Shakespeare’s sonnets and the complexities of being in love

Originating in 13th century Italy, the sonnet is a 14-line poem typically consisting of 10 beats per line – known as being written in Iambic pentameter. The rhythm of iambic pentameter resembles the sound of a heartbeat, one soft beat followed by one strong beat, that is then repeated five times to create the 10 beat lines. This heartbeat-sounding rhythm within sonnets is particularly felicitous given that sonnets were known for their themes exploring the complexities of love. The famous Shakespeare himself loved writing a good sonnet, so much so that he actually wrote 154 of them. Shakespeare’s sonnets are some of the most beautiful love poems in literature, exploring not just the complexities of love, but morality, life, time, beauty, death, and emotion. Of the 154 sonnets Shakespeare wrote, it is believed that 126 of them were written for a young man, and the remaining 28 were for a woman.

Sonnet 116 describes what love is, and what love is not, detailing the complexities and intricacies that determine whether a love is true.

Sonnet 116:

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 wandering 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 proved,
   I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

The speaker of the poem claims that true love is unwavering, that it is a constant force that does not diminish or change due to time or circumstance. The speaker says love is an ‘ever-fixed mark’, comparing it to a star in the night sky that remains constant and reliable to guide ships out at sea. When met with problems and conflicts, love does not fade but ‘is never shaken’, meaning love involves commitment and perseverance, and if it is true will continue no matter what storms it endures. From the very start of the poem the beautiful purity of love is depicted in the phrase ‘marriage of true minds’, showing how love is much more than lust or attraction, but a connection of minds, of intellect and feeling, going beyond the physical to a deeper relationship between two people’s minds.

Sonnet 18:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.
    So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
    So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Sonnet 18 is another famous sonnet of Shakespeare’s, in which the speaker attempts to find the words to fully capture the beauty of his beloved. He claims he could compare him to ‘a summer’s day’ or the ‘darling buds of May’ yet rejects these metaphors because ultimately these things will fade and wither. These clichéd metaphors are not good enough to capture the essence of love, they are meaningless because love is so much more complex than any metaphor can contain. The speaker settles on comparing his beloved’s beauty to that of the poem itself, metaphors fail to express the depth of the speaker’s feelings, yet poetry itself is a powerful and eternal art form. His beauty and adoration of him becomes unending and eternal – like the love described within sonnet 116 – because they will forever exist within the lines of the sonnet he has written.

Love is seen as a powerful force within Shakespeare’s sonnets. The sonnet form on the surface is deceptively simple, a short poem, one single block stanza with an easy regular rhythm. Yet upon reading it, one unlocks a powerful surge of emotion, an unending stream of profound thoughts and deep reflections. This is like love itself, how much like the sonnet, the concept of love seems simple and uncomplicated. Nothing more than an emotion we experience, nothing more than something we all just feel, the kind of effortless love in romcoms that ends happily and naturally falls into place. Yet beneath this simple image of love, like a sonnet, the reality of being in love is complex, and the art of the sonnet exposes the complexities of what it truly means to be in love.

Photo by Marc A. Sporys on Unsplash 

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