Glorious, bawdy, androgynous and controversial, Sonnet # 20 is one of my favorites. The Poet is writing to the Young Man, and in this poem we get some hints of the Young Man’s physical attributes and the kind of sexuality he might’ve exuded: he evokes many qualities of a woman: ‘A woman’s face with Nature’s own hand painted / Hast thou’, ‘A woman’s gentle heart’ and ‘an eye more bright than theirs.’
As usual with Shakespeare’s sonnets, there’s a lot going on here. The Poet might be comparing his Young Man’s qualities to a woman’s, but at the same time he’s trashing women in general: ‘not acquainted / With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion’, and the Young Man’s eyes are brighter than woman’s, and ‘less false in rolling.’
Misogynistic? Yes, but this was the Elizabethan period. I’m not making the case that Shakespeare was a misogynist: many of his male characters were, but by the end of his career The Bard gave us some astonishing female characters. But for the purposes of this sonnet, it’s there and it’s hard to argue against.
Then there’s the bawdy part, and it’s not overt like some stuff in his later sonnets. It’s sly. Nature has made the Young Man very much like a woman, except for that small detail of ‘one thing.’ And in case you don’t get what that one thing is, Shakespeare can’t resist slipping in a delicious pun in the final couplet ‘But since she prick’d thee out for women’s pleasure.’
Reading this sonnet, it’s also wise to remember that Shakespeare loved to change up gender roles; his plays have many instances of the sexes getting mixed up. Here, of course, it’s not an intentional disguise that’s mixing up the sexes, it’s Nature herself.
So what’s the Poet to do with this mix up? He pretty much doesn’t know–for the moment he’s satisfied to take the Young Man’s love, letting women take the ‘one thing’ the Poet has no use for.
The intricacies don’t stop there. An examination of the poem’s iambic pentameter show that in this sonnet, Shakespeare gave what’s known in poetic circles as feminine endings to his lines: that is, an extra syllable at the end. ‘Painted’ and ‘acquainted’, so on and so forth.
Finally, there’s the historical and critical controversy over Sonnet #20. Does it suggest Shakespeare might’ve been gay? Are the Sonnets numbered in an intentional sequence and thus tell a story–making #20 key? If so, is that story autobiographical? Who knows? Just go and enjoy this masterpiece!
A woman’s face with Nature’s own hand painted
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;
A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion;
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue, all ‘hues’ in his controlling,
Much steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick’d thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure.