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Shakespeare’s definition of love in Sonnet 116

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Shakespeare expresses ideas through the language and imagery in sonnet 162. It uses a variety of rhymes, images and tones to present his definition of true love.

The sonnet follows the conventional abab rhyming form, using both full rhymes and half rhymes. Shakespeare employs half rhymes in the sonnet to express the value of love. Half rhymes are used for “love…remove” to show the incompleteness of love when there is an “alteration”. The last pair of half rhymes, “proved…loved” emphasises the challenge that Shakespeare puts forward, asking if his definitions of love can be proven wrong, all which he has written is false. Another rhyme used is “shaken… taken”. This is a feminine rhyme because the accent is on the last syllable. It suits the word “shaken” because it further enhances the instability of the word.

One of the main images of the sonnet is that of sailing and journeys. These images are all elements of Shakespeare’s definition of love. There are the “tempests” which although are part of love, do not affect it. There is also the “star” which leads the “wandering bark”, a metaphor for a ship. Love has comparisons with travel and ships, the “alteration” could be a change in the journey of the “wandering bark” but the “ever-fixed mark” is the destination of the journey, the one which the “star” guides the “wandering bark” to. The second group of images are of death and of time and is still associated with love. Love “alters not with his brief hours and weeks”, which means that love is remains unaffected by time, but still remains youthful and full of beauty. The image of love as “rosy lips and cheeks” also brings up the image of Cupid or Eros, the Greek god of love. This image of youthfulness is shown to be almost invincible against the almost sinister image of time, with a “bending sickle” which also brings to mind the image of the Grim Reaper, the symbolic image of death. The “edge of doom” implies Judgement Day, and the youthful love; the image of Cupid will last even up to then. The idea of measured time of “brief hours and weeks” has been rejected by Shakespeare to evaluate the period of love. Shakespeare also rejects the idea of measuring and valuing love, it’s “worth’s unknown”.

The overall tone of the poem is challenging and questioning. It starts with “let me not”, a negative imperative and the second line is another imperative, “admit impediments”. The sonnet is in fact filled with negatives, “not…not…no…never…unknown…not…nor…nor”. The sonnet continues to states its definition of love, as looking “on tempests and is never shaken” and “the star to every wandering bark”. The sonnet is set up into several sections. The first four lines define what love is not. Love is “not…which alters when it alteration finds”. The next four lines define what love is, love is “an ever-fixed mark”. The four lines after that personifies love, death and time. Love is personified as “rosy lips and cheeks” which will come within the “compass” of death. Death, the result of time, is personified with the image of “his bending sickle”.

The last two lines of the sonnet, the couplet, challenges whether Shakespeare speaks truthfully about love in his writing. They start of with an “if” which sets the tone of the couplet as hesitant and undecided. If he is proved wrong, then all he has said about love is false and that no man has ever loved. But this is untrue, because there have been men who have loved, which proves that the true love that Shakespeare defines is real and does exist. Despite the ambivalent tone of the couplet, most of the words it employs are short, one-syllable words, which simultaneously keep the mood of the couplet as almost definite in its choice, that Shakespeare’s definition of true love does exist. The couplet provides a summary of the argument that Shakespeare presents.

Shakespeare’s sonnet 116 has proven the validity of his definition of true love. His ideas are expressed throughout the poem and the many different variations of the definition of love are fully explored in the sonnet. The couplet sums up the sonnet with a challenge, even though the result, that Shakespeare’s definition of love are correct, has already been decided upon.

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