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Analysis: Sonnet 116: (W. Shakespeare)

Through this sonnet, Shakespeare tries to define what the phenomenon of Love is all about, by first stating what it isn’t, then asserting what it is.

He starts with rejecting the marriage done for logical and sensible reasons stating that there are too many obstructions in the path of such relationships. He then condemns the love which changes with the changing circumstances of life, or ends with death, claiming that that isn’t true love. Comparing it to the North Star and using nautical terms, Shakespeare then designate love as a solid constant remainder. He describes the intensity and ferocity of the emotion as such that people who are in love do not back down from whatever challenges and difficulties life throws at them, but face them with the resolution and perseverance to overcome and conquer. Just as no one can guess how high exactly the North Star is in the sky, yet everyone knows that it is very important and useful, similarly can no man ever hope to put a monetary label on Love, but there is none in this world who is unaware of its absolute beauty and power.
Shakespeare then emphasizes the everlasting quality of love saying that it isn’t something which time can play with, thus effectively casting all the other emotions that one experiences in a frivolous light when compared with the majesty of Love. Even though beauty does play a significant role in making people fall in love, it isn’t a temporary or brief passion which can die out or change over a short period of time. Even if one fell in love with another because of that person’s physical beauty, if the love is pure, it will last far longer than said beauty. Those lovers won’t part even when they are old and their previous youthful appearances have faded away, leaving them as husks of the people they once were. Thus will Love last till the end of time, perpetual and eternal.
The end couplet poses a bold challenge from Shakespeare to any cynic who does not believe in his words. He states that if anyone proves that what he has said was wrong and that Love doesn’t exist then it would be like saying that he, William Shakespeare, master playwright and poet, had never in his life written a word. Thus he is right about the existence of love as proof of his writing already exists in the form of this sonnet, in which he poses this challenge.

As ever, Shakespeare makes use of numerous literary devices to drive home his message. The first of these is alliteration which is immediately clear in the first line itself: the repetition of the letter “m” and “t” in “me not to the marriage of true minds” gives the line an internal rhythm. Love is personified several times throughout the sonnet: it isn’t something which can change or end, it is constant and solid, it faces “tempests” and is “never shaken.” All these instances of attributing the qualities of a person to a mere emotion, serve their purpose in making the Bard’s message clear, that love is never ending. One also finds Time to be personified “Love is not Time’s fool.” This description paints Time as a puppeteer who plays around with everything, controlling everyone, and changing things on a whim, which is a repeating idea in many of Shakespeare’s other sonnets plays and poems. Yet love is set apart from the rest of all the emotions that one feels: it is something which Time can exercise no right over, as it is independent of all sorts of manipulations. Visual imagery is then evoked to further emphasize this point and the picture of Old Keen Time shuffles on wielding a huge sickle, yet Love continues to evade its grasp, appears in the mind.
This sonnet is set apart by the rest of them because of the fact that it isn’t about the state of one in love, or how Love changes life, but rather it is a bold and exemplary attempt to define Love itself. Such a broad emotion, which brings to mind so many various unrefined things, can be outlined and set into words in such a restricted, formal format; that of the Shakespearean sonnet is commendable indeed. Yet the poem appeals to me not because of apt style, nothing less could be expected from Shakespeare, but because of its intricate content. In a series of comparisons does Shakespeare set the limitless boundaries of love, first stating what it isn’t: fickle and momentary; then asserting what it is: resolute and everlasting.
I enjoyed the poem immensely for both the clarity of its matter and the eloquence of its language.


Posted by on November 29, 2011 in Analysis of Poems.