Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Nature of Sonnet 116 (Not A David Attenborough Documentary)

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Shakespeare's Sonnet 116, which begins with the iconic line "Let me not to the marriage of true minds"  has created an intense critical discussion in the last few hundred years.  While some critics praise it for it's portrayal of "ideality and constancy of human love," other critics such as John Kerrigan called the sonnet a "sham" for its use of impersonal absolutes  (Erne 294).  Both parties seem to be drawn to this idea of constancy.  This persistence of love across temporal dimensions, expressed through vivid imagery, mythical allusions and the lack of direct address, Shakespeare creates an ideal of love that is a source of consistency in a violent, dying world.
Where Is The Dark Lady?
With sonnets that begin with “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,” readers are used to the presence of a second person addressee in Shakespeare’s poetry.  This poem is unique in the fact that Shakespeare is not addressing anyone in particular.  This lack of any stated audience suggests that Shakespeare is addressing a universal audience that is caught within the compass of Time’s sickle.  Shakespeare’s stylistic anomaly mirrors the theme of love transcending time that appears within this sonnet.
Images of Nature
In Ang Lee’s film Sense and Sensibility, there is a scene where MaryAnn Dashwood (Kate Winslet) recites the poem while standing in a rainstorm.  The poem here is ironic in that her lover is being inconstant and has seemingly betrayed her.  An interesting feature of this scene is the prominent storm which casts a dark mood over the scene.  The storm parallels the “tempests” of line 6, one of several natural images in this sonnet.  Another image which is used to express constancy is that of “ the star to every wand'ring bark.”  Love is a fixed point by which humans in the world of Shakespeare can navigate past the vicissitudes and chaos of life.
The Endurance of Love in the Face of Time
Time as a personified figure is a strong presence in Shakespeare's sonnet.  This is true of a few of his other sonnets as well.  In Sonnet 60, another poem about the timeless strength of love, Time "feeds on the rarities of nature's truth" and in Sonnet 64 Time's "fell hand" is the exigence for the poet's meditation on mortality.  This vision of time is similar to the Hellenic view of Cronos, the God of Time and the father of Zeus.  Shakespeare describes Time with "his bending sickle's compass come," a clear reference to classical depiction of time as a reaper.  Time as being a natural opposition to love also has an antecedent in Cronos castrating his father Uranus and eating his children.  By referencing classical mythology, Shakespeare adds to an age-old rhetorical discussion about the nature of love, here suggesting that love ultimately “bears it out even to the edge of doom.”
Shakespeare creates a well-crafted image of love as a constant in a life where the only constant is Time and the threat of mortality.  Strong images with precedents in nature and mythology help this striking sonnet remain a crucial part of culture.

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