Study Guide

Sonnet 116 Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

Advertisement - Guide continues below

Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.


The idea of marriage is present in the background of this poem from the very first line. However, the poet doesn’t necessarily define marriage the way people typically do, as a religious sacrament or a legal procedure; instead, he emphasizes a more idealistic, transcendent vision of it. The marriage described in this poem is not a formal contract; rather, it is a "marriage of true minds," a phrase that suggests a deep understanding between two equals, rather than a mere legal bond. In Shakespeare’s time, marriage was far from an association between two equally powerful and independent people; women were basically surrendered into the control of their husbands when they got married. The relationship that Sonnet 116 discusses certainly does not conform to this conventional view of marriage. Instead of talking about the importance of obedience or subservience in married life, it focuses on faithfulness, forgiveness, and equality in any loving relationship.

  • Lines 1-2: The poem alludes directly to the Church of England’s official marriage service: before a couple can be officially married, the priest asks the gathered congregation if there is any impediment to the marriage. The poet sees none here.


The idea of love as a guiding star isn’t a new one, but in this poem, Shakespeare approaches it with a renewed enthusiasm. The poem’s central extended metaphor is the comparison of love to a star – specifically the North Star, which doesn’t ever change position in the night sky. This made it particularly important to sailors, who calculated the location of their ships based on the stars. The North Star provided a stable point around which the other stars appeared to revolve, making it central to navigation for centuries. The poet uses nautical imagery to construct the mental picture of love as a star leading all of us through life.

  • Lines 5-8: In line five, the declaration that love is "an ever-fixed mark" introduces this extended metaphor of love as a star to which we all look. The poet also goes a step further into figurative language land and personifies this love-star, saying that it "looks on tempests and is never shaken" (6), and later, that the star’s "worth’s unknown, although his height be taken" (8).
  • The idea of love as a star guiding the rest of the world really takes off in lines 6 and 7. The "tempests" that threaten the seas are a metaphor for the challenges that may plague a relationship, like arguments or infidelity, while in line 7, the "wand’ring bark" is a metaphor for the lover, being led through the tumultuous sea of life by love. The word "wand’ring" also personifies this lost ship, giving us the feeling that it’s looking for something.


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.

This is a premium product

Tired of ads?

Join today and never see them again.

Please Wait...