Shakespeare's Sonnets Questions and Answers
by William Shakespeare

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Who is Shakespeare referring to when he says "his" in the line "within his bending sickle's compass come" in Sonnet 116?

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He is talking about Time, personified in this poem as being largely congruent with Death. In brief strokes, the speaker depicts the figure of Time as carrying a sickle, an accessory which immediately brings to mind the image of the so-called Grim Reaper: a dark figure in long robes, bearing a sickle with which to cut us down. This was a very common image in the medieval period, and it was common for churches to have friezes and statues portraying Death in this fashion, taking even the great and good into his arms and turning them into food for worms. The speaker is here suggesting that Time, which marches on despite our best intentions, carries a sickle with which he can cut down the features of our youth, much as Death will eventually cut us down for good. The "rosy lips and cheeks" of the speaker's beloved, then, will eventually fall to Time's sickle: our looks change as we get older. However, Love itself will not suffer the same fate. Not "Time's fool," Love cannot be cut down in the same way, even if those who love each other are no longer young and beautiful. Love, on the contrary, is more enduring than beauty and youth, and arguably even stronger than death.

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The answer to this question comes just a line before, when we are told who "his" refers to. Often a lot of the meaning of lines can be understood if you take them in context and read immediately before and after to make sure you understand what is being referred to. Have a look at these lines:

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

Within his bending sickle's compass come.

In these lines therefore, the speaker of this sonnet alludes to the medieval image of time as the grim reaper, who cuts off life with the sweep of a sickle. Notice the point that the speaker is making - although youth is clearly under the power of Time as we all age, yet Love is not "Time's fool," meaning Love does not alter or change as we grow old. This of course ties in to the overall theme of this sonnet, which is the permanence of love.

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