Explication of Shakespeare's Sonnet CXVI

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A chronological analysis and interpretation of the rhetoric, sytax, and diction in William Shakespeare's Sonnet CXVI.

Submitted: November 12, 2017

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Submitted: November 12, 2017



No one can take anything with him in the end. The unnerving statement single-handedly questions the core of what humanity has deemed success. Searching for the greater meaning in life, many have found that the tangible things they have spent their whole life acquiring are just as mortal as they are. In Sonnet CXVI William Shakespeare proposes he has found an exception: he suggests that meaning found in true love is the one enduring thing that can surpass even death. He expands this promise as the sonnet follows the journey of true love—through his syntax, diction, and rhetoric, Shakespeare proposes that the eternality and strength of true love transcends all earthly trials and definition.

Shakespeare uses the syntax and rhetoric of his first stanza to establish the depth and importance true love holds over the struggles of life as it begins to form its identity. In the very first line, his syntax reflects this conclusion in the form of anastrophe as he begs to “Let [him] not to the marriage of true minds/ Admit impediments” (Shakespeare 1-2). Placing the prepositional phrase before what it modifies, Shakespeare separates the concept of flaws and struggle as syntactically far as possible from love while placing true love first in the sequence. Within this phrase, his use of metonymy in marrying not the lovers but their “minds” reveals the depth of true love, that this love is not infatuation but the marriage of two souls, a unification of their thoughts and desires into one. The choice of the word “impediments” alludes to the marriage service of Shakespeare’s time, specifically the section asking the bride and groom whether they see in each other any fault they are not ready to accept. Just following this, the ceremony states that “there can be no 'impediments' through change of circumstances, outward appearance, or temporary lapses in conduct,” (Tucker, p. 192) a confirmation of fidelity that directly parallels the sonnet's next two lines. Shakespeare states that love is not true love if it “alters when it alteration finds,/ Or bends with the remover to remove” (Shakespeare 3-4). His prominent use of polyptoton equates the diction of love’s actions and its potential problems, only to be matched with syntax placing the obstacles of “alteration” and “the remover” in lesser grammatical structures. It almost seems as though Shakespeare is lending “alteration” power in the small anastrophe of “it alteration finds,” but he instantly takes this away by placing it in an adverbial dependent clause and then next to love as an active subject. In the same way “the remover” loses its power through its location in a prep phrase following love’s active “bend[ing].” This pattern of strengthening love’s power over its adversaries continues throughout the entire sonnet—without fail, every action against love is left with its agent unnamed.

The second stanza’s diction presents a metaphor for true love as it begins to experience life’s hardships: as a lighthouse and a star, both serving to guide a ship in rough seas, and each representing love’s ability to transcend earthly trials and definition. Following an interjection that sets off the second stanza, the metaphor begins with the word “mark,” with one of its translations being as a lighthouse (Shakespeare 5). Its combination with “ever-fixed” creates two images, one of a long-standing lighthouse firmly planted, and the second of the other definition of the word “mark” as a distinguishing feature that will never change; love is presented as an unwavering and unchanging guide. As it “looks on tempests” but “is never shaken,” true love is distanced from trials yet again, merely acknowledging, not experiencing, them (Shakespeare 6). The next two lines present another metaphor, love as a “star to every wandering bark,” a reference to the north star Polaris that was used to guide a wandering or lost ship, also another meaning for “bark” (Shakespeare 7). Now the lovers themselves have been brought into the metaphor, revealing that their love rescues both of them from the “tempests” of life, and that although they might go through hardships, their love never wavers. The next line continues the metaphor for Polaris: in Shakespeare’s time the star’s “height [could] be taken [(measured)],” although its true nature and “worth [was] unknown” (Shakespeare 8). Yet, in the metaphor the other denotations of “worth” as value and “height” as importance reflect how love’s true value and depth transcends human ability to define it, even though its importance is clear—not just to the lovers but to “every wandering bark,” or person who comes into contact with it. The parallelism in the structure of love’s slight personification in “looks” and “his” then an a lack of an active agent, such as “is never shaken” and “height be taken,” reinforces the theme of love’s strength over its adversaries.

The third stanza shows the two lovers are getting older—as the toll of time is acknowledged in a battle of personification with love, consonance reflects the struggle against mother nature, and diction alludes to death, love’s eternality begins to draw the sonnet to a close. Beginning with the personification of both Love and Time, Shakespeare finally gives Love a syntactical equal. But “not Time’s fool,” a potential allusion to a court jester subordinate to the wishes of the king, disagrees, proposing that true love is unaffected by time (Shakespeare 9). Because it directly follows this personification, the phrase “rosy lips and cheeks” as metonymy for the beauty and passion of youth is made less important in the grand scheme of true love, taking away the power time holds in its promise to fade temporal beauty (Shakespeare 9). After addressing time’s impotency, Shakespeare goes on to say that it no longer has the final say. He mentions Time’s “sickle,” an allusion to the grim reaper that represents death, and “the edge of doom,” a direct reference to doomsday; in these allusions Shakespeare implies that Love does not end with death but carries on until judgement day (Shakespeare 10,12). In the same way, he acknowledges love’s transcendence above the course of time in his use of consonance in “sickle’s compass come” (Shakespeare 10). The repetition of s’s and c’s maintains the cadence that the inevitable cycle of life and death holds, and the auditory length of the s’s in contrast with the abruptness of the c’s parallels the seeming length of a life that is always ended by death.

The final couplet of Sonnet CXVI is a dramatic hyperbole through which Shakespeare aims to present his truth in an irrefutable way. He promises that “If [his writing]…[could be] proved [to] be error” then he had “never writ, nor no man ever loved” (Shakespeare 13-14). By comparing his conclusions about love to two things that no person could disprove, Shakespeare argues that what he has written is nearly fact. As the sonnet ends, he once again visits the overarching structure of litotes that has shaped the poem: first found in stanza one, proving what true love is by stating what it is not, and then in the third stanza, revealing how love is not subject to time and death to prove that it is eternal. Beginning with the marriage of two people in true love, tracing their journey through life’s hardships, and finally promising their love’s eternality as they part ways until judgement day, Sonnet CXIV redefines true love, and immortality.

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