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In this highly advanced 21st century where love appears complex and with divorce cases on the rise, imagine finding pure, golden, sweet, unadulterated, ideal love! Yes, pure romantic love. Remember the legendary, utopian, enchanting love between the famous Romeo and Juliet? They may have been star-crossed and not destined to age together due to fate, but their sensual, palpable, daring love was one to melt anyone's heart. For that is what Shakespeare so cleverly crafts in this wonderful, compact sonnet. In it, he philosophizes about the splendor that found in a love so beautiful, a love so blissful, a love so pure and a love so tender. However, it should be noted that it's possible Shakespeare might have been referring to some other type of love such as Agape, Eros, or Philial. I will go with romantic love which is universal and applies across all geographic spaces. So, what are the charming characteristics of true love that Shakespeare so carefully and craftily brings to the fore in Sonnet 116?
Before delving into these characteristics, it's important to unravel the mystery of why an author would name his poem by a number. The truth of the matter is that the ever-gifted Shakespeare is credited with having written 154 sonnets. A sonnet is a 14-line poem of Italian origin with a fixed rhyme scheme written in iambic pentameter. It is often divided into a significant group of eight lines (octave) and a major group of six lines (sestet) (Dictionary.com). Love is the dominant theme in these sonnets. However, other sub-themes emerge and run through various poems such as life, beauty, and desire. The majority of the sonnets including sonnet 116 are addressed to a young man while the rest have a dark-skinned woman as the audience. Thus the sonnets are numbered sonnet 1 to sonnet 154 hence sonnet 116 (Shakespeare Online).
Now you may question what the word 'marriage' is doing in the first line if the poem is about love. Overall, we know the poem talks about love, but the word love is missing. Instead, Shakespeare makes use of the words 'true minds' which he connects to the word 'marriage.' Shakespeare's distinct choice of words or diction aptly captures the ultimate ideal love for any person in love. What is more fulfilling, more satisfying, and more gratifying than ending up by your lover's side to be joined together in holy matrimony? It's as if Shakespeare is saying that if love will not translate into marriage, then it never was or it was a travesty of 'marriage' justice. So, if two people genuinely love each other, nothing should stand in the way. Why? Because, according to Shakespeare, they are not just like-minded, but each one's heart is true to the other's heart.
Being the skilled wordsmith that he was, Shakespeare allows the first line to drop into the second line by use of an enjambement. Using an enjambement here is critical because it ushers in the writer's mastery of language where he allows for a freer and more natural flow of his theme of love. It is at this juncture that the word and concept of 'love' is introduced in a double sense. When he says, "Love is not love" the word love is repeated and negated, and again mentioned soon after he mentions marriage in yet another enjambement. Now it becomes natural for us to connect the word 'marriage' with the word "impediments." The Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary describes 'impediment' as "something that makes progress or movement difficult or impossible." What has marriage got to do with impediment? It's simple. If you truly love someone, then there are no barriers, no obstacles, and no restrictions that should hinder you from committing yourself to loving someone forever.
How then can true love ever change? It can't. And this is the focus of the third line. Again Shakespeare deliberately capitalizes on the stylistic device of repetition in using two almost similar sounding words but with different meanings, 'alter' and 'alternation.' Merriam-Webster defines alternation as 'the act or process of alternating.' To alternate is to interchange repeatedly and regularly with one another in time or place (Merriam-Webster). Meanwhile, to alter according to Merriam-Webster is to "make different without changing into something else." Here are two different words woven together so ingeniously to give profound meaning to the poem. Recall that the author started with marriage between two people deeply and truly in love. Thus, true love does not change. Neither can it be interchanged or alternated. You cannot claim to move to someone else and still be in love. Another beautiful thing about this line is that 'alter' and 'alternation' have a similar sound which adds to the musicality of the poem. The next line carries the same or similar meaning to the previous line. The line, "Or bends with the remover to remove," again makes excellent use of repetition in the word 'remove' and at the same time plays with the sound in 'remover to remove.' It's an important emphasis on the fact that true love will ever remain constant.
So far, Shakespeare has drawn us into the depth of true love (by telling us what it is not) which may appear surreal to some people. I mean the love may sound like it is too good to be true. This kind of romantic love is only found in myths where the natural realm does not exist. In the previous quatrain, Shakespeare made good use of negation by expounding on what love is not. He now moves to another level of using the positive where he now details what love is. When Shakespeare uses an exclamation mark to signal the end of his description on what love is not, he introduces the element of excitement for that's what declamations do. After all, love is exciting too. While speaking out the words 'Oh no!' a rising intonation will have to be used. The use of sound adds to the overall theme of love for the rising intonation is an indication that the writer is emphatic that true love must be genuine. And then he turns our attention to something else: a metaphor. He now compares love to a fixed mark implying that it is eternal as well by using the word 'ever.' I am thinking of the middle mark in the very inner, central core of a dart game where the player must aim for that very mark. Not around it. Not above it. Not beside it. He or she must aim for the mark because it is fixed. It will not move and once a player's dart finds that mark, he has won. This lovely metaphor cements Shakespeare's view that true love is fixed. It does and will never move.
It is possible you have heard of the life of Jonson Oatman of the yesteryear who was so much discouraged about failing to match up to his dad's standards that his inner soul and depth of mind produced the age-old hymn that begins, "When upon life's billows you are tempest-tossed..."(McKenna). A tempest is a violent storm (Merriam -Webster) and is capable of taking one's life. It's a terrible, powerful storm no mortal would want to contend with but here is Shakespeare in line six saying that if true love encountered whatever dangerous or mighty obstacle, it would win.
True love is compared to a star that provides guidance or a torchlight on those that might be lost or have given up on love. When the stars are many and twinkle in the sky, what a glorious spectacle they present even as they light up a dark universe. But Shakespeare singles out one star, which probably could be the famous North Star that never moves but guides the path of the ship (bark) in their sojourns. This metaphor ably captures the point Shakespeare has been making from the first line. I can imagine a relationship gone sour where the wife walks away. If love be true, she wouldn't walk away according to Shakespeare's portrayal of idyllic love, but if she did anyway, then true love becomes the star that shines on the lover's path, giving her direction and perhaps gently bringing her back to the fold. The use of antithesis in the next lines helps define this incredulous love even more. Love is described as priceless but measurable. Now that's more exciting - a priceless star that is love. No one can put a price on love. That's why people may sometimes wonder why an odd couple came together - for example, an ugly woman and a handsome man. Well, you just can't simply put a price to their love because even they don't monetize their passion. In other words, if you want to fool everybody else that you are in love, fine. At some point, love will fall short. That's why it can be measured. That's why at the beginning, Shakespeare saw it fit to start with "a marriage of true minds."
Now we come back to the negative. The arrangement of the sonnet is deliberate. Another contrast is given concerning time. Here's a first when Shakespeare beautifully summarizes it by saying you can't fool time in line nine. Love transcends all barriers including time. I have heard people prescribe the time element in relationships instructing on when a relationship should start when it should end in marriage when it should break. Just like the two star-crossed lovers fell for each other at first glance, so true love can survive the first glance and dwell into eternity. Again you might have heard people say that love fades with age. But in Shakespearean love, love goes beyond age and physical appearance if it is true love. Time is the one with the power to cut through those rosy chicks and cause them damage, but the old, creasy look of a lover does not put off the other genuine lover. The use of the metaphor of a sickle, therefore, blends in well with the theme of love.
The everlasting characteristic of love finds its place in the next three lines that will signify the end of this quatrain. If you think you are in it for the short trip, then you have genuinely never loved according to Shakespeare. In the eleventh line, Shakespeare personifies love by using the preposition, 'his' to show possessiveness of love over hours and weeks. While man may have power over the few weeks he may be on earth, he has no power over his ultimate destiny. The characteristic of love as unchanging remains, no matter the hours and weeks one has at his disposal. True love survives to the end. This is akin to what couples swear at the altar as an oath to keep each other for better or for worse. This use of imagery is powerful when one imagines what the edge of doom looks like. Doom is in itself undesirable as it spells danger, disaster, and damnation. I can imagine a frail-looking old man trembling with Parkinson's disease but with a partner engulfed in true love by his side. Or perhaps a person ravaged by cancer and is dancing on the precipice of death. There are calls for Euthanasia but the lover holds on because his is a marriage of true minds and no type of doom has the power over genuine love. So, if I commit to love you, then I am committing to love you truthfully and unconditionally till the very last full stop of our lives is entered on paper.
The last two lines remind me of a magician or acrobat who is sure that his antics will as sure as day materialize. The magician will set forth to wave his wand sure that it will turn into a handkerchief while the acrobat will form a mountain out of people convinced that it will not collapse under the piling weight. Thus, in the last two lines, it is as if Shakespeare is daring us to prove him wrong. This takes us back to the first line when he says that there is no way true minds that truly love each other can ever allow impediments in their glorious path of love. Therefore, it is not possible that no man has never loved. Nor is it possible that Shakespeare never wrote. This is his 116th sonnet amongst 154 not to mention the many plays he is famous for such as Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and Romeo and Juliet. So, as sure as Shakespeare did write his works of art so is the reality of pure, untainted love if only two true minds would come together. It should be noted too that this couplet identifies Shakespeare as the speaker and links him to the very first words when he addressed us, "Let me not..." I think it was deliberate so that he would reveal himself at the end.
In conclusion, critics have dismissed Shakespeare's portrayal of love as a figment of his imagination. They point to the fact that there can never be perfect love among human beings. Love is beautiful yes, but experience has taught people that it comes at a cost too. In their minds, his description is mystic. It is reminiscent of the myths and legends of yesteryear where the man would assume supernatural abilities to sweep his bride away from danger, and they would live happily ever after. But in Shakespeare's mind, a healthy, ideal, romantic love does exist whose characteristics he has expounded on in the sonnet. This type of love is fulfilling because it never changes, is immovable, is flawless, and not even death can offer it a formidable challenge. Not even the passage of time will ever dim it. Eternal passion is real.
Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary. Impediments. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/impediment. Accessed 30 November 2018
Dictionary.com. Sonnet. https://www.dictionary.com/browse/sonnet. Accessed 30 November 2018.
Mckenna, Frank. (2018). “Count Your Blessings” is a Reminder to be Grateful. https://www.thetabernaclechoir.org/articles/_count-your-blessings-is-a-reminder-to-be-grateful.html. Accessed 30 November 2018.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Alternate. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/alternate. Accessed 30 November 2018
Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Tempest.
https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/tempest. Accessed 30 November 2018.
Shakespeare Online. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. http://www.shakespeare-online.com/sonnets/116detail.html. Accessed 30 November 2018.
Shakespeare, William. Sonnet 116. https://etc.usf.edu/lit2go/pdf/passage/3890/the-sonnets-116-sonnet-116.pdf. Accessed 30 November 2018.
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