How is love presented in Shakespeare's sonnet 116 ("Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds")?

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Love is presented as the meeting and coming together "of two minds," rather than two bodies or something else. Love is much more mental than it is physical. Further, a true lover does not seek to change their loved one; whatever feeling that compels a person to try to alter...

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Love is presented as the meeting and coming together "of two minds," rather than two bodies or something else. Love is much more mental than it is physical. Further, a true lover does not seek to change their loved one; whatever feeling that compels a person to try to alter another cannot rightfully be called love. Instead, love is an "ever-fixed mark," something steady and constant that cannot be shaken by any force, physical or otherwise. It provides a reliable light in the darkness to those who are lost or far away. Neither is love subject to the ravages of time, and, though beauty—"rosy lips and cheeks"—may fade, love itself will not decay or fade. It never wanes or lessens and remains faithful eternally. The speaker of the poem is so sure of this that he declares that, if he is mistaken, he has never written anything nor has any man ever loved at all.

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People in the English Renaissance and earlier tended to see a major contrast between two different kinds of “love.” One kind of love was known as caritas (charity) and involved love of God and love of everything else as God would love. A wholly different kind of “love” (which was not true love at all) was called cupiditas (cupidity), or selfish desire.

William Shakespeare’s sonnet 116 (beginning “Let me not to the marriage of true minds”) is one of the most powerful celebrations of caritas in the English language.  The speaker begins by mentioning “the marriage of true minds” (1; emphasis added). This line immediately suggests that the love celebrated here is caritas, because love of another person’s mind, character, and soul characterized caritas, while mere desire for another person’s body characterized cupiditas. Another indication that the love celebrated in sonnet 131 is caritas appears when the speaker declares that

. . . love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds . . . (2-3)

True love, in other words, is not affected by change, especially physical change in the beloved.  True love, like the love of God, is constant and immutable. It is dependable; it is long-lasting (even eternal); it is like the north star (7-8) in the sense that one can chart one’s path through life by relying on it. Cupiditas, in contrast, is wholly undependable and constantly altering. Deterioration in the physical attractiveness of the object of selfish desire almost always results in a loss of cupidinous “love” for that person. This is not the case with caritas, and indeed the love of two people who are truly in love with one another’s minds and souls is only likely to deepen and become richer with the passage of time.

The speaker of the poem makes all these ideas quite explicit when he asserts that true

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his [that is, Time’s] bending sickle’s compass come . . . (9-10)

In other words, no matter how much the physical appearance of the beloved may fade over time, true love does not fade. Indeed, true love will last even until the end of time (11-12). In fact, the reference to “doom” in line 12 helps remind us of Judgment Day and thus again helps put the entire poem in a clearly Christian context. In the final two lines, the speaker declares his absolute confidence in the truth of the poem’s teachings. This highly memorable sonnet extols the virtues of genuinely virtuous love.

 

 

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