William Shakespeare, an English poet, and playwright wrote “Sonnet 116.” It was most likely written in the 1590s, during English literature when sonnets were famous, although it was not published until 1609. Although Shakespeare’s sonnets were not well received during his lifetime, “Sonnet 116” has become one of the most well-known and acclaimed poems in the English language. The poem defines true love as an eternal, unbending devotion between people: a bond so strong that only death may remodel it in glorious, emotional terms. Though the poem is touching and beautiful, it runs the risk of becoming hyperbolic or clichéd at times, leading some readers to question the reality — or sincerity — of its description of love.
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The speaker makes many strong arguments about what love is—and isn’t—throughout Sonnet 116. According to the speaker, true love does not change with time; instead, it continues with the same intensity indefinitely. The speaker establishes this point from the poem’s first lines, forcefully proclaiming that love that bends or sways in reaction to barriers isn’t love at all. Instead, he contends that love can withstand any storm. Love, then, is something that endures “impediments,” “obstacles,” and “difficulties” while maintaining its passion and dedication.
Sonnet 116’s speaker employs a lot of visual imagery to convey the quality of love. He describes it as “an ever-fixed mark / That looks on tempests and is never shaken,” a “star to every wand’ring bark,” and a “star to every wand’ring bark (Shakespeare 266).” He also compares love’s “rosy lips and cheeks” to time’s “bending sickle.” (Shakespeare 266)
The speaker explores other types of change as the poem goes, expanding on his initial point. In lines 9-10, he adds that real love endures even as beauty fades—as exemplified by the image of youthful, pink cheeks losing their vigor in the poem. Love is unaffected by aging because it isn’t primarily concerned with the body. In lines 11-12, the speaker broadens his argument even more by asserting that love is constant regardless of the circumstances.
The speaker is so sure of his position that he is willing to stake a wager: if he is wrong, love is impossible, and “no man [has] ever loved.” In making this wager, he uses his actions as proof (Shakespeare 266). Here, the speaker admits that he isn’t just a bystander to love but also a lover.
It’s worth noting at this point that this sonnet is one of a series of love poems that are typically thought to be dedicated to a young guy. Their relationship is stormy, full of infidelity and passionate outbursts, as described throughout the Sonnets.
This will be a beautiful declaration of love for a generous reader. It raises some concerns for the more skeptical reader. The speaker hasn’t only characterized love as constant; the poem depicts love as a timeless ideal far apart from the chaotic reality of real people’s lives. It’s a star—impossible to reach and inhuman. In some ways, this image of love loses its ability to be built and instead becomes something humans can only observe from afar.
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In line 14, the speaker uses hyperbole to argue his position, invoking all lovers throughout history. This, combined with the poem’s idealism, may make the speaker appear untrustworthy; some readers may question how realistic the speaker’s portrayal of love is and find it grandiose rather than intimate. Throughout the poem, the tone is intense and vibrant. On the other hand, the last two lines take on a hesitant tone as they examine the possibility that the poem’s message could be proven incorrect.
The entire poem is essentially a reiteration of the poem’s central theme: love is the most potent force in the universe. Therefore, the poem’s claims about love should not be taken at face value: they should be assessed for sincerity and believability, and they may be found wanting in these areas.
Shakespeare, William. “Sonnet 116.” The Norton Anthology of Poetry. 5th ed. Eds. Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter, and Jon Stallworthy. New York: Norton & Co., 2005. 266.