What does Sonnet 116 mean?

In Sonnet 116, Shakespeare affirms the nature of true love as eternal, unchanging, and impervious to everything that anyone or anything, including nature, Time, and Death, can bring against it. In the final lines of the sonnet, Shakespeare challenges anyone to prove him wrong.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Sonnet 116, "Let me not to the marriage of true minds," is one of the most well-known of William Shakespeare's sonnets. Sonnet 116 was published with the other sonnets in 1604, but these aren't the only sonnets that Shakespeare wrote. Other sonnets appear in his plays Romeo and Juliet , Henry V, and in Love's Labour's Lost.

Sonnet 116 begins emphatically and unequivocally:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments.

Shakespeare uses a metaphor comparing marriage to the love of two like-minded people to emphasize that there should be no reason, "impediments," why people who truly love each other should not be together.

Shakespeare is also making reference to the marriage ceremony found in The Book of Common Prayer of the Anglican Church. The celebrant addresses the couple who are getting married and says, "I require and charge you both ... that if either of you know any impediment, why ye may not be lawfully joined together in Matrimony, ye do now confess it."

Shakespeare was no doubt familiar with The Book of Common Prayer, which was first published in 1549 during the reign of young King Edward VI, revised and reintroduced by Queen Elizabeth I in 1559 after the death of the Catholic Queen Mary, and revised again by King James I in 1604.

In time, the question wasn't limited to the couple getting married, but was opened up to the congregation as a whole. “If anyone knows just cause why this man and this woman may not be joined together in holy matrimony, let him speak now or else forever hold his peace,” or words to that effect, became a well-known mainstay of marriage ceremonies until more recent times.

The next passage discusses the nature of love:

Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove...

The speaker asserts that true love lasts forever, and never changes. If love changes, "alters," is isn't true love, and nothing that anyone does to try to destroy or "remove" true love will change it.

In the first quatrain (the first four lines) of the sonnet, Shakespeare establishes the essential, unchanging nature of true love. In the second quatrain, he expands on this theme:

O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken.

Shakespeare says that true love is constant, and doesn't move from its "fixed mark" in the hearts and minds of the lovers. There is no manner of upheaval, contention, or "tempest" that cannot be weathered, and true love can never be "shaken," and certainly can't be defeated or destroyed.

It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.

Shakespeare uses a metaphor of the North Star and ships at sea, "every wand'ring bark"—a "bark" is a three-masted sailing ship—to say that the North Star, and love, are priceless, of "worth unknown."

Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come...

In the third quatrain, it appears that Shakespeare is saying what love is not, "Love's not Time's fool," but what he's actually saying is that love is eternal and remains unaffected by the natural process of aging. Shakespeare also uses "Time" to mean Death, who comes with "his bending sickle," a symbol of death, but even Death has no effect on true love.

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

Shakespeare reiterates that time, the "brief hours and weeks," has no effect on true love, which will continue beyond the end of the world, "even to the edge of doom."

The last two lines of the sonnet (a rhyming couplet) are as emphatic as the first two lines:

If this be error and upon me prov'd,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov'd.

Shakespeare feels so strongly about what he's written about true love that he issues a challenge to prove him wrong. If what he writes about love isn't true, then true love doesn't exist.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The speaker says that he does not want to acknowledge any impediment that might prevent two people in love from being together. We cannot call a feeling love if that feeling changes when we change or go away. No, real love is constant, like something that is fixed and immovable and cannot be altered, or like a star that guides ships at sea. Love is not subject to time, and it does not diminish when the object of one's love grows old or loses their beauty or innocence. Love does not change over the course of our short lives, but it endures and goes on and on until the end of time. Finally, the speaker says that if he is wrong about any of these ideas about love, then he's never written and no one has ever truly loved.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This poem talks about the steadfast and eternal nature of true love. It says that:

 

1) Love is not fickle; it does not change when situations change. It's not a here today, gone tomorrow kind of thing.

 

2) Even in the worst of times, love is always there, shining in the dark. It's like a star in the darkest night that will help you through the worst of times.

 

3) Time has no influence on the strength of love. It doesn't ever fade or diminish. Even unto death, true love survives.

 

4) All these things are immortal truths; facts that will never and can never be denied.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The basic idea of this sonnet (Sonnet 116) is that love is constant and unchanging.

The first quatrain says that love does not change, no matter what the circumstance.

The second quatrain describes love as a fixed star that can always be depended on by ships to guide them home and as a mark that can't be moved even by a storm.

The third quatrain talks about how love doesn't diminish over time -- it's not just about loving the beautiful looks that come with youth.

Finally, the couplet says that if his definition of love is wrong, then love has never existed.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

"Let me not to the marriage of true minds/ admit impediments"

The phrase "true minds" suggests an elevated rather than physical love. With a love of this kind, no obstacles should interfere. A marriage of true minds should withstand any storm, including the ravages of time. This type of love is unchanging, an "ever fixed mark". Unlike other loves that could be tossed about by tempests and destroyed, this love is solid, like the star that guides the lost at sea (every wandering bark). Because it is not a lust or a body driven love, the usual mortal complaints don't apply. Time may ravage the body, affecting such external qualities like the rosiness of lips and cheeks, but a marriage between true minds--that is true, exalted love--will continue despite the ravages of time. And this is what it means to love.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The principal theme of Sonnet 116 is that love is constant despite the corrosive power of Time and chance. The sentiment expressed here was familiar to Shakespeare's readers and to us from the customary marriage ceremony.

At the start of the sonnet's third quatrain, the narrator asserts even though Time inevitably exacts its toll on physical beauty and leads to the "doom" of mortality, true love remains. "Love's not Time's fool" captures the gist of the sonnet as a whole.

The ending couplet, though, injects a false note into the text. The narrator challenges others to the impossible task of disproving his argument that true love is constant and then uses both his own verse and the existence of love at-large as his proof.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial