The Meaning and Origin of ‘If This Be Error and Upon Me Proved’

William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, a popular poem to be read or recited at weddings, ends with the couplet:

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

Although ‘proved’ and ‘loved’ are what we would now call ‘eye rhymes’ – that is, they look as though they should rhyme when our eye sees them written down, but they sound different to the ear – they may well have been full rhymes in Shakespeare’s time. So the sonnet ends, not on a near-miss of eye rhyme or pararhyme, but with a full, decisive rhyme. And those last two lines make a solid, definite statement about love.

But what is the statement, and how obvious is Shakespeare’s meaning? ‘If this be error, and upon me proved’ keeps open the possibility that Shakespeare may well have got his argument all wrong, and may yet be ‘proved’ wrong. But at the same time, he boldly asserts that, in the unlikely event that that turns out to be the case, then love is an illusion, and all of Shakespeare’s writings are worthless. And he’s clearly not of that view. (As Stephen Booth points out in his excellent Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Yale Nota Bene), ‘error’ is used to mean ‘heresy’ or ‘false creed’ here, rather than an innocent mistake, and ‘upon me proved’ is a legal term.)

So, what is the argument of Sonnet 116? We’ve summarised it elsewhere by paraphrasing it:

‘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 Booth observes, Sonnet 116 has been enduringly popular with readers perhaps because it is ‘so absolute’ in its argument, rather than because it ‘asserts the value of absolute fidelity’. It is declarative and definitive in its argument, and the final couplet (‘If this be error, and upon me proved …’) is confident that the poem’s statement is a true one. Part of the reason for the sonnet’s continued popularity, then, is probably its certainty, its demonstration of an eternal and immutable principle about love.

And yet that final couplet is not without its ambiguity. Let’s take another look at the words Shakespeare uses to conclude Sonnet 116:

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

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, a blond-haired young man who is the object of Shakespeare’s affections) 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. (In light of this, it’s somewhat ironic that the poem is a popular one at heterosexual weddings!)

And this emphasis on love between men 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’.

In other words, ‘If this be error …’ is like a lawyer summing up in court, but confessing (if that is quite the word) within his summation that he has loved another man. Of course, given the poem’s focus on Platonic love rather than erotic love, this needn’t strike us as a particularly daring or radical statement for a man of Shakespeare’s day to make. But this secondary reading of the line is there, embedded within the poem.

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