Shakespeare Sonnet 116 Image Networks

Sonnet 116 uses two major image networks in its definition of love. The first is based around images of stability and consistency, and the second around images of instability and changeability, and the contrast between these two networks of images creates an interesting tension in the sonnet. Structurally, each of the three quatrains offers different definitions of love, but throughout all three the speaker argues that love is unchanging and eternal. After defining love for the first twelve lines, the couplet at the end is a bold pronouncement by the speaker in which he tries to prove the truth of his assertions. However, despite the seemingly straightforward argument of the sonnet, the speaker’s language, and the metaphors he uses shed some doubt on his claim that love is unchanging.

In the first line the image of stability is introduced with “the marriage of true minds,” which is the subject of the sonnet (1). Besides the obvious definition of two people being married to each other, the OED also defines marriage as “an intimate union; a merging or blending of two things,” and since those “things” are true minds, their intimate union gives a sense of stability and permanence as they become one. Throughout the rest of the first quatrain the speaker defines this marriage of true minds further and the idea of stability is supported since love according to the speaker does not “alter” or “bend.” But speaker’s way of defining love also complicates the notion that love is completely stable. Rather than saying what love is, the speaker defines it by saying “Love is not love” when it alters or bends (2). In line three, “alteration finds” create tension because the speaker seems to suggest that love will find alteration, and only true love will not alter when it meets with it (2). Doubt is cast on the stability of the “marriage” because alteration, and therefore instability, seem to be inevitable dangers. The process of definition by negative is repeated again in line four, and the same tension exists between the stability of love that will not bend, and the inherent instability if there is potentially a “remover” which love will have to resist.

The second quatrain is the only time that love is defined by what “it is” rather than what it “is not.” Here images of stability come to the fore, and love is defined as “an ever-fixed mark” that “is never shaken” (5-6). And as “the star to every wandering bark,” it seems to be a permanent point of navigation that can always be relied upon to be stable and secure (7). But the images of instability are also able to work their way into this metaphor of a navigational star. Despite its stability, the fixed mark of the star must look “on tempests” and the “wandering bark,” both of which are images of instability and changeability. The tempests could represent the unpredictable alterations that occur in the natural world, and the bark, or ship, is people at the mercy of changeable nature.

The third quatrain returns to the “is not” method of definition and seems to favor instability as a means of showing Love’s stability. The main image is of “Time,” which will inevitably bring change. The “rosy lips and cheeks” of temporal beauty are impermanent, and will inevitably fall “Within his bending sickle’s compass” (9-10). But in the midst of the change that time brings love (or true love) will not alter over the “brief hours and weeks” of time (11). Instead, it transcends the ravages of time and will remain constant and stable till the “edge of doom” (12). In this quatrain the tension between stability and instability is particularly clear in the metaphor of Time. Time, which represents inevitable change, is placed against love, which is supposedly unalterable. Interestingly, in this conflict between stability and instability, Time’s primary attribute, bringing change as it unfolds linearly into the future, is also a source of stability.  Time will inevitability keep moving forward, and therefore despite the change it brings to the outside world, time itself remains predictable and stable. According to the speaker, love is the same and will continue without alteration till eternity.

In the couplet the speaker claims that if his statements prove to be false, “I never writ, nor no man ever loved.” This assertion seems to be true, he has written this sonnet, and men have loved (and apparently the speaker has loved). This statement does seem to end the sonnet with a tone of stability. The sonnet itself becomes the source of stability because as readers we are proving the truth of his assertions by reading his writing, and in the process the speaker  is being put in a position where he is able to, like love, transcend the instability of time.


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