Honors British Literature
One of the strongest emotions a human can feel is love, which has been categorized as a beautiful and pure abstract idea for ages. Although civilizations differ in their ideas of love, there are universal principles that are reiterated throughout different art forms and cultures. One such art form is a poem, which uses a variety of stylistic devices to articulate a certain point. In Sonnet 116, Shakespeare takes advantage of these devices with a mocking tone. He uses personification to make love human, but then ironically extrapolates on the principle that love is timeless. Another such principle can be found through the multiple metaphors that explain how love is steadfast, which also adds to the irony of humans not being able to realize these traits. Yet again, he repeats himself to get across the point that love does not change even if people do, all the while contradicting himself by continuing to personify love. Finally, he alludes to the Bible throughout the entire poem. Shakespeare’s description of the personified form of love as the perfect human proves it cannot exist unless it resides in the Christian world, where God is love and is portrayed through Jesus.
Shakespeare knew that true love cannot exist in a world without God. Firstly, Shakespeare emphasizes the idea that change and true love are not synonymous because he reports in his poem that, “Love is not love/Which alters when it alteration finds…” Humans cannot feel the same exact way about something that changes, because as beings who harbor sin, they analyze every change as either good or bad. True love would overlook changes that result in fault or failure. Therefore, humans are not capable of loving truly. However, Jesus is God and therefore can look through change and never waver in love, because God has done so for the many millennia that humans have changed while roaming the earth. Secondly, Shakespeare purposefully gives a human nature to love by personifying it, saying “O no! it is an ever-fixed mark/That looks on tempests and is never shaken.” This fits into the ironic frame his poem shapes because humans cannot transcend time, they must obey the laws of nature. Jesus is the only person that can transcend time because he is also God. Therefore God must be love if it is to be personified as timeless. Thirdly, Shakespeare states that love is steadfast, saying “Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,/But bears it out even to the edge of doom.” Humans are susceptible to change, which means they cannot express the same emotion infinitely. God is the only entity that can do so, because of the fact that He has always loved the same, even before man was created in his image. Finally, an overview of the poem leaves the reader quite confused, because of the last couplet: “If this be error and upon me prov’d,/ I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.” Here, Shakespeare claims that if this poem is not true then he did not write it, therefore mocking the idea of agapic love existing in a state in which God does not reside, even though he seems to say it can.
To understand why love is perfect and the human race cannot attain this perfection, one must understand what the perfect form of love is. Agape is defined as “the highest form of love” and a “universal, unconditional love that transcends, that serves regardless of circumstances.” St. Paul preaches about Agapic love in his letter to the Corinthians, saying: “Love is patient, love is kind…” In the first quatrain of Sonnet 116, Shakespeare reiterates what true love is. He describes love in terms similar to St. Paul, characterizing love’s endurance as not altering or bending: “Love is not love/Which alters when it alteration finds,/Or bends with the remover to remove.” Shakespeare knew the Bible well and he is conveying the same message St. Paul did. All the perfection in this emotion as described by St. Paul and Shakespeare cannot, however, be applied to the human race, because imperfection cannot achieve perfection.
On the contrary, God is perfection. God is love, and therefore love is not able to exist in a world without God. God is omnipresent, which is why He transcends time. He is in all places at once, in all ages. He is a trinitarian God, meaning He has three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Perfect love exists within this Trinitarian community. He is also fully God and fully man, and therefore love can reside physically in the Christian world through Jesus, the ultimate expression of God’s love for the human race. God cannot change, for He has always been and therefore has no basis to change from. Humans cannot fully understand any of these theological principles, which is why they need to live in a Christian world. It is evident that Shakespeare believes these truths because he says in the second quatrain, “It is the star to every wand’ring bark,/Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.” This verse references the early Christian Church’s self description as ‘the bark of St. Peter.’ God alone is the star that guides the Church, therefore if this star is love, it is also God.
The entire tone of his poem is mocking because of the irony found in the piece. In Shakespeare’s personal life, he encountered many situations in which love failed to be true. However, throughout the entire poem and particularly in the third quatrain he emphasizes love’s constancy and announces its presence in the physical world, saying “Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,/But bears it out even to the edge of doom.” The only way this can be true is if the final ‘doom’ is eternal life with God which can be achieved through agapic love. Alas, humans are fallible and cannot love truly. Therefore, Shakespeare mocks the imperfect humans who constantly struggle to obtain the perfect life.
One can deduce from biblical knowledge and Sonnet 116 that Shakespeare did believe love needs the Christian world to exist. Through his allusions to the bible, it is clear that Shakespeare’s point was a positive Christian tone. The last couplet of his poem speaks to this, stating: “If this be error and upon me prov’d,/I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.” He is paralleling his reasoning to a chapter in the New Testament, 1 John, which says: “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God’s love was revealed among us: God sent His one and only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him.…” Shakespeare speaks in the couplet as if he did not write the poem if what he says is not true. Yet, he knows he wrote this poem, thus giving the reader confidence that he believes everything he has said about love to be true. Since his knowledge and allusions to the Bible imply that Shakespeare knows God, according to 1 John, Shakespeare must know that God is love. This idea also parallels Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, which listed the guidelines for how humans should act. While “Blessed are the pure in heart,/for they will see God,” and “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,/for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” are indeed perfect ideals, they are in fact impossible expectations, because of human fallibility, which leaves no room for perfection. Thus, humans cannot achieve perfection, specifically true love.
Shakespeare was aware of this agapic love that cannot exist in a material world unless that world is Christian. He knew that God is the only form of true love, and he emphasized this point in Sonnet 116. Too often, modern society tries to take God out of everything and tries to separate what is good, true, and beautiful from the world. However, it is a bleak and meaningless world to live in if God is taken out of it, for if God was removed, so would true love cease to exist in mans’ material world.
Note: Sonnet 116 and the Bible approved by the Catholic Church were used in the making of this essay. A quote on love from Wikipedia was also used (paragraph 3). Anya and Doctor Nighan met a total of four times where they discussed this essay and some of the analysis used in it, such as the analysis of doom (paragraph 5).