Themes and Meanings

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In this sonnet, the theme is the poem. Shakespeare presents an argument, forcing the double conclusion that love transcends normal human measures and that it represents the highest level of human activity. Yet, as a famous love poem, it is highly unusual: It is not a declaration of love but a definition and demonstration. It still accomplishes the object of a love poem, however, because the inspirer of this statement could not possibly be flattered more effectively.

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Sonnet 116 develops the theme of the eternity of true love through an elaborate and intricate cascade of images. Shakespeare first states that love is essentially a mental relationship; the central property of love is truth—that is, fidelity—and fidelity proceeds from and is anchored in the mind. The objective tone and impersonal language of the opening reinforce this theme. This kind of love is as far removed from the level of mere sensation as any human activity could be. Like all ideal forms, it operates on the level of abstract intellect, or of soul. Hence it is immune to the physical, emotional, or behavioral “impediments” that threaten lesser loves. It is a love that fuses spirits intuitively related to each other.

The poem proceeds to catalog a number of specific impediments. The first involves reciprocation. Does true love persist in the face of rejection or loss of affection? Absolutely, even though those might be sufficient grounds for calling off a wedding. True love endures even the absence of the beloved: not that the heart grows fonder in such a case, as in the cliché, but that it operates independently of physical reminders. Such love stabilizes itself, as if possessing an instinctive self-righting mechanism. Shakespeare himself uses this kind of gyroscopic and autopilot imagery; like the navigational devices to which he alludes, true love serves as a standard for others, maintains its course under stress, and guarantees security against storm and turmoil.

This imagery duplicates the sequence of promises exchanged by true lovers in the marriage service that Shakespeare quotes in the opening of the poem. True love vows constancy...

(The entire section contains 544 words.)

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