Study Guide

Sonnet 116

By William Shakespeare

Sonnet 116 Introduction

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 Sonnet 116 About and Why Should I Care?

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.

Sonnet 116 Resources

Videos

"‘Oh no!’…meaning ‘Oh no!’"
Two brief (connected) snippets from a 2005 BBC television series, Shakespeare Re-Told, which, as the title implies, puts several Shakespeare plays in contemporary settings. The Much Ado About Nothing episode features some Shakespeare-on-Shakespeare action, in which two of the characters do a detailed reading of the poem.

Sonnets and Sensibility
Sonnet 116, soulfully quoted by the lovely Kate Winslet in Sense and Sensibility (1995).

Audios

Two different readings of Sonnet 116
Downloadable files, courtesy of Sonnet Central.

LibriVox=Awesome
LibriVox is attempting to make all public domain (non-copyright) books into free audiobooks, available online – here’s their collection of Shakespeare sonnets.

Images

In case you’re lost…
Here’s the North Star.

Historical Documents

Harold and Will
Literary giant Harold Bloom answers questions on literary colossus William Shakespeare in this 1998 online interview.

The New York Times on Shakespeare…?
An interesting New York Times article from 1875 that deals with the relationship between Henry Wriothesley and William Shakespeare, which the latter jokingly referred to as a "marriage"…

Books

Old School
A facsimile of the original 1609 printing of the Sonnets – very cool.

… and a newer version
A 2004 edition of the sonnets (one of many, many, many texts out there…).

Love and Robots
The Colossus books, a 1960s sci-fi trilogy by English author Dennis Feltham Jones, uses Sonnet 116 as a definition for love…according to a giant, world-dominating robot. Yep, it’s for real.

Movies & TV

Mystery Sonnet Theatre?
We haven’t seen this TV movie, but the IMDB posting has us intrigued – what will those clever people at the BBC come up with next?

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)
One of our favorites – OK, the sonnets only get a brief shout-out in this comic masterpiece, but it’s worth watching for any fan of Shakespeare…or theater…or, let’s face it, humor.

Sonnets and Sensibility
Here’s the DL on the 1995 Ang Lee film excerpted above (see "Videos").

Websites

Calling all Shakespeareans…
A cool, ongoing "online conference" for Shakespeare scholars of all kinds.

Will on the Web
The charmingly named, very comprehensive website, "Mr. William Shakespeare and the Internet." Yes, it sounds like a children’s book, but it’s actually quite useful.

Sonnet Central
Wow, some people really love sonnets…

All Shakespeare, all the time
Another Shakespeare website, onlineshakespeare.com, offers its take on the sonnets.