Shakespeare Sonnet 116

Updated on May 25, 2019
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford


Introduction and Text of Sonnet 116

The speaker in sonnet 116 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
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


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.

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."


A Brief Overview: The 154-Sonnet Sequence

Scholars and critics of Elizabethan literature have determined that the sequence of 154 Shakespeare sonnets may be classified into three thematic categories: (1) Marriage Sonnets 1-17; (2) Muse Sonnets 18-126, traditionally identified as the "Fair Youth"; and (3) Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154.

Marriage Sonnets 1-17

The speaker in the Shakespeare “Marriage Sonnets” pursues a single goal: to persuade a young man to marry and produce beautiful offspring. It is likely that the young man is Henry Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton, who is being urged to marry Elizabeth de Vere, the oldest daughter of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Many scholars and critics now argue persuasively that Edward de Vere is the writer of the works attributed to the nom de plume, "William Shakespeare." For example, Walt Whitman, one of America's greatest poets has opined:

Conceiv'd out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism — personifying in unparalleled ways the medieval aristocracy, its towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste, with its own peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation) — only one of the "wolfish earls" so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works — works in some respects greater than anything else in recorded literature.

For more information regarding Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as the real writer of the Shakespearean canon, please visit The De Vere Society, an organization that is "dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford."

Muse Sonnets 18-126 (Traditionally classified as "Fair Youth")

The speaker in this section of sonnets is exploring his talent, his dedication to his art, and his own soul power. In some sonnets, the speaker addresses his muse, in others he addresses himself, and in others he even addresses the poem itself.

Even though many scholars and critics have traditionally categorized this group of sonnets as the "Fair Youth Sonnets," there is no "fair youth," that is "young man," in these sonnets. There is no person at all in this sequence, with exception of the two problematic sonnets, 108 and 126.

Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154

The final sequence targets an adulterous romance with a woman of questionable character; the term “dark” likely modifies the woman’s character flaws, not her skin tone.

Three Problematic Sonnets: 108, 126, 99

Sonnet 108 and 126 present a problem in categorization. While most of the sonnets in the "Muse Sonnets" do focus on the poet's musings about his writing talent and do not focus on a human being, sonnets 108 and 126 are speaking to a young man, respectively calling him "sweet boy" and "lovely boy." Sonnet 126 presents an additional problem: it is not technically a "sonnet," because it features six couplets, instead of the traditional three quatrains and a couplet.

The themes of sonnets 108 and 126 would better categorize with the "Marriage Sonnets" because they do address a "young man." It is likely that sonnets 108 and 126 are at least partially responsible for the erroneous labeling of the "Muse Sonnets" as the "Fair Youth Sonnets" along with the claim that those sonnets address a young man.

While most scholars and critics tend to categorize the sonnets into the three-themed schema, others combine the "Marriage Sonnets" and the "Fair Youth Sonnets" into one group of "Young Man Sonnets." This categorization strategy would be accurate if the "Muse Sonnets" actually addressed a young man, as only the "Marriage Sonnets" do.

Sonnet 99 might be considered somewhat problematic: it features 15 lines instead of the traditional 14 sonnet lines. It accomplishes this task by converting the opening quatrain into a cinquain, with an altered rime scheme from ABAB to ABABA. The rest of the sonnet follows the regular rime, rhythm, and function of the traditional sonnet.

The Two Final Sonnets

Sonnets 153 and 154 are also somewhat problematic. They are classified with the Dark Lady Sonnets, but they function quite differently from the bulk of those poems.

Sonnet 154 is a paraphrase of Sonnet 153; thus, they carry the same message. The two final sonnets dramatize the same theme, a complaint of unrequited love, while outfitting the complaint with the dress of mythological allusion. The speaker employs the services of the Roman god Cupid and the goddess Diana. The speaker thus achieves a distance from his feelings, which he, no doubt, hopes will finally liberate him from the clutches of his lust/love and bring him equanimity of mind and heart.

In the bulk of the "dark lady" sonnets, the speaker has a been addressing the woman directly, or making it clear that what he is saying is intended for her ears. In the final two sonnets, the speaker is not directly addressing the mistress. He does mention her, but he is speaking now about her instead of directly to her. He is now making it quite clear that he is withdrawing from the drama with her.

Readers may sense that he has grown battle-weary from his struggle for the woman’s respect and affection, and now he has finally decided to make a philosophical drama that heralds the end of that disastrous relationship, announcing essentially, "I’m through."

Questions & Answers

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

    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.

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

    When love is confused with lust, it becomes false.

  • Is the text of Shakespeare's Sonnet 116 informative, expressive, or directive?

    The poem is expressive. My commentary is informative.

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

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

  • 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?

    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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