A commentary on Shakespeare’s 116th sonnet by Dr Oliver Tearle
A real wedding favourite, this: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds’ is a popular poem to be recited at wedding readings, and yet, as many commentators have pointed out, there is something odd about a heterosexual couple celebrating their marriage (of bodies as well as minds) by reading aloud this paean to gay love, celebrating a marriage of minds but not bodies (no gay marriage in Shakespeare’s time). This makes the poem, along with Robert Frost’s often-misunderstood ‘The Road Not Taken’, a candidate for the most-misinterpreted poem in English. So let’s take a closer look at Sonnet 116 by way of summary and analysis. First, though, a reminder of Sonnet 116.
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
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.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
As ever, we’ll begin by paraphrasing the content of Sonnet 116, so as to provide a summary of the poem’s meaning. ‘May I never acknowledge any barriers to the notion of two people, who are made for each other, being joined together. What people call “love” is not really love if it alters when it finds the other person changed, or gives in when someone seeks to remove that love. Oh no, love is an eternal mark, like a beacon or lighthouse out at sea, that survives stormy spells and remains steady and strong; love is the star guiding every boat out at sea, because it is like the stars whose position we have measured, but which remain something of a mystery to us. Love does not serve Time the way a Fool serves the King, although Time’s scythe mows down every man in the end. Love doesn’t alter in the course of Time’s brief hours and weeks (time is, after all, fleeting), but remains faithful even until Doomsday, or the end of the world. If what I’ve claimed here about love is proved to be incorrect, I never wrote anything, nor did any man truly love anything.’
As we remarked above, Sonnet 116 is often analysed as a poem about a ‘marriage of minds’ between any two people – but the specific context of the poem (in a sequence of Sonnets addressed to, or about, a young man: the first 126 poems in Shakespeare’s Sonnets focus on the Fair Youth) gives such an interpretation a twist: it is marriage of minds, a Platonic love, which can never be recognised in the way that heterosexual love can be recognised through the solemn and binding covenant of marriage. Shakespeare brings this home in the first line-and-a-half of Sonnet 116 by using the word ‘marriage’ but also the word ‘impediments’, conjuring up the part of the Christian wedding ceremony when the priest asks if anyone knows of any impediments why the bride and groom might not be joined in holy matrimony: ‘I require and charge you both, as ye will answer at the dreadful day of judgment when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed, that if either of you know any impediment, why ye may not be lawfully joined together in Matrimony, ye do now confess it.’ ‘Impediments’, then, is a loaded word here, and dripping with wry irony: there are impediments that would prevent Shakespeare from marrying the Fair Youth (assuming Anne Hathaway was out of the picture), because same-sex marriage is not an option in Shakespeare’s England.
This emphasis on gay love (we can’t really say ‘homosexuality didn’t exist in Shakespeare’s day’: okay, people didn’t define themselves by their sexuality in the same way, perhaps, but as the Sonnets show, homosexuality was clearly more than the act of sex) in Sonnet 116 is neatly captured in the ambiguity of that last line, which has been criticised by some commentators for being too glib (after all, even if Shakespeare’s theory of love was proved wrong, it wouldn’t technically mean he’d never written anything). But what such analysis tends to overlook is that we can interpret that last line in two very different ways: its meaning is either ‘I never wrote, and no man ever truly loved anyone’ or ‘I never wrote, nor did I love any man’.
The line ‘Or bends with the remover to remove’ may recall a pair of compasses: as Stephen Booth points out in his essential edition of the Sonnets, Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Yale Nota Bene), the critic John Doebler argued in the 1960s that Shakespeare was drawing on the idea of the compasses as a symbol for constancy while things are changing (the idea being that since compasses were designed to draw a perfect circle, and the circle was a symbol for eternity, compasses represent constant or eternal love). The compass turns up in Donne’s love poems too – see, for instance, his ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’. It’s an inspired image, and works here to convey not just the idea of constancy in love, but constancy while one is being bent or lured in other directions (e.g. by being tempted by others).
Booth also argues that one of the keys to the success of Sonnet 116 – which he calls the most universally admired of Shakespeare’s sonnets – is that it makes a positive statement through a series of negatives: Let me not, love is not love, O no!, never shaken, Love’s not Time’s fool, Love alters not, I never writ, no man ever lov’d. If the sentiment of the sonnet were expressed through positives – something along the lines of ‘let us celebrate the marriage of true minds and their true constancy towards each other’ – it would be trite and, quite possibly, sentimental. Of course, the fact that Shakespeare couches his positive message in a string of negatives also reinforces the idea of true love remaining true in the face of those negative forces which would seek to pull the lovebirds apart.
We’ve remarked before on the way ‘love’ would have been pronounced in Shakespeare’s time, so that concluding couplet doesn’t end on an eye-rhyme but a full rhyme – or at least it probably would have been a perfect rhyme when Shakespeare wrote this sonnet. Sonnet 116 ends as conclusively as the other sonnets – it’s we who have misinterpreted it.
You can listen to Sonnet 116 being read aloud here.
If you found this analysis of Sonnet 116 useful, you can discover more about the Sonnets here.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.