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Sonnet 116

Sonnet 116

Time/Age/Death

Symbol Analysis

The macabre image of the Grim Reaper was quite familiar to Shakespeare’s Elizabethan readers. This skeletal, scythe-bearing figure of Death became an icon of European culture in the medieval period, in which death was a horrifyingly present part of everyday life (we can blame the devastating impact of the Black Plague for that). This image of death has stuck with Western civilization ever since, and is commonly invoked in poetry and art to remind us all of our own mortality. However, in this poem, the Reaper (referred to simply as "Time") actually loses – it turns out that Love is the one thing that can resist the power of death.

  • Lines 9-10: The poet personifies both Love and Time here, claiming that Love isn’t just a court jester at the beck and call of Time. This is an allusion to the medieval conception of death as a character known as "King Death," an allegorical figure that represented the Black Plague, more familiar to us as the figure of the Grim Reaper, here brought to mind by the mention of the "bending sickle" (10). Finally, the phrase "sickle’s compass come" (10) makes use of alliteration to bring home the idea of passing time; the harsh "c" sounds mimic the ticking of a clock in an onomatopoeic way.
  • Lines 11-12: The "his" in line 11 signifies that the "brief hours and weeks" belong to Time, continuing the personification of this concept that we saw in lines 9-10. This notion that Time has no control over Love is emphasized in this line, since the passing of Time has no effect whatsoever upon true love.

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