Revised; originally published on 27 September 2014
Here I’ve read Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, and offered a commentary. After the video is a Summary …
VIDEO BY ALICE
SUMMARY OF THE VIDEO
Hello, Dear Ones, It’s Alice.
I thought I’d read Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 today. It’s very famous. The first line is “Let me not to the marriage of true minds.” And it has to do with constancy in love, beyond appearances, and into the depths of truth in relationships. I’ve always liked this one very much:
Sonnet 116, by William Shakespeare
“Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.”
Commentary: Shakespeare, the Man and Not the Myth
What’s this poem about, really? What gave rise to this poem? I have my own ideas, naturally; and I thought I’d share them with you.
The first two lines say: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments.” The speaker, which may be the author, or might be someone that he wrote this poem for, is not the person who is married. He’s saying, he doesn’t want to get in the way of marriage of true minds.
So this person … probably Shakespeare, who wrote the poem … has made advances to a lady, who holds her marriage in very high esteem. And this letter that he’s writing … this beautiful sonnet … is his way of apologizing for what he’s done.
Speaking from her point of view now, he says: “Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds, / Or bends with the remover to remove.” Now, so, he may have chanced upon a lady whose husband loved her once, but whose looks are not as fresh as they were when they were first married. And he’s now speaking about that husband. He’s saying: If her husband does not love her now, because her looks have changed, then his love is not true.
So I gather from this that this sonnet first apologizes, then attempts to ingratiate, I’d say, by holding this husband of this lady who remains constant, up to some standard of improvement.
I don’t know if you’ll ever find anybody else who agrees with this explanation, but I like it very much. Now, as to the term “… Or bends with the remover to remove.” … Could it be that this husband has removed himself from the wife, and she refuses to remove herself from that vow that she took?
And then he goes on. He says: “O no! it [this love] is an ever-fixed mark / That looks on tempests and is never shaken; …” And this is a nautical term, at least according to one of the references I’ve read. (1)
It could be a reference to the polestar that navigators of those times used to cross the oceans with, to know where they were. (1) … The polestar, in relation to that hemisphere, never changes position.
They had an instrument, a sextant, used to determine latitude by measuring the angle between the horizon and either the polestar (that is, the North Star) or the sun at noon. They could use that instrument to measure and judge where they were.
And that thought is carried out by the next two lines, which have a double meaning; there’s a double entendre there. And these lines are: “It [love] is the star to every wand’ring bark, [a barque is a boat; the homonym bark may be a playful reference to the poet’s voice] / Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.”
So there’s your polestar, and the boat (the barque) is wandering on the ocean, and the mariner takes the height (thus judging the angle angle) of the polestar with his instrument, but never knows what the polestar truly is. So there’s your navigational reference.
But there’s another meaning here: “every wandering bark” … let’s say this is Shakespeare. He did write quite a few love poems, did he not? Maybe he had a wandering eye. Maybe he was a man about town … as much so as possible; insofar as possible. So he’s the wandering bark, and he’s the wandering barque, “Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.”
Well … he might have been a tall man, don’t you think? OR ‘his height’ may mean ‘his lofty stature’, his fame far and wide as a great poet and playwright. And it could be that this behavior of his … this wandering eye that he had … is something that he doesn’t think is such a good thing. Or maybe the lady doesn’t think it’s such a good thing.
And maybe these two lines are just his attempt to speak lowly of himself, to hold himself in lower esteem, so that she’ll think more highly of him. Maybe this poem is a second attempt.
So now, let’s say, he may be thinking he might step in there where the husband is failing. So he says: “Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks / Within his bending sickle’s compass come; …” So, maybe she doesn’t look quite as fresh. But love’s not like that, not given to superficial values; so maybe he’s the man to provide it?
In the next few lines, “Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, / But bears it out even to the edge of doom….” he attempts to draw her feeling about how love should be constant into his own understanding of how love might be. Now this might not be his understanding, but he’s still trying to row with the lady in the same direction.
These two lines are like when two horses are running in the field, in slightly different directions, and then they turn, or ‘wheel’ together, and begin to run side by side in the same direction. That’s the intention of these two verses. They’re what you might call an attempt to turn the lady of his affection to the true marriage of the minds that he has in mind; of course, it’s quite likely it’s not minds he’s thinking about!
The last two lines, “If this be error and upon me prov’d, / I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.” also have a double meaning.
The first phrase “If this be error and upon me prov’d,…” might mean Shakespeare feels he’s too cunning, too quick with his wit to be proven wrong. Or it might be a double seal on the statement that his love is definitely true.
The next few words, “I never writ,” give the reader pause, considering today’s controversy over the authorship of the sonnets.
And the last few words, “…nor no man ever lov’d.” might refer to true love or perhaps to physical desire.
In love, light and joy,
I Am of the Stars
FOR MORE INFORMATION
You might like to hear Patrick Stewart of Star Trek fame reciting this same poem in a much more polished manner:
Video: “Patrick Stewart reading Sonnet 116 ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds,'” http://vimeo.com/44793685 ..
(1) Search for the term eternally fixed in “English Renaissance,” http://archive.mu.ac.in/myweb_test/TYBA%20study%20material/British%20Lite.%20-%20IV.pdf ..
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