "What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder" (Matthew 19:6), the speaker describes the true nature of love. Thus, paraphrasing that injunction as admitting impediments to the "marriage of true minds," he declares that he would never attempt to do such. He then explains his reasoning: love, in fact, cannot be defiled, for it is always steadfast. No one can change true love's nature, not even if it is thought that a reason exists to do so.

True love cannot be bent and reshaped; it cannot be removed. The speaker is insisting on the constancy of love; thus he employs incremental repetition as a poetic device to reinforce his claims: "Love is not love," "alters when it alteration finds," and "bends with the remover to remove." By repeating these key words, the speaker makes his meaning concretely clear. Repetition is always the best teaching tool as well as the best tool with which to reinforce an argument in the minds of listeners.

Second Quatrain: True Love

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

Continuing with his description of true love, the speaker now moves on to his second quality attributed to that description and definition. He thus metaphorically likens "love" to the polestar of the North, which remains, "an ever-fixed mark," serving to guide ships on their voyages across the ocean.

Even when storms whip up and toss the ships with violent winds and rains, the polestar remains ever constant, ever guiding the ships direction. Love then serves as such a polestar; despite the trials and tribulations that confront the beleaguered minds, true love remains to guide those dear hearts out the storms of life on this planet. As the North Star guides ships, love guides the hearts and minds of those who truly love. While the distance of the polestar from the earth may be calculated, its value to humankind in remaining a steady force cannot be plumbed. Thus it is with love, its value cannot be estimated because it remains a dynamic force and always for the good of the those who love.

The great spiritual leader and father of yoga in the West, Paramahansa Yogananda, has averred that the goal of humanity, the goal of each soul is to become so in love with the Divine Creator that the strength of the soul will allow it to "stand unshaken midst the crash of breaking worlds." That strength attaches to the ultimate nature of the love that the speaker in sonnet 116 is describing because love provides the ability for each soul to unite with its Divine Belovèd, it own Divine Creator. And it is only that union that permits the soul to remain standing as worlds around it come crashing down.

Third Quatrain: Love and Time

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.

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Although "rosy lips and cheeks" may be labeled "Time's fool," love cannot be so labeled. Time will destroy the youthful beauty of those physical characteristics, but against love Time has no power. The speaker has already demonstrated that love cannot be "alter[ed]" in "hours and weeks"—or even years and decades for that matter—because love continues to ply its force until the world is taken back into the bosom of its Creator.

The speaker is dramatically and metaphorically likening love to the power of the Creator of the Cosmos. Love is the driving force, the dynamic power employed by that Ultimate Creator to fashion all things on earth and in heaven. Thus it could never be otherwise that that divine quality could ever change its nature, for its very nature is the natural force that all humanity craves and will continue to crave as long as physical, mental, and spiritual bodies exist in their current forms.

The Couplet: Prove Me a Liar

If this be error, and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.

The speaker has completed his definitive description of the nature of love. In the quatrains, he has offered three qualities that love possesses: (1) it is "the marriage of true minds," (2) it remains "an ever-fixed mark," and (3) it is not "Time's fool." Thus, he has argued his stance through drama, through metaphor, and through persuasion. This deeply thinking speaker has become convinced that no argument could ever be brooked against his claims.

The speaker, therefore, declaims what at first might seem to be an outrageous assertion: if he can be proven wrong, then no one ever wrote, and no one ever loved. Of course, the speaker knows that any adversary would have to admit the people have written—the speaker himself has just written—and people have loved. If anyone would care to continue in an adversarial vain, the speaker might remind them of all the "love stories" that have been composed time immemorial. The "love story" exemplifies both "writing" and "loving."

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: To what is the speaker referring when he says, let him not admit impediment in Shakespeare's sonnet 116?

Answer: The speaker is alluding to the biblical injunction, "What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder" (Matthew 19:6), as he describes the true nature of love.

Question: What do you think the poet has in mind when he refers to false love in Sonnet 116?

Answer: When love is confused with lust, it becomes false.

Question: Is the text of Shakespeare's Sonnet 116 informative, expressive,

or directive?

Answer: The poem is expressive. My commentary is informative.

Question: What do you think the poet has in mind when he refers to false love in Shakespeare's "Sonnet 116"?

Answer: False love is physical lust and/or casual attraction that so often masquerade as love.

Question: In Shakespeare's sonnet 116, he speaks about "marriage of true minds": Is he actually referring to marriage at all or does he have something else in mind?

Answer: In this sonnet, "marriage of true minds," is a metaphor for "love," which the speaker makes clear in the second and third lines, "Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds."

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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