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(Sonnet 116's couple may not be all that they seem)
Sonnet 116: A Dispute with Love
“Let me not to the marriage of true minds, admit impediments” opens one of Shakespeare’s most iconic poems: sonnet 116. For centuries read as a declaration of true and everlasting love – this sonnet has been used at weddings and funerals to celebrate and/or commemorate that shared love. And although, that interpretation maintains strong today, there is another interpretation that may stop wedding planners in their tracks. A deep reading of diction, rhetoric, and meter suggest an indignant narrator and the subversion of a tradition of idealized and unattainable romance – thus contradicting centuries of optimistic interpretation.
Contextualizing the Sonnet
An effortless reading of sonnet 116 can confirm to the reader a message of ideal love – a love to inspire and aspire to – a love that teaches us to push through love’s obstacles “even to the edge of doom”. However, a closer look into Shakespeare’s diction can offer a different perspective. In following Shakespeare’s iambic tradition, the stress on the first foot deliberately falls upon “me” suggesting that the narrator is speaking to another person as opposed to a mere philosophical meditation – a conversation that is arguably contentious; essentially saying "let me not," "like you have." Helen Vendler, in her essay “Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Readingfor Difference,” asserts that the “strange proliferation of negatives…is a normal sign of a rebuttal” and that “any short poem with four nots, two nevers, two nos, and one nor is refuting something” (38). Why would Shakespeare describe love in terms of what it is not? Shakespeare use of polyptotons in “alters…alternations,” “remove…. remover,” and “love is… not love” exemplifies a contentious narrator at odds with another. A narrator who will not “admit impediments” furthermore suggesting that the narrator does, in fact, know of impediments to admit. Jane Roessner, another Shakespearen scholar, argues on behalf of a narrator in denial of love’s imperfect practice. While Vendler, in turn, finds a narrator that is bitter and angry at love’s injustice. Instead of depicting a declaration and/or definition of “true love,” Shakespeare’s masterful use of diction, rhetoric, and meter sets up an angry contentious rebuttal; a rebuttal that asserts idealized love in an obvious inconsistent and unfaithful world.
How has it been used?
Various media interpretations of sonnet 116 embrace either interpretation - indicitave of the sonnet's contrasting viewpoints. In a short 3 minute recitation, The Sonnet Project depicts a couple standing underneath an umbrella in the midst of a rainstorm - thus suggesting that despite what life throws at them, they'll be protected together under their umbrella of love. However, in the 1995 film version of Sense and Sensibility, Austen fans and Shakespeare lovers unite in the dramatized encounter between Marianne Dashwood and Mr. Willoughby in which they recite the 116th sonnet together - a recitation that is, perhaps, more accurate in it's depiction of the narrator and their relationship with their lover. In the moment, the sonnet represents their falling in love (complimenting Marianne’s heightened sense of romanticism); however, their relationship “alter[ed] when it alteration [found] and met a tragic end. The poem, in hindsight, foreshadows the love that could not withstand the tempests. The crying and depressed Marianne re-recites the poem to herself outside Willoughby’s home – true to Vendler’s interpretation – as someone scorned by a lover and grappling to understand the nature of love.
How Does it Compare?
This sonnet is not unlike other Shakespearean sonnets. Similar to 130, this sonnet likewise subverts a romantic tradition – although in opposite ways. Sonnet 130 uses the imperfections of his lover to describe their true love; while sonnet 116 uses idealistic standards of love to combat their lover’s imperfections. Each poem perverting expectations and using juxtaposition to introduce new perspectives on love – in a form contrary to society's standards of love and beauty.
ConclusionWhen prompted, my roommate Elisha told me that sonnet 116 is about how imperfect people try to love perfectly – and perhaps that’s how we’ve read Shakespeare. For centuries we’ve interpreted sonnet 116 as the sort of love to achieve – and while it paints a picture of love that is both inspirational and admired - it is expressed by a contentious, indignant, and ranting narrator. Therefore, the next time you scroll through Shakespearegeek’s posts and he suggests 116 for your wedding playlist – remember that sonnet 116 is a narrative of two lovers with different fundamental ideas on how to love one another.