My daughter is now memorizing Sonnet 116. It should take her another five minutes. This is because she is nine. Also, this is because Sonnet 116 is among Shakespeare’s most accessible and, therefore, most popular sonnets. But if you look at it through a lawyer's jaundiced eye, the poem seems a tad outrageous in its rhapsodic simplicity.
“Let me not to the marriage of true minds/ Admit impediments.”
That means “I will not entertain the possibility that true love will tolerate barriers” or, basically, “love conquers all.” But isn’t that a strange thing for the author of Romeo and Juliet to assert? One can easily think of all manner of things that love alone cannot conquer: family feuds, disease, global warming.
“Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds,/ Or bends with the remover to remove.”
First of all, the “which” in this sentence should be a “that” because it introduces a restrictive, not a nonrestrictive, clause. In any case, the sentence means “love does not change in response to changed circumstances.” Oh, really? I submit that anyone who has stayed married for more than four years will tell you that love requires that a person alter and bend in all sorts of ways to deal with both unforeseen events as well as the eternal return of the same. Otherwise, partners would be tempted to open fire when they see that, YET AGAIN, he has failed to put the toilet seat down or ONE MORE TIME she has instinctively finished his sentences during a dinner party.
“O no, it is an ever-fixed mark,/ That looks on tempests and is never shaken.”
Alas, we have another grammar lapse here. “That looks” should be “which looks” if the comma is proper, such that the business about “tempests” is an aside describing a category of “marks,” not a specific “mark.” In any case, this bit means “Love stays in one place like a lighthouse in a storm.” Give me a break! A “love” that rigid would hardly make it through the first serious argument about religion, whether and when to have kids, and how to deal with the other person’s peculiarly exasperating mother.
“It is the star to every wandering bark,/ Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.”
At least WS is being consistent here with the nautical metaphor. He is saying that “love is like a star guiding every lost ship; and though the star’s value—like love’s value—may not be known (or knowable) at the moment, it is clearly something that shines way above everything else.” Perhaps. Sometimes love really does shine through, acting as a kind of moral compass that puts everything else that people strive for—fame, fortune, beauty, athletic prowess, an edge over the professional competition—into perspective. But people often lose sight of love even when they have experienced it; it gets shrouded in mist as they strive for all kinds of other, often nonsensical things that seem incredibly important in the moment. They only realize how obtuse they were retrospectively, after love has walked out the door.
“Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks/ Within his bending sickle’s compass come./ Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,/ But bears it out even to the edge of doom.”
Here is some wisdom. WS is saying that “love—real love—is not so pathetic that the mere passage of time will undo its hold on the heart. Sure, physical allures will fall prey to time, which ravages all, just as Death, with its razor-sharp scythe hacks away at everything that comes within Its path. But ‘love’ has got to be more than physical attraction to youthful beauty or it is more accurately called by another name that rhymes with ‘bust.’”
“If this be error and upon me proved,/ I never writ, nor no man ever loved.”
My daughter really loves this part. It was the easiest thing to memorize. She also thinks it is funny. WS says: “If I am wrong about my definition of love and you can prove it, well then, I never wrote anything, and no one has ever been in love.” That is, Shakespeare is so confident about his definition of love that he issues a challenge akin to those associated with professional wrestling. He asserts that he can only be wrong if: (1) he has never written anything; or (2) no one has ever been in love. First, he has clearly written things. Duh. He is in the process of writing something as he makes the assertion. Moreover, he is widely recognized as being among the best and most prolific writers ever. Second, plenty of people claim to have experienced love. Including the sonnet’s author. So this argument is akin to saying “I am only wrong if you can establish that I do not exist.” Or “I am only wrong if gravity is an illusion and the sky is not blue.” Who would bother to mount a refutation in the face of such confidence?
Well, actually, scientists and philosophers, for instance, have long been in the business of challenging beliefs that people think of as self-evidently true. And in the process, they have discovered that nature is way more complicated than even super-smart folks like Newton once surmised. In other words, human beings, if they work at it hard enough, can continuously push the boundaries of The Knowable. So arguments like the one in Sonnet 116’s couplet are kind of puerile.
In any event, even a moderately reasonable person has to admit that begging the question is not the best rhetorical strategy. “I am right because I can’t be wrong” is just not a compelling argument. Especially, one hopes, in legal discourse.
So much for the marriage of romance and a lawyer’s true mind.