How and why does Shakespeare use comparisons - especially similes and metaphors - in Sonnet 116
William Shakespeare uses comparisons – particularly similes and metaphors – in various ways in Sonnet 116 (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds”). Those ways include the following:
- In line 1, the speaker uses a metaphor to compare the union of two minds or souls to a “marriage.” This word implies a long-term mutual commitment sanctified by God and perceived as holy and immutable. Such a union merits social respect and speaks well of the two parties involved.
- In line 5, the speaker uses a metaphor to describe true love as “an ever-fixèd mark,” meaning a landmark, especially one visible from sea. This phrase calls attention to the mutability of the world, which requires the existence of firm landmarks if we hope to find a sure path as we navigate through life.
- In line 7, another metaphor compares true love to a distant star, especially (perhaps) the North Star, which is extremely lofty in its position abovc the world (as true love transcends all merely worldly things) and which, like the landmark already mentioned, can be used to help us navigate and find our ways through life.
- In line 10, another metaphor implicitly compares Time to a harvester, perhaps the proverbial “grim reaper,” suggesting that true love escapes the ravages of time:
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come . . . (9-10)
Interestingly, metaphors are common in this poem, but similes are not. It is as if the speaker tries to imply the strongest possible links – even identification – between the various objects he compares.
Shakespeare compares Love to many things, giving it many dimensions and potentialities and responsibilities and capacities. It cannot be altered, even when it comes upon changes, perhaps in those lovers, and it does not bend or cannot be removed by any circumstance. Instead, it provides something stable, "an ever-fixed mark" that can stand up to any storm without weakening. In this way, it is also like a "star" in that it presents a guide: something we can look to and count on to lead us in the right direction.
Though Time eventually takes youth away, it cannot take Love, and true Love remains constant until the end of time. These several metaphors all help to show how constant yet elastic Love is. It does not change as we change, and yet it cannot break—not real Love, at least. Since metaphor is the strongest mode of comparison (trumping simile and even personification, though Love is personified in this poem as well), it makes sense that Shakespeare would use it to describe the strongest mode of feeling. There can be no impediments, the narrator states, to Love, and metaphors are likewise powerful.