There are plenty of examples of great quotes on love from Shakespeare’s works, but his definitive response to the ‘what is love’ question is as deep and profound as any philosopher’s could be, expressed in the most beautiful language. Sonnet 116 is a full and complete examination of love in verse – the most concentrated form of language – and he manages to get it all into just fourteen lines. Here it is in full:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
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.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
The sonnet is an examination of the problem of what is love, pinned down by looking at it from several angles. Love doesn’t change as the circumstances around the lovers change, and can’t be altered by any temptation they may experience.
He is saying that he cannot accept that real love has any imperfections.
He gives us a definitive, knowing ‘Oh no!’ Love is forever stable and fixed, like a star that looks down on storms without itself being affected. It’s there like the star that sea captains use to navigate: they don’t know what the star’s made of but they can depend on it to help them find their way.
Lovers change – they age, and lose their looks, but the star doesn’t – it is always there, forever unchanging: it is unaffected by time.
Love, Shakespeare tells us, isn’t something that wears itself out over weeks, months and years, but remains firm right throughout the lives of the lovers and doesn’t even end with their death but continues until the world ends.
Shakespeare ends his poetic essay answering the ‘what is love’ question by telling us that he knows that he’s right and he will bet on his reputation as a writer that no-one will be able to prove him wrong.
So when you’re next out for a romantic dinner for two with your beloved take a good look at him or her, and if you know that nothing can change the way you feel tonight and you will always be faithful – even if your lover loses his hair and his teeth, if her face eventually crumples with wrinkles, if you fall on hard times or are tempted by the attentions of another person – then you love that person sitting opposite you. And remember, Shakespeare told you that’s what love is!