What is Love?: Meter as an Indicator of Argumentative Rhetoric in Sonnet 116
“If this be error, and upon me proved, / I never writ, nor no man ever loved.” So reads the concluding couplet in Sonnet 116, one Shakespeare’s most well known, due to its idealistic depiction of love. Unlike, most couplets in sonnets, these lines give any indication of an overarching theme. Instead, it takes the form of a syllogism It is this assertion that Shakespeare refers to with his “this.” Often Shakespeare uses meter in this sonnet to convince audiences of his idealized definition of love.
Shakespeare uses the iambic pentameter not only to control the rhythmic structure of this sonnet, but also to direct the audiences of the sonnet to its intended meaning. For example, Sonnet 116 begins with the famous line: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments” (ll 1-2). To the casual reader this would probably read “Let-me | not- to| the-mar | riage-of | true-minds / Ad-mit | im-ped| im-ents”, with the italicized text unstressed and the normal text stressed, for that is how the stresses fall in normal English speech. With this pronunciation, it only seems like the poet is simply trying to avoid bringing up any obstacles between two peoples, and the line doesn’t hold too much importance. Adding iambic pentameter radically changes its sound: “Let-me | not- to| the-mar | riage-of | true-minds / Ad-mit | im-ped| im-ents.” Suddenly, the first stress lands on the “me.” Reading the subsequent lines makes it perfectly clear that Shakespeare is extolling on the virtues of love. However he is doing so by setting restraints on it; in other words, he is describing what it is and what it is not. This is a rhetorical strategy for defining concepts known as merismus; defining by what something is is known as positive merismus, and defining by what something is not is known as negative merismus. For example,...
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