Sonnet 116: "Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds"
When you are reading a sonnet in a Renaissance sonnet-sequence, one thing you must never do, I tell my students, is to assume that the poet is the speaker in the poem. Usually there’s quite an ironic distance between the two. Petrarch isn’t simply the mooning and self-absorbed admirer of Laura. Sidney is by no means the self-destructive and often bitter Astrophil to his supposedly beloved Stella. And Shakespeare is not the speaker of his sonnets, either. Yet in this sonnet, I think Shakespeare encourages us to take to heart what the speaker says — it is pointedly unlike most of the others in the sequence. For here he echoes the language of the wedding ceremony, and says that he will not admit any cause why these true minds — these faithful souls — should not become one.
What is love? That’s the great question the poets were asking, and they were not sentimental about it. Here Shakespeare tells us what it is by comparing it to what it is not. It does not seek to alter…
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