The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Sonnet 116 is generally considered one of the finest love poems ever written. In this sonnet, William Shakespeare raised the theme of romantic love to the status of high philosophy. At a time when love between man and woman was not often recognized as essentially other than a form of family obligation, Shakespeare spiritualized it as the motivator of the highest level of human action. Love of that kind has since become the most sought-after human experience.
The poem is a regular English sonnet of fourteen lines arranged in three quatrains and a concluding couplet. It begins by using the language of the Book of Common Prayer marriage service to make an explicit equation of love and marriage. It not only suggests that marriage is the proper end of love, but it also goes beyond to make love a necessary prerequisite. The quatrain continues by describing the essential constituents of the kind of love that qualifies. Such love does not change under changing circumstances; in fact, constancy is its first element. It continues even when unreciprocated or betrayed. Further, true love does not depend on the presence of the beloved, but actually increases during absence.
The second quatrain uses a series of metaphors to flesh out the character of proper love. Its constancy is such that it not only endures threats but actually strengthens in adversity. Its attractive power secures the beloved from wandering, and it sets a standard for all other lovers....
(The entire section is 459 words.)
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Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
In spite of being one of the world’s most celebrated short poems, Sonnet 116 uses a rather simple array of poetic devices. They include special diction, allusion, metaphor, and paradox. All work together to reinforce the central theme.
Shakespeare establishes the context early with his famous phrase “the marriage of true minds,” a phrase which does more than is commonly recognized. The figure of speech suggests that true marriage is a union of minds rather than merely a license for the coupling of bodies. Shakespeare implies that true love proceeds from and unites minds on the highest level of human activity, that it is inherently mental and spiritual. From the beginning, real love transcends the sensual-physical. Moreover, the very highest level is reserved to “true” minds. By this he means lovers who have “plighted troth,” in the phrasing of the marriage service—that is, exchanged vows to be true to each other. This reinforces the spirituality of loving, giving it religious overtones. The words “marriage” and “impediments” also allude to the language of the service, accentuating the sacred nature of love.
Shakespeare then deliberately repeats phrases to show that this kind of love is more than mere reciprocation. Love cannot be simply returning what is given, like an exchange of gifts. It has to be a simple, disinterested, one-sided offering, unrelated to any possible compensation. He follows this with a series of...
(The entire section is 521 words.)