True-minded people should not be married. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Which changes when it finds a change in circumstances,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
Or bends from its firm stand even when a lover is unfaithful:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
Oh no! it is a lighthouse
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
That sees storms but it never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Love is the guiding north star to every lost ship,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Whose value cannot be calculated, although its altitude can be measured.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Love is not at the mercy of Time, though physical beauty
Within his bending sickle's compass come:
Comes within the compass of his sickle.
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
Love does not alter with hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
But, rather, it endures until the last day of life.
If this be error and upon me proved,
If I am proved wrong about these thoughts on love
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
Then I recant all that I have written, and no man has ever [truly] loved.
marriage...impediments (1-2): T.G. Tucker explains that the first two lines are a "manifest allusion to the words of the Marriage Service: 'If any of you know cause or just impediment why these two persons should not be joined together in holy matrimony'; cf. Much Ado 4.1.12. 'If either of you know any inward impediment why you should not be conjoined.' Where minds are true - in possessing love in the real sense dwelt upon in the following lines - there can be no 'impediments' through change of circumstances, outward appearance, or temporary lapses in conduct." (Tucker, 192).
bends with the remover to remove (4): i.e., deviates ("bends") to alter its course ("remove") with the departure of the lover.
ever-fixed mark (5): i.e., a lighthouse (mark = sea-mark).
Compare Othello (5.2.305-7):
Be not afraid, though you do see me weapon'd;
Here is my journey's end, here is my butt,
And very sea-mark of my utmost sail.
the star to every wandering bark (7): i.e., the star that guides every lost ship (guiding star = Polaris).
Shakespeare again mentions Polaris (also known as "the north star") in Much Ado About Nothing (2.1.222) and Julius Caesar (3.1.65).
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken (8): The subject here is still the north star. The star's true value can never truly be calculated, although its height can be measured.
Love's not Time's fool (9): i.e., love is not at the mercy of Time.
Within his bending sickle's compass come (10): i.e., physical beauty falls within the range ("compass") of Time's curved blade. Note the comparison of Time to the Grim Reaper, the scythe-wielding personification of death.
edge of doom (12): i.e., Doomsday.
Compare 1 Henry IV (4.1.141):
Come, let us take a muster speedily:
Doomsday is near; die all, die merrily.
Sonnet 116 is about love in its most ideal form. It is praising the glories of lovers who have come to each other freely, and enter into a relationship based on trust and understanding. The first four lines reveal the poet's pleasure in love that is constant and strong, and will not "alter when it alteration finds." The following lines proclaim that true love is indeed an "ever-fix'd mark" which will survive any crisis. In lines 7-8, the poet claims that we may be able to measure love to some degree, but this does not mean we fully understand it. Love's actual worth cannot be known – it remains a mystery. The remaining lines of the third quatrain (9-12), reaffirm the perfect nature of love that is unshakeable throughout time and remains so "ev'n to the edge of doom", or death.
In the final couplet, the poet declares that, if he is mistaken about the constant, unmovable nature of perfect love, then he must take back all his writings on love, truth, and faith. Moreover, he adds that, if he has in fact judged love inappropriately, no man has ever really loved, in the ideal sense that the poet professes. The details of Sonnet 116 are best described by Tucker Brooke in his acclaimed edition of Shakespeare's poems:
[In Sonnet 116] the chief pause in sense is after the twelfth line. Seventy-five per cent of the words are monosyllables; only three contain more syllables than two; none belong in any degree to the vocabulary of 'poetic' diction. There is nothing recondite, exotic, or metaphysical in the thought. There are three run-on lines, one pair of double-endings. There is nothing to remark about the rhyming except the happy blending of open and closed vowels, and of liquids, nasals, and stops; nothing to say about the harmony except to point out how the fluttering accents in the quatrains give place in the couplet to the emphatic march of the almost unrelieved iambic feet. In short, the poet has employed one hundred and ten of the simplest words in the language and the two simplest rhyme-schemes to produce a poem which has about it no strangeness whatever except the strangeness of perfection. (Brooke, 234)
Shakespeare, William. Shakespeare's Sonnets. Ed. Tucker Brooke. London: Oxford UP: 1936.
Shakespeare, William. Shakespeare's Sonnets. Ed. A.L. Rowse. London: Macmillan, 1964.
Shakespeare, William. The Works of Shakespeare. Ed. John Dover Wilson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1969.
Smith, Hallett. The Tension of the Lyre. San Marino: Huntington Library, 1981.
Spender, Stephen. The Riddle of Shakespeare's Sonnets. New York: Basic Books, 1962.
Tucker, T.G. The Sonnets of Shakespeare. Cambridge: UP, 1924.
How to Cite this Article
Mabillard, Amanda. An Analysis of Shakespeare's Sonnet 116. Shakespeare Online. 2000. (day/month/year you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/sonnets/116detail.html >.