Sonnet 116

Shakespeare Sonnet 116

119                                                                                (116   Bodleian Wright)

LEt me not to the marriage of true mindes
Admit impediments, loue is not loue
Which alters when it alteration findes,
Or bends with the remouer to remoue.
O no, it is an euer fixed marke
That lookes on tempeſts and is neuer ſhaken;
It is the ſtar to euery wandring barke,
Whoſe worths vnknowne, although his higth be taken.
Lou’s not Times foole, though roſie lips and cheeks
Within his bending ſickles compaſſe come,
Loue alters not with his breefe houres and weekes,
But beares it out euen to the edge of doome:
If this be error and vpon me proued,
I neuer writ, nor no man euer loued.

Sonnet 116 is among the more celebrated of Shakespeare’s sonnets (Wordsworth acclaimed it his “best”), even if it has been much misconstrued and misevaluated. It draws heavily on the Book of Common Prayer’s “The Fourme of solemnization of Matrimonie” for its opening and closing sets of lines. The solemnization is preceded by the publishing of “Banes,” which “must be asked three several Sundayes” and are said to be forbidden, if a formal objection based on “cause or iust impediment” to the marriage is issued. At the ceremony itself a charge is issued firstly to the whole congregation, then to the couple to be married, each followed by a rubric:

Therefore if any man can shew any iust cause, why they may not lawfully bee ioyned together, let him nowe speake, or els hereafter for euer hold his peace.

And also speaking to the persons that shall be married, he shall say.

I require & charge you (as you will answere at the dreadfull day of iudgement, when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed) that if either of you doe knowe any impediment why you may not be lawfully ioyned together in Matrimonie, that ye confesse it. For be ye well assured, that so many as be coupled together, otherwise then Gods word doeth allowe, are not ioyned together by God, neither is their Matrimonie lawfull.

At which day of marriage, if any man do alledge and declare any impediment, why they may not bee coupled together in Matrimonie by Gods Law, or the Lawes of this Realme, and will be bound, & sufficient suerties [sic] with him to the parties, or els put in a caution to the full value of such charges as the persons to be married doe susteine, to proue his allegation: then the solemnization must be deferred vnto such time as the trueth be tried. If no impediment be alledged, then shall the Curate say vnto the man..

Shakespeare has taken a number of elements from the rite for his sonnet: “Let me not to the marriage of true mindes / Admit impediments,” echoes the charge made to the couple, “if either of you doe knowe any impediment why you may not be lawfully ioyned together in Matrimonie.” The charge’s context of “the dreadfull day of iudgement” is reflected in the “edge of doome” later in the sonnet. The final rubric is also pertinent: if “any man” were to “alledge and declare any impediment,” then a ‘surety’ or a ‘bond of caution’ would be required of him until he “proue his allegation.”

The poet’s opening “admit” indicates that he will not admit to the charge of an impediment. It is not that he is alleging an impediment, as “any man” might against prospective spouses, but that in response to any charge of impediment he will admit to none. The poet’s role, then, is one of defence and the sonnet comprises a defence against issued “charges.” Furthermore, if the poet’s counter-assertions about the truth of love are to be “tried,” then the period of deferment extends “to the edge of doome:” they stand without contradiction until doomsday and so forever. There will be no further time for the poet’s rebuttals to be countered, the one issuing the charge of impediment having no time to respond; since no error can be proved against the poet (“vpon me proued”), the rebuttals remain always true.

Shakespeare’s impediments are not impediments to marriage but to “the marriage of true mindes.” (The impediments to marriage, based on “Gods Law, or the Lawes of this Realme,” included the degrees of affinity and consanguinity that had to be observed and temporal restrictions, those times, when, Richard Hooker states, “the libertie of mariage is restrained.” Citing Ecclesiastes, “There is a time for althings, a time to laugh and a time to mourne” as authority, he argued that “a wedding on the day of a publique fast” was contradictory. He also disallowed weddings during the terms of Advent and Lent.) 1

Shakespeare has chosen also to define love not only within legal parameters but through the figure of distributor or merismus, which involves the defining of an entire object through its parts either positively or negatively. Shakespeare knew the figure from The Arte of English Poesie, where Puttenham states it sets forth a thing not in “one entier . . proposition” but “peecemeale and by distribution of euery part for amplification sake.” He cites Chaucer and a Wyatt translation of Petrarch as examples of a positive merismus and as an example of a “merismus in the negatiue for the better grace,” his own verses to the Queen, concluding, “This figure serues for amplification, and also for ornament, and to enforce perswasion mightely.” 2 (The biblical precedent for the figure was 1 Corinthians 13, the Pauline hymn to love which, the Geneva Version note explains, defines the “nature of charitie, partly by a comparison of contraries, and partly by the effectes of it selfe.”)

The poet’s first rebuttal is that, “loue is not loue / Which alters when it alteration findes.” The line’s balance, pivoting on the polyptoton “alters” / “alteration,” comprises a figure which Puttenham identifies as traductio and for which he gives the example, “Scire tuum nihil est nisi te scire, hoc sciat alter;” 3 to “alter” means to ‘change,’ and “alteration” a changed circumstance: ‘love does not change according to the circumstance in which it finds itself.’ The next rejoinder is that “loue is not loue / Which . . / . . bends with the remouer to remoue.” Love remains upright and unbending in the face of a “remouer,” one who changes or is inconstant, and will not disappear (“remoue”). The phrase sustains a legal echo, since impediments are technically ‘removed,’ and anticipates the image of the “compasse,” a common emblem for love that is constant yet changing, with an unmoving “fixed” foot, which “bends” toward a removing, circumscribing one. A compass, upright with its two feet together (its etymon is cum + passus = with steps or feet together), doesn’t incline or ‘bend’ and so is constant. In Sonnet 25.14, “Where I may not remoue, nor be remoued,” the poet’s solace rests on the astronomical separation known as a “remoue;” their love will not be subject to the unfixedness or vagaries of the stars.

The rhetoric of pleas is reflected in the exclamatory, “O no,” which introduces the topos of the storm-tossed galley, popular with sonneteers from Petrarch onwards. 4 Love is “an euer fixed marke, / That lookes on tempests and is neuer shaken.” The “marke” is a sea-mark like that in Coriolanus, “a great Sea-marke . . sauing those that eye thee”; 5 love stands above vagaries (“tempests”) and remains always steadfast (“euer fixed . . neuer shaken”). It is “the star to euery wandring barke, / Whose worths vnknowne, although his highth be taken.” The star is the cynosure or polestar (Ursa Minor), which appears near the north pole of the heavens. It was a favourite of Petrarch’s, was Spenser’s “Helice” and “lodestar,” and its constancy was invoked by Caesar, “I am constant as the Northerne Starre, / Of whose true fixt, and resting quality, / There is no fellow in the Firmament.” 6 From it mariners, to establish their position, took sightings by calculating its height above the horizon with an astrolabe (and a mariner’s compass). Every “wandering barke” is both every ship and person travelling without direction. 7 The height of love can be measured, although only inexactly, because plotting a position still lacked clocks to provide sufficiently precise time, but the “worth” of love remains unknown, even if it might be established astrologically by a star.

The poet contends, “Lou’s not Times foole.” Love is not the fondling or plaything of time, echoing the rich tradition of persecuted fools, even if “rosie lips and cheeks / Within his bending sickles compasse come.” Rosy “lips and cheeks” are those naturally suffused with blood or those artificially enhanced through cosmetics: fucus was used extensively at court to redden the cheeks and the lips of courtesans and fools and on the stage by players and jesters. (In Sonnet 82 the poet allows that “grosse painting” should be used not on the youth but only “Where cheekes need blood.”) The line’s “bending” suggests the ‘bend’ in the sickle’s curve, or the bend in the arc the sickle cuts, or the action of time ‘bending’ as he cuts with the sickle, all of which contrast with the unbending nature of love in line 4; “compasse” recalls the earlier allusion to the mariner’s compass, but here is the arc which is the outer bound of the sickle’s swathe (compare Sonnet 60.12, “sieth” and Sonnet 100.14, “sieth, and crooked knife”).

In the poet’s final disclaimer, “Loue alters not with his breefe houres and weekes, / But beares it out euen to the edge of doome,” the possessive, “his,” can belong either to time, as earlier in the sonnet, or love; if time, then the disclaimer recapitulates line 3: love remains constant and impervious to time’s divisions; if love, then love remains constant within its own span of time. Love “beares it out,” or ‘endures,’ evoking 1 Corinthians 13, where love “endureth all thynges . . loue falleth neuer away” (BB). The “edge of doome,” the day of final judgement when time ceases, reverts back to the words of the initial charge of impediment, “as you will answere at the dreadfull day of iudgement,” and introduces the poet’s summing up.

The poet’s defences cannot be contradicted because arguments and judgement must be “deferred vnto such time as the trueth be tried” in this case the “edge of doome.” No error can be proued against the poet (“vpon me proued”). The couplet is a rhetorical, legal flourish. If the poet’s refutations are “error” (and they are not), if they are “proued” an error against him (and they cannot be), then the poet hasn’t written (which he has) and no man has ever loved (which is patently false). The “allegations” and “charges” issued against him, which he has so forthrightly contested, cannot be defended, because the deferral of judgement outwits time.


116.1. Hooker, Politie (1597) 215.

116.2. Puttenham, 185-87 passim. That Shakespeare knew the figure from Puttenham is apparent from Hamlet’s reaction to the “definement” of Laertes, where he admits that “to deuide him inuentorially would dosie th’ arithmatike of memory,” and makes him ask “why doe we wrap the gentleman in our more rawer breath?” (Ham. 5.2.111-21 passim). The passage parodies Puttenham’s example of merismus, his verses to the Queen, which he admits are inadequate “to wrap vp all her most excellent parts in a few words them entierly comprehending.”

116.3. Puttenham 170.

116.4. See Petrarch 189, “Passa la nave mia.” which Wyatt translated; Spenser begins Amoretti 34 with, “Lyke as a ship that through the Ocean wyde / by conduct of some star doth make her way,” while Whitney associates constancy with an imperilled bark in his emblem for Constantia comes victoriae (Whitney 137).

116.5. Cor. 5.3.74-5.

116.6. See Petrarch 33.2-3, “stella . . nel septentrïone;” Spenser, Amoretti 34.10; JC 3.1.60-62.

116.7. The Latin errare = to wander is the etymon of “error.”