Impediments: A deconstructionlike reading

This is an excerpt from John Lye, "Contemporary Literary Theory", The Brock Review 2:1 (1993) pp 100-102 Copyright 1993 Brock University


Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters where it alteration finds
Or bends with the remover to remove.
-- William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116

One might ask, does the word "admit" mean confess or allow to enter ? Is "impediment" a legal or a conceptual term here, or a term from the world of physical manipulation, a stumbling block (the literal meaning of impediment, something that gets in the way of pedes, the foot), an intervention? While the word "impediment" as a moral or social hindrance is taken from the marriage ceremony, that explanation does not exhaust the meaning potential. In contemporary usage impediment was also a physical defect or impairment, a speech defect, and baggage; its meanings must potentially (from L. potentia, power) include even as they differentiate from these possibilities.

And why, one wonders, are the worlds of criminality (admit) and of fault (impediment) immediately entered into the world of true minds ? Why is it that, on the levels of both conceptualization and enunciation, the nice flow of the first line is suddenly interrupted by two tough latinate words which seem to come from discourse and areas of concern other than that of the world of the marriage of true minds? The words not only need to be figured out, but actually enter worlds of opposition on several levels (criminality vs innocence, fault vs wholeness, social/legal vs moral/philosophical). Hasn't the poem just admitted a number of impediments while saying it wasn't going to admit impediments? There are impediments on the level of articulation (as the line stumbles over "admit impediments," and when it gets to "impediments," the line stops dead and has to start on another tack, "Love"), on the level of cognitive flow, on the level of moral reality, and also on the level of cogency -- for, after all, the world of the judicial ('confess', impediments , and also marriage, a legal act) has control over bodies and property, not over minds, and the poem has referred us to a marriage of minds .

The phrase itself the marriage of true minds implicitly admits an impediment. This impediment is the body, which is admitted but denied by the word impediment with its root reference to stumbling feet but its usage in conceptual ways, and which is implied by "marriage ." The phrase "marriage of true minds" enters the whole question of the body by being explicit about the marriage of minds, whereas marriage itself is a union of bodies and property. The body is also entered through the contemporary uses of the word impediment as a physical defect or impairment, as a speech defect, as baggage. The body is admitted by marriage most strongly through the fact that marriage is a social act (sanctified by the Church, the Body of Christ, and only legal when witnessed by others, bodily presences), through the realm of the legal, the control of bodies, and through the legitimation of marriage, as a marriage which was not consummated, an interesting concept in itself, was considered not to be a marriage.

There is yet another impediment in the sentence. The word "true" in reference to minds suggests of course straightness or levelness, body values, but it suggests by exclusion the unstraightness of mind that the true is structured against and includes by difference. If the speaker has to say "true minds" then there are untrue minds, so we have to ask what the 'mind' is here that is being married, what the nature of mind is. The word cannot refer to some abstract, non-physical value or being if mind can be unstraight, morally unsound, not on the level, therefore fallen, therefore (as fallen) in the world of action and conflict and thus of the body. But "mind" is obviously opposed to the body, and the body is an impediment. The sentence's play of meaning forces us inexorably back to the centrality of the body, and questions the status of mind .

There is another impediment that the poem admits from the very beginning: after all, who is to let or not let him admit impediments? (Startling enough, in Shakespeare's time a "let" was a hindrance, an impediment). There is someone who can stop him from not admitting impediments, otherwise he would not have said "Let me not"; a world of power and restriction peeks forth, qualifying the apparent freedom the line claims. As well, "Let me not," with its implicit emotional appeal, takes us back psychically to the world of restriction, prohibition, forbidding, in its colloquial force and its imperative, demanding tone, to the two-year old's universe, it is evocation therefore of narcissism, of the taboo, of the root conflict of social life and personal identity, and thus enters us into a world of meaning which itself on the surface sorts oddly with the social/legal language that follows.

There is in the sentence as a counter-current a narcissism, the juvenile self-aggrandizement of a speaker who thinks he could in fact stop the marriage of true minds. But if anyone can stop the marriage of true minds, as obviously he believes that they can (or he can), then it is probably because the marriage of true minds does depend on the powers of property, the body, physical and social force, and so the line really does not in fact claim the power or liberty of the spiritual nature of humans, as an unsuspecting reading might assume, but claims instead the power of the physical and judicial. This may well what the line really confesses or, to put it another way, the reality that the ideological structure masks: that the social, judicial, physical elements of our world do in fact have the force over a union of persons that the line denies that they do, and perhaps that in point of fact a person is comprised of these physical, social, legislative elements, these worlds of discourse, of the constitutive imaginary. The case could be made that the idealism of the apparent meaning of the line, which depends on there being real, isolatable, inviolate minds is what is ultimately undermined.

Not only does this sentence launch us on a strange journey of oppositions and contradictions, but it enters us into whole worlds of discourse and concern -- the long philosophical debates about mind as opposed to the body, the place of the power of the judicial in the world of body and mind, the sociality of the individual, the nature of marriage and what it entails, the physicality of marriage both sexually and legally and the relation of that physicality to the moral world, issues of moral freedom, of issues of what constitutes the good. These differing but implicated worlds, with their differing assumptions, language uses and emotional resonances--importantly including the poetic expressions of theses debates--become part of the meaning of the line.