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What is Shakespeare saying in Sonnet 116? Study this poem and you will discover that 116 is one of the best-loved sonnets in the folio because it can be read as a wonderfully celebratory nod to love and marriage. Indeed it continues to feature in wedding ceremonies worldwide.
The poem expresses love in the ideal; never ending, fading, or faltering. The final couplet of the poem has the poet willing this perception of love to be true and professes that if it is not and if he is mistaken, then all of his writing has been for nothing-and no man, including himself, has ever truly loved.
It is perhaps this sentiment that ensures Sonnet 116's continuing popularity in being read weddings. The idea that love is pure and eternal is as heart-warming today as it was in Shakespeare's time. It is an example of that special skill that Shakespeare had, namely the ability to tap into timeless themes that relate to everyone, no matter which century they were born in.
- Sequence: Sonnet 116 forms part of the Fair Youth Sonnets in the folio.
- Key Themes: Constant love, Ideal love, enduring love, marriage, fixed points, and wandering.
- Style: Like Shakespeare's other sonnets, Sonnet 116 is written in iambic pentameter using the traditional sonnet form.
Marriage has no impediment. Love is not real if it alters when circumstances change or if one of the couple has to leave or be elsewhere. Love is constant. Even if the lovers face difficult or trying times, their love is not shaken if it is true love.
In the poem, love is described as star guiding a lost boat: “It is the star to every wandering bark.”
The star's worth cannot be calculated even though we can measure its height. Love does not change over time, but physical beauty will fade. (Comparison to the grim reaper's scythe should be noted here-even death should not alter love.)
Love is unchanging through hours and weeks but lasts until the edge of doom. If I am wrong about this and it is proved then all my writing and loving is for nothing and no man has ever really loved: “If this be error and upon me proved, I never writ, nor no man ever loved.”
The poem does refer to marriage, but to the marriage of minds rather than the actual ceremony. Let us also remember that the poem is describing love for a young man and this love would not be sanctioned in Shakespeare's time by an actual marriage service.
However, the poem uses words and phrases evocative of the marriage ceremony including “impediments” and “alters”-although both used in a different context.
The promises a couple make in marriage are also echoed in the poem:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out ev'n to the edge of doom.
This is reminiscent of the “'till death do us part” vow in a wedding.
The poem is referring to ideal love which does not falter and lasts until the end, which also reminds the reader of the wedding vow, “in sickness and in health”.
Therefore, it is little surprise that this sonnet remains a steadfast favorite in wedding ceremonies today. The text conveys how powerful love is. It cannot die and is everlasting.
The poet then questions himself in the final couplet, praying that his perception of love is real and true, because if it is not then he may as well not be a writer or a lover and that would surely be a tragedy.