Sonnet 116 Themes

The main theme of Sonnet 116 is that real love is unchanging in the face of all obstacles.

  • Love doesn't change based on the circumstances surrounding it.
  • Love remains constant even in times of uncertainty.
  • Even the passage of time does not weaken love.

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated October 23, 2023.

Love as an Unbreakable Bond

In this poem, Shakespeare firmly asserts that love forms an unalterable and unbreakable bond, implying that if it is true, it should remain untouched by external influences or impediments. The sonnet opens with the famous words, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments,” which immediately sets the tone for the poem. Shakespeare asserts that love transcends the physical and temporal obstacles that may arise.

The following sentence in the poem carries a similar meaning: “Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds, / Or bends with the remover to remove.” If true love can be altered by changing circumstances or in some way erased, it is not true love, Shakespeare argues. Next, Shakespeare compares life’s difficulties to a storm: love “looks on tempests and is never shaken.” When the “tempests” of life arise, love is unmoved.

Shakespeare brings another metaphor to conclude his examination of love’s unbreaking nature, comparing love to a star that guides “every wand’ring bark.” Love is fixed in the same way that stars are ever-reliable points of reference for sailors.

Through several literary devices and across the sonnet’s first two quatrains, Shakespeare establishes as a core theme that love is steadfast and consistent even in the face of challenges.

Love’s Endurance Over Time

With the sonnet’s third quatrain, Shakespeare posits the idea that love is not susceptible to time’s decay, unlike physical beauty or youth. Love is, instead, an everlasting force that transcends the temporary aspects of life, such as the imperfections and mortality of human beings. Shakespeare’s use of phrases like “Love’s not Time’s fool” and “Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks” reinforces the idea that love lasts forever despite the changes brought by time.

Shakespeare also states true love endures “though rosy lips and cheeks / Within [Time’s ] bending sickle’s compass come.” The image of the “sickle” is no doubt a nod to the popular personification of death as a figure carrying a sickle or scythe, and it reinforces the motif of mortality and aging. Though beauty fades with age, true love remains.

While celebrating the ability of love to endure over time, the sonnet also implicitly criticizes fickle or superficial love. It suggests that what many people claim as love may not meet the high standards set by the poem. Shakespeare’s critique of less substantial forms of love arises from his assertion that true love is a “marriage of true minds.” In other words, he emphasizes the union of souls and intellect, suggesting that love should be a significant bond beyond superficial attractions. This implies that many superficial relationships, driven solely by physical attraction or short-lived infatuations, do not measure up to the lofty ideals presented in the sonnet.

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