Sonnet 116 is one of the best-known and most beloved poems in William Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence. This says a lot, since this group of 154 poems on the whole is probably the world’s most famous collection of love poetry. This particular sonnet, along with the oft-repeated Sonnet 18 ("Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?"), has been quoted and referenced time after time, and to this day remains one of Shakespeare’s greatest hits. Fans of period drama may recognize it from the 1995 film version of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, while others among us might have experienced it as part of a wedding service… or two… or ten (for obvious reasons, it’s a big hit with the bridal crowd).
What is love? No, we’re not just quoting the lyrics to a hauntingly annoying German techno song (you know, the one from SNL’s "Night at the Roxbury" skits); in fact, this is one of the questions that has plagued humanity ever since our earliest ancestors started flirting across the primordial bog. It’s one of the all-time great mysteries of the world as we know it, perhaps second only to "What is the meaning of life?"
No matter how much we care or don’t think we care, the nagging question of love is always loitering somewhere in the backs of our minds. This sonnet attempts to put a stop to this constant questioning and to provide an answer: love, like diamonds, is forever. We don’t get a concrete definition of how love feels or what it entails; instead, we are told that the only thing that really matters in true love is its immortal quality.
If you think about it, this quite a clever way to answer the big question. Basically, it says that you can keep your personal definitions of love – romantic or platonic, sexual or intellectual, what have you – but to really earn the sought-after title of True Love, all relationships have to pass the big test: time. The poet isn’t concerned with the individual details of our relationships (and it’s a good thing he’s not – we could go on for hours); rather, he just wants us to think of love in the long term, rather than getting swept up in the melodrama of short-lived passion.