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William Shakespeare is no stranger to anyone interested in English Literature. While identified as one of the greatest playwrights and poets in the English literary tradition, not many people know that Shakespeare was a regular rule-breaker when it came to the Sonnet form. So much so, that the way he wrote them would later be identified as the 'Shakespearean Sonnet.' Here, we look at one of his famous sonnets which, according to literary scholar Dympna Callaghan, is the most popular to read at weddings – 'Sonnet 116'.1
|Written By||William Shakespeare (1564-1616)|
|Rhyme scheme||Quatrains 1, 2 and 3 - ABAB; rhyming couplet|
|Literary and poetic devices||Alliteration; hyperbole; metaphor; personification; polyptoton|
|Tone||Assertive; passionate; semi-autobiographical|
|Key themes||Love; beauty and mortality|
|Meaning||In the poem, the speaker presents their idea of love as constant, unending, and irrevocable. The speaker asserts that love is not love if it is changed, diminished or ended. They also state that love does not depend on reciprocation. Towards the end of the poem, the speaker has firmly established their faith in love.|
William Shakespeare is credited to have written a total of 154 Sonnets. When the sonnet form was first translated into English, the dominant theme across the translated sonnets was love, giving the impression that sonnets are, in essence, love poems. While this is not strictly true, since sonnets have broached numerous themes and ideas, 'Sonnet 116' is, indeed, all about love.
Shakespeare is a rule-breaker, as he not only changes the form of the Petrarchan sonnet; he also changes the subject matter. Out of all the 154 sonnets he wrote, 126 are quite intimate in tone and are dedicated to a young male lover, Mr W. H. Opinion on Shakespeare's sexual orientation remains divided among scholars, but it is largely these sonnets that support the idea that Shakespeare may have been sexually attracted to a man.
The interpretation that 'Sonnet 116' may demonstrate the speaker's homoerotic feelings has added to its popularity. The use of the word 'marriage' in its opening line, and its focus on the question of love, also makes it an ideal poem to read at weddings or to one's lover.
The poem is remarkable in the conviction and passion in the speaker's tone as they set out to define and confirm their faith in love, and it is this exploration into what love means and what it does to people that lends universality to the poem. Many people can identify with this desire to seek out love and understand it, reflecting the universal nature of themes and topics that can be found in all of the Shakespearean texts.
To ensure a crisp, holistic analysis of the poem, it is advisable to read the poem twice – the first time paying close attention to the details, and the second time considering the broad strokes and overall impression of the poem. In doing so, one can identify recurring patterns and the literary and poetic devices used in the poem. The second read will allow you to zoom out and consider the overarching themes of the poem.
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 wand'ring 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 ev'n to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me prov'd,I never writ, nor no man ever lov'd.
A brief summary of the poem is a good way to begin an essay about a poem. Without going into too much detail, write 4-5 sentences that outline the basic meaning or purpose of the poem. The details and the complexities of the poem can be elaborated upon later in your essay.
The poem begins with the speaker submitting to the idea of true love, to which he allows no obstacles. Comparing love to the constant presence of the North Star, the speaker comments on the immortal nature of love, claiming that death cannot conquer or defeat love. Towards the end of the poem, the speaker admits to their own presence, claiming that if they are wrong about the unchanging, unconditional nature of love, then they have never written a single word (a fact that is evidently untrue) and no one has known love.
When elaborating the form or structure of a poem, think of the following:1. What is the meter and the rhyme scheme of the poem? Is it consistent? If there is a change, is it gradual or sudden? How does this change affect the way the poem reads?
2. Read the poem in its entirety. Do you notice any repetitions? Is a pattern emerging?
3. How does the form affect the reading of the poem? Does it influence the main subject or theme of the poem?
The poem, as is consistent with the sonnet form, is 14 lines long. Shakespeare breaks from the traditional Petrarchan sonnet, which is usually broken up into an octave (8 lines) and a sestet (6 lines), with the volta (turn in the idea or tone of the poem) before the sestet.
Shakespeare, however, writes this sonnet as 3 quatrains (a stanza with 4 lines) with a rhyming couplet at the end and the volta just before the couplet.
In the first 12 lines, the speaker elucidates their idea of love as constant, unchanging and immortal, supporting it with metaphors and imagery. It is only in the couplet that the speaker adds stakes to their claim that, if their idea of love were false, then this would be comparable to the speaker never having written a word which, as you are reading the poem itself, you know to be false. With this, the speaker affirms their claims about true love through the use of irony. It is this conviction that marks the volta.
Sonnets are largely written in the iambic pentameter, which is also true for 'Sonnet 116'.
An iamb is a metric foot containing two syllables: an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, e.g., 'destroy' or 'belong'. When the iamb is repeated 5 times in a line, it is said to be an iambic pentameter.
The iambic pentameter lends a regular rhythm to the sonnet. The rising lilt of the alternating stressed syllable gives it a pleasing melody. This pleasure in sound may be why sonnets were commonly exchanged as love epistles. The rhyme scheme followed by this sonnet is ABAB, i.e., alternating rhymes in the first three quatrains and then, finally, a rhyming couplet.
An 'epistle' is another word for 'letter.' A novel that is written in the form of letters or diary entries is therefore known as an 'epistolary novel.' An example of this is Bridget Jones' Diary (1996) by Helen Fielding. Can you think of other famous epistolary novels?
Alliteration refers to the repetition of initial consonant sounds in rapid succession.
The use of 'marriage' and 'minds' or 'wand'ring,' 'whose,' and 'worth' in rapid succession are examples of alliteration in the sonnet. Can you find other instances of alliteration in the poem? Reflect on how this affects your reading of the poem: does the repetition make it sound weird, or does it sound pleasurable to you? Is there any pattern or emphasis that lends itself to the alliteration?
A Hyperbole (pronounced 'hyper-blee') is an exaggeration. For example, 'this bag weights a ton' implies that the bag is very heavy, not that it literally weighs a ton.
The notion of love lasting beyond the 'edge of doom' is a hyperbole. Another instance of hyperbole is in the final couplet. To prove his conviction, the speaker expresses the sincerity of their words in an exaggerated way: if their claim is false, then they have never written a word - which is impossible since you are reading their written word, thus inviting challenge to the speaker's unshakeable belief in love.
A Metaphor is when an idea or object is substituted by another to highlight the similarity and connection between the two
Love, in this sonnet, is metaphorically linked to the North Star in that it remains constant and unchangeable, and is a guiding tool for navigators in the same way that love helps one navigate through life. What other links can you glean between the two from the sonnet?
A Personification is when a non-living entity is given the qualities of a person.
The use of personification in the sonnet is evident in the speaker's description of love having 'rosy lips and cheeks' and of time (or death; think the grim reaper) bending its sickle. What do you think this personification does to these abstract ideas? Do they seem more animated and lively to you? Does this layer the meaning of the poem?
Polyptoton is when the different forms of the same 'root' word are employed for stylistic effect
In the sonnet, the use of the following pairs of words are examples of polyptoton:
Reflect on what effect these words have on the speaker or the audience. Do they build momentum, emphasise a point or create a sense of irony?
It may come across as no surprise that love is the main theme of the poem. The poet uses various figures of speech, notably the metaphor, to compare love to a star, making it seem distant and unattainable but also eternal and beautiful. The comparison also evokes the notion of love as a constant and guiding force in one's life, and how true, eternal love can weather all storms.
It is worth noting that the 126 Sonnets that Shakespeare dedicates to a young man, a mysterious 'Mr. W. H' are all tumultuous and filled with volatile passion and infidelity. Considering this, what do you think Shakespeare means by proclaiming the eternal and unconditional nature of love?
The speaker personifies love and time while proclaiming that time cannot end true love, for true endures death and is eternally beautiful. Here, time may also be seen as death, given that it evokes the image of the grim reaper with a sickle.
1 Dympna Callaghan, Shakespeare's Sonnets, 2007.
In 'Sonnet 116', Shakespeare expresses his conviction and belief in true love. The poem is part of a collection dedicated to a mysterious young man, Mr W. H.
Shakespeare compares love to the North Star and personifies it to describe true love in 'Sonnet 116'.
'Sonnet 116' is part of a large collection of sonnets by William Shakespeare dedicated to a mysterious young man, Mr W. H.
The eternal and unconditional nature of true love is the most prominent theme of 'Sonnet 116'.
Who is the author of 'Sonnet 116', which begins with the line, 'Let me not to the marriage of true minds'?
Which of these is NOT a theme of 'Sonnet 116' by Shakespeare?
What is the meter of 'Sonnet 116' by William Shakespeare?
What is the rhyme scheme of 'Sonnet 116' by William Shakespeare?
ABAB + Rhyming Couplet
Who is the poem 'Sonnet 116' by William Shakespeare dedicated to?
A young male lover
Which line(s) of the poem contain the hyperbole?
What is love compared to in 'Sonnet 116' by William Shakespeare?
The North Star
Which of the following polyptoton is NOT in 'Sonnet 116' by William Shakespeare?
In 'Sonnet 116' by William Shakespeare, who does the 'bending sickle' belong to?
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