The Alternating Negative and Positive Metaphors of Love in Sonnet 116
Like any other love sonnet by Shakespeare, Sonnet 116 romanticizes an ideal type of love. In a nutshell, the sonnet defines what constitutes love and what does not. These definitions are best employed by Shakespeare through metaphors, a figure of speech that states a thing is something else. For instance, in the sonnet, Shakespeare equates love to a “marriage of two minds” (Shakespeare 118). The sonnet is heavily laden with metaphors as they are deployed in all the three quatrains. This means that the only part where there is no metaphor is the final couplet in the sonnet. Shakespeare’s technique is to first present what love is not, then it proceeds in countering the first assertion by defining what love is, which means that the first quatrain tells what love is not, the second defines what love is, and the third is the same as that of the first.
The first quatrain has metaphors that tell what love is not. First, there is no love when there is no “marriage of two minds” (Shakespeare 118). This means that love involves a union as suggested by the word “marriage.” This union, however, can only be realized through dedication and faithfulness. Furthermore, the first line includes another assertion right after the first metaphor, that love should not “admit any impediments” (Shakespeare 118). This further enhances the idea of the union, for this phrase alludes to a famous phrase in the Book of Common Prayer that says “If any of you know cause or just impediment, why ye may not be lawfully joined together in Matrimony, ye do now confess it” (Senna 84). This suggests that an impediment would not constitute love, for love is supposed to be a union of two people that are dedicated and loyal to each other. The second metaphor says that fickleness does not constitute love as indicated by the lines “Which alters when it alteration finds, / Or bends with the remover remove” (Shakespeare 118). This means that even when there is a reason on the part of the lover to change his/her mind and heart, this should not happen. He should remain faithful no matter what happens.
The second quatrain consists of two metaphors, namely, a “fixed mark” and a “star” that define what love is (Shakespeare 118). While the first quatrain asserts what love should not be, the second quatrain is the opposite. Shakespeare defines love as “an ever-fixed mark / That looks on tempests and is never shaken” (Shakespeare 118). The “fixed mark” refers to North Star that is used by mariners as a traditional sea mark which suggests that love is a concrete thing that guides the lovers in determining their paths (Senna 84). Moreover, the North Star, as facts would tell us, remains in a particular position no matter what the case is, which implies that love, just like the North Star, should remain constant and unchangeable. Furthermore, Shakespeare also likens love to a “star…/ Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken” which suggests that love’s value can never be determined the same thing as the star (Shakespeare 118).
The third quatrain consists of another two metaphors which tell what love is not. First, Shakespeare writes that “Love’s not Time’s fool…/ Within his bending sickle’s compass come: / Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, / But bears it out even to the edge of doom” (118). This means that love should stand the test of time. Even when time is capable of changing people’s physical appearances (lips and cheeks), minds, and hearts, true love should remain as it is. If the love that the lovers are celebrating is true, it should remain until death or “even to the edge of doom,” as Shakespeare wrote (118).
Altering negative and positive and negative metaphors about love is the technique employed by Shakespeare in this sonnet. This does not mean to emphasize what love is not but to highlight what love is. It is noticed that even when Shakespeare defines what love is not in two quatrains over one quatrain, these negative metaphors are still effective in defining what true love really is.
Senna, Carl S. Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Including Life and Background of the Poet,
Introduction to the Sonnets, an Overview. USA: Wiley, 2000.
Shakespeare, William. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. USA: Filiquarian Publishing, 2007.