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
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.