Shakespeare’s “Sonnet ll6″ develops the theme of the eternity of true love through an elaborate and intricate cascade of images. The sonnet uses imagery to give form to this belief that true love has to be stronger than death, set as a seal upon the lover’s heart. Shakespeare establishes the context early with his famous phrase “the marriage of true minds,” a phrase which does more than is commonly recognized. The figure of speech suggests that true marriage is a union of minds rather than merely a license for the coupling of bodies. Shakespeare implies that true love proceeds from and unites minds on the highest level of human activity, that it is inherently mental and spiritual. From the beginning, real love transcends the sensual-physical. Moreover, the very highest level is reserved to “true” minds. By this he means lovers who have “plighted troth,” in the phrasing of the marriage service—that is, exchanged vows to be true to each other. This reinforces the spirituality of loving, giving it religious overtones. The words “marriage” and “impediments” also allude to the language of the service, accentuating the sacred nature of love.
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Shakespeare then deliberately repeats phrases to show that this kind of love is more than mere reciprocation. Love cannot be simply returning what is given, like an exchange of gifts. It has to be a simple, disinterested, one-sided offering, unrelated to any possible compensation. He follows this with a series of positive and negative metaphors to illustrate the full dimensions of love. It is first “an ever-fixed mark / That looks on tempests and is never shaken.” This famous figure has not been completely explained, although the general idea is clear. Love is equated with some kind of navigating device so securely mounted that it remains functional in hurricanes. It then becomes not a device but a reference point, a “star,” of universal recognition but speculative in its composition; significantly, it is beyond human ken.
In “Love’s not Time’s fool,” Shakespeare moves on to yet another metaphorical level. To begin with, love cannot be made into a fool by the transformations of time; it operates beyond and outside it, hence cannot be subject to it. This is so although time controls those qualities, which are popularly thought to evoke love—physical attractions. Shakespeare conjures up the image of the Grim Reaper with his “bending sickle,” only to assert that love is not within his “compass”—which denotes both grip and reckoning and sweep of blade. Love cannot be fathomed by time or its extreme instrument, death. Love “bears it out”—perseveres in adversity—to the “edge of doom”—that is, beyond the grave and the worst phase of time’s decay.
The final device is a conundrum in logic. It establishes an alternative—”If this be error”—then disproves it. What remains, and remains valid, is the other. It also bears a double edge. If this demonstration is wrong, Shakespeare says, “I never writ,” which is an obvious contradiction. The only possible conclusion is that it is not wrong. He proceeds then to a corollary, “nor no man ever loved,” which is as false as the previous statement.
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 regardless of better, worse, richer, poorer, sickness, health—all the vagaries of life and change. The simple series, however, seems to minimize the intensity of love necessary to do this. On the contrary, love is absolutely secure against external assault. In particular, it holds firm against the ravages of time. Since the poem begins by dissociating love from the limits of time, this should not be surprising, especially since the marriage service insists on the possibility of love surviving time and its consequence, change. So strong is the popular belief that love is rooted in physical attractiveness, however, that the poem is forced to repudiate this explicitly. It does it in the starkest way imaginable, by personifying time as the Grim Reaper and by bringing that specter directly before the eyes of the lover. This happens; the threat is real, but the true lover can face down even death. The marriage service does that also, by asking the thinking lover to promise fidelity “until death do us part.”
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