Critics Overview on Sonnet 116 by Shakespeare

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Critical Overview

      Sonnet 116 is one of the most widely admired sonnets in Shakespeare's sequence. Its language is generally regarded as strongly persuasive and resonant: its style has been described as grand, even noble. But critics cannot seem to agree on the meaning of "Sonnet 116." In Shakespeare's Sonnets: Self, Love, and Art, Philip Martin recognizes the negative cast of its lines but nevertheless affirms that it is a "resonantly certain statement of the certitudes of love," Stephen Booth also admires the absoluteness of "Sonnet 116," but claims in Shakespeare Sonnets that the more one thinks about the poem, "the less there seems to be to it," Other critics, such as Hilton Landry, argue that the work is continually misinterpreted because it is considered independently, instead of part of its sequence; in his article in Shakespeare Studies, Landry argues that the sonnets preceding and following "Sonnet 116" provide revolutionary insights concerning the poem.


      Anne marie S. Math is a freelance writer who has worked professionally as both a book editor and graphics designer. In the following essay, Muth defines "Sonnet 116" as a soliloquy sonnet, a sonnet "clearly written for the poet himself rather than the public." Muth then offers art interpretation of "Sonnet 116," focusing on the contradictions within the poem.

      Scholars have long speculated on the identity of the speaker in William Shakespeare's sonnets, that is, whether the poet is baring his soul in these works or taking on another's persona. In his introduction to The Sonnets, poet W. H. Auden suggested that apart from the first sixteen works in which the poet urges his friend to many, and another handful of "elegant trifles," the sonnets do represent Shakespeare's own thoughts and feelings, He believes this because of the "impression they make of naked autobiographical confession." Yet this is astonishing to him because Elizabethans "were not given to writing their autobiographies or to unlocking their hearts" for the public. However, nothing approaches Ore candor of Shakespeare's sonnets until the time of Rousseau when confession becomes a literary genre. Tims Auden contended that Shakespeare wrote his sonnets for himself alone, like entries in a diary, rather than for the public. Furthermore, he contended that Shakespeare never meant to publish them, and the fact that their eventual publication in 1609 was apparently unauthorized supports this. Auden's claims mirror a recent theory proposed by scholar David K. Weiser concerning Shakespeare's purpose in writing the sonnets. In his book Mind in Character, Weiser classifies Shakespeare's sonnets as either dialogues or soliloquies. In the dialogues, which make up the majority of his sonnets, the poet explicitly addresses another person in terms of "you" or "thou." For instance, in most of the first 126 sonnets, he addresses a young man, and in many of the remaining 28, he addresses a woman. However, 'Sonnet 116" and a number of others from the first 126 are written from the perspective of Shakespeare addressing himself. These soliloquy sonnets seem clearly written for the poet himself rather than the public. They differ from the dialogues in several aspects, First, they "speak of" rather than "speak to" another person or issue. Essentially, the reader eavesdrops on the poet as he sorts out his personal concerns and alternatives. Second, they share a common theme of self-discovery that is defined at the beginning of the soliloquy sequence in terms of Shakespeare's own experience, but evolves to definitions of universal ideals by the end of the sequence. Third, in contrast to the dialogues, in which the poet employs irony to mock the shallowness of rival poets and lovers, in (he soliloquies, he uses it to expose his

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Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets in all. The first 126 are addressed to a young man or "Friend" as he is called by the poet Sonnets 127-152 are addressed to a mysterious "Dark Lady," the poet's mistress, who may have seduced the Friend. The last two do not fit into either of the two main groupings. Some of the most famous of Shakespeare's other sonnets are (Shall I compare thee to a Summer's day?), "Sonnet 29" (When in disgrace with Fortune and men's eyes). "Sonnet 30" (When to the sessions of sweet silent thought), and "Sonnet 130" (My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun),

Though the collected sonnets are considered Shakespeare's most significant poetic achievement, he did author additional poems, the most important being Venus and Adonis (1593), an Ovidian mythological-erotic poem, and The Rape of Lucree (1594), which exalts a chaste woman. Both works were excessively popular in Shakespeare's lifetime. In fact, they were better received than his plays.

The sonnet has been perhaps the most popular form in English verse. Countless people have employed it. Among Shakespeare's contemporaries, Sir Philip Sidney, Michael Drayton, and Edmund Spenser composed important sonnet sequences (groups of sonnets in which the poems are thematically related) Sidney's Astrophel and Stella was published in 1591, Drayton's Idea's Mirror was published in 1594, and Spenser's Amoretti was published in 1595. The fourteenth-century Italian poet Petrarch was a significant innovator of the sonnet form, and his works influenced Shakespeare and other poets. His sonnets are available in a number of English translations, including Rime Disperse (1991), translated by Joseph A. Barber.

      Own flaws and contradictions. For example, in "116" one of the final soliloquies, Shakespeare attempts to define his ideal of constancy in love. Tragically, he is unable to reconcile this ideal with his own experience of inconstancy as illustrated in sonnets "110," "119," and others. Perfect constancy transcends his own experience, Nevertheless, by the end of the piece he has convinced himself to put his doubts aside and believe that such constancy in love is possible. According to Weiser, such introspection and final resolve helps Shakespeare come to terms with himself and develop personal values. If Weiser is right, then the soliloquies are Shakespeare's most intimate self-portrait, and "116" is his tragic view of love.

      "Sonnet 116" is Shakespeare's profession of faith in the ideal of constancy in love. Generations have shared his sentiments, but none has expressed them so poignantly. This is Shakespeare at his best, invoking man's noblest aspirations in the name of love: constancy, commitment to another. Purity of heart, and perseverance that defies all of life's storms. How is it, then, that such high-mindedness vanishes in "Sonnet 119"? For "119" boasts that inconstancy actually strengthens love:

What potions have I drunk of Siren tears, Distill'd from limbecks foul as hell within. Applying fears to hopes and hopes to fears,
Still losing when I saw myself to win.
What wretched errors hath my heart committed,
Whilst it hath thought itself so blessed never!
How have mine eyes out of their spheres been fitted,

      In the distraction of this madding fever! O benefit of ill! now I find true That better is by evil still made better- Arid nun'd love when it is built anew, Grows fairer than at first, more strong, far greater. So I return rebuked to my content. And gain by ill thrice more than I have spent. "Sonnet 116" gives the impression that Shakespeare is innocent of the inconstancy he condemns. "Sonnet 119," on the other hand, clearly reveals a poet whose actions are the object of the condemnation in "116." This obvious contradiction of philosophies points to the poet's deliberate suppression of certain undesirable aspects of his personality in "116" in order to affirm his ideal of constancy in love. Yet beyond the contradictions that exist between these two sonnets is "116'' internal paradox. For rather than celebrate the joys of love in this piece. Shakespeare extols its steadfastness in the face of love's betrayal. Rather than show; love's constancy and endurance in strictly positive terms, he defines these qualities through metaphors depicting their opposites, inconstancy and death. In short, he says as much about what love is not as what love is, as if negative definitions are more within his understanding. Such contrast of imagery marks a development in the soliloquy sequence from the self-definition of his earliest works, to facing the consequences of being what he is in his later works, namely, an inconstant lover. Drawing on his awareness of contradiction and impertinence in nature and society, he employs dramatic irony to point out’ his own particular flaws and contradictions. The resulting paradox reveals his recurring doubts about the subject. Nevertheless, as the sonnet progresses, Shakespeare convinces himself to believe in his ideal. The development of his conviction is worth noting.

      Shakespeare begins "116" in the pensive voice, of the abandoned lover. He states that he cannot object to marriage between two persons who truly love each other, who are "of true minds." Yet his use of the negative "Let rue not..." in the very first line of the sonnet gives the impression that the speaker doubts, in die case of a particular marriage, that it is of true minds. Such negativity sets the poem's ironical tone (lines I and 2):

Let me not to the marriage, of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love

      In lines 2 through 4. he begins to define love as a universal concept, one which transcends his personal experience, but in terms of what it is not:

Love is not love

      Which aller when it alteration finds. Or bends with, (he remover to remove ...

      The impression given in these lines is of the poet reflecting on a lesson about love, made more emphatic by his defining what it is not, Yet in these lines, Shakespeare refers to it in terms of a universal concept rather than in personal terms, as was the case in lines I and 2 above: "Let me not... Admit impediments." He will continue referring to love in this way until the ending couplet in which he reverts to his persona! convictions. Also at this point. Shakespeare introduces metaphor. Fickle

"Rather than celebrate the joys of love in this piece, Shakespeare extols its steadfastness in the face of love's betrayal"

      Love, an abstract idea, takes on the characteristics of something alive, that is, it alters and bends, but these characteristics allude to change, not constancy. As his convictions gel, his expression grows more didactic; his personification of love more vivid.

      Introducing the next, quatrain with a negative exclamation as if to dismiss any doubts (his own), he transforms the concept of love into something positive (lines 5 and 6):

O, no' u is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tern (jests and is never shaken ....

      Love takes on a positive identity for the first time in line 3 where before it was a mere negation of something else. Now it is a symbol of constancy and trustworthiness, a seamark that guides mariners through life's storms,

      Lines 7 and 8 once again betray the poet's doubts. Despite his previous impersonal references to the universal concept of love, Shakespeare is unable to conceal his personal belief that constancy in love is not appreciated. While the "star" (the faithful lover) in line 7 protects and guides the "wandering bark" (the object of his love), the faithful lover's "worth's unknown" (line 8). In other words, although the one who receives love may use it to his advantage ("although his height be taken"), he may not return it in kind, of will repeat these lines in full for clarity's sake:

It is the star to every wandering bark.
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.

      This revelation leads to an emotional declaration in the third quatrain, as defiant in tone as if the speaker were defending his own honor. This is because, by the third quatrain, the poet takes to heart the standards of his ideal. Strengthened by his newfound convictions, his statements become his credo. Love now appears as a sage, not taken in by youthful beauty. Love perseveres long after youth's beauty fades;

Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come...

      For the sake of emphasis, Shakespeare repeats as if a vow, in line 11, the same sentiment of lines 2 and 3. that: love "alters not," throughout life, but endures even until death (line 12):

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks
But bears it out even to the edge of doom

      By the ending couplet, Shakespeare has lost all memory of past inconstancy in love and makes his profession of faith:

If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

      His qualification, it this be error... in line 13, implies that if this idea of love is wrong, then no one can exist. At this point. Shakespeare so wants to who that he believes in the value of constance in love that he is willing to stake his career and all his past experience on this belief. Yet this is only because no other satisfactory idea of love is imaginable to him.

      Thanks to the publication of his sonnets, generations of readers have gained insight into the mind and sold of perhaps the world's greatest poet. His sentiments concerning affairs of the heart are beautifully expressed, his failings, touching. Beyond this, the soliloquies tell an extraordinary story of Shakespeare's personal struggle for self-knowledge and personal values. Especially working in "Sonnet 116" is the poet's discovery of lost ideals. By measuring the distance between his ideal and his reality, he has come to realize the extent to which perfect contrary in love surpasses his own experience. Reflection shows him what perfect love should be, although it has so far tragically eluded him. Yet he must believe that it exists somewhere, if not for him, because without this conviction, he sees only despair. His profession of faith in his ideal is truly an expression of hope against all reason, but it is, in the final analysis, what gives him a sense of purpose. His profession of faith gives him his future.

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