Themes of Sonnet 116 by Shakespeare

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Theme of Time

      Shakespeare struggles with time in most of his sonnets. For example, in "Sonnet 18" (Shall I compare thee to a Summer's day?), one of Shakespeare's best known poems,
he writes about summer’s mutability and the effects of time on beauty and youth:

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines.
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines.
By chance or nature's changing coarse untrimmed:

      The theme of time reappears in Sonnet 116 yet in this poem time is so significant that it is actually given a physical presence in the third quatrain.

Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and checks
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:

      Here, the aged figure of Father Time, frequently dressed in a black cloak and carrying an hourglass and a scythe, swings his "bending," or curved, blade, and destroys all within his "compass," or range. Time ruins the beautiful "rosy lips and cheeks" of youth. Even so, he can not alter Love (also treated as a proper noun), which is "not Time's fool" and "bears it out even to the edge of doom."

      Whereas Shakespeare's "Sonnet 18" addresses the relationship between time and beauty, this sonnet appears to be concerned primarily with the relationship between time and constancy. The speaker of the poem is concerned about the fidelity of die object of his affection. This is most evident earlier in the poem, when Shakespeare questions whether love ''alters when it alteration finds, / Or bends with the remover to remove." The negative tone in this first quatrain changes dramatically at the start of the second quatrain, when the poet declares "o, no! it (love) is an ever-fixed mark." In the third quatrain, which introduces Father Time, Shakespeare proclaims love's sovereignly over time with "Love alters not with his [Time's] brief hours and weeks." The concluding couplet presents an even stronger assertion: "If this be error and upon me proved, / I never writ, nor no man ever loved." At the sonnet's conclusion the poet is so certain that Love prevails over tinie that he rests his career and the entire history of love on his proclamation, in actuality proving nothing but the intensity of his own desire for it to be true.

Truth and Falsehood

      In "Sonnet 116" Shakespeare sets out to define true love, in the first two lines, he asserts, "Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments" implying through the word "true" in "true minds" that love can have cerebral qualities, not only emotional ones. His language further suggests that only a select few of true minds are fit to comprehend and embrace true love. In fact, the poet could be implying that there are some who might better understand love, excusing him from any errors he might make elsewhere in the sonnet.

      The poet continues with his definition of abiding love by differentiating between true and false love: "Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds, / Or bends with the remover to remove." The first form of love cited, which is treated as a proper noun throughout the remainder of the poem, is considered lasting, whereas the latter form of love is false, as it "alters" and "bends" with time. He continues to define the former, true love, but in an odd way. In an effort to determine what love is, Shakespeare concentrates on what love is not. The sonnet begins with a series of denials that-almost-deny love's existence entirely. The author appeals to catch himself momentarily in the second quatrain, asserting "O, no! it (love) is an ever-fixed mark, / that looks on tempests and is never shaken." Here, love is likened to a permanent landmark. Even so, Shakespeare again presents love through negative language, by stating that enduring love "is never shaken." The third quatrain follows this pattern with "Love's not Time's fool" and "Love alters not? The themes of truth and falsehood ate therefore given equal regard in "Sonnet 116."

      By discussing both forms of love Shakespeare remains truthful to the human experience, noting man's greatest potential but also his failings. It is perhaps this honesty that has made this sonnet, however complex, one of the best loved and most frequently anthologized sonnets in Shakespeare's canon.

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