Shakespeare Saturdays: Sonnet 20

Shakespeare saturdays

In last week’s Shakespeare Saturday, I looked into a few more plays in the Shakespeare Apocrypha. I did intend to publish a post about Othello today but I didn’t finish the research I was doing so I’m just writing a very quick post about sonnet 20. Enjoy…

DividerSonnet 20

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.


Sonnet 20 is a somewhat controversial sonnet. It has been the subject of much debate amongst scholars, with some claiming that it is a clear indicator of Shakespeare’s homosexulaity and others dismissing any attempts to read the poem as anything other than an expression of homosocial friendship. ‘Gal pals’ but for men? I honestly don’t think it matters too much about whether Shakespeare was gay or bisexual or whatever, and I don’t think the poem is an admission of anything, but it is a poem that depicts a deep and sensual love.

The poem is a typical English or Shakespearean sonnet but, unlike the majority of Shakespeare’s other sonnets, sonnet 20 has an extra syllable at the end of each line. This extra syllable is also known as a feminine ending and, paired with the subject matter of the poem, this is often interpreted as a sign of romantic love for the male subject. The poet’s lover is the master-mistress of [his] passion and he has the grace woman. The Fair Youth is somewhat feminised in the first few lines of the poem but unlike women, who are false and acquainted / With shifting change, the male subject of the poem is the perfect balance between masculine and feminine.

I think the lines I find most interesting (along with every other scholar out there) are 9-14: 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. Firstly, there’s a smidge of misogyny here as Nature fell so much in love with her creation that she decided to make the subject a man instead of a woman. Yikes. Secondly, I think we all know what one thing Nature added here. Some scholars believe that line fourteen was added in to ward off homophobia but, honestly, I’m not so sure. Homophobia definitely existed during Shakespeare’s lifetime but, also, very few people were actually convicted of sodom. So, either people weren’t engaging in ~ homosexual behaviour ~ or it was more socially acceptable than people assume now. I’m inclined to believe the latter, especially considering King James’ relationship with the Duke of Buckingham in the early seventeenth century.

It’s really difficult to attempt to guess someone’s sexuality from one poem, especially if that person has been dead for over 400 years, and I also think that it’s a somewhat pointless exercise because we’ll never know. Plus, sexuality wasn’t even thought about in the same way during Shakespeare’s era as it is now so is it even appropriate to use modern labels? I don’t know. It’s a concept I’ve grappled with for years as both a scholar of Renaissance literature (and as a bi woman) and I don’t think I’ll ever come to a conclusion.

What we do know is that Shakespeare deeply loved the Fair Youth, whether he sexually desired him or not, and we should focus on the expression of romantic love and the technical changes that Shakespeare made to the sonnet in order to more clearly express his love.


So, yeah. That’s sonnet 20.

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5 thoughts on “Shakespeare Saturdays: Sonnet 20

  1. Here’s the thing I remember about this poem. In Shakespeare’s day, only men were allowed to act, and one teacher of mine said that this poem isn’t so much sexual as it might be a love song to a male actor who was so beautiful and convincing as a woman that he made men fall in love with him.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve heard that reading before but I didn’t include it because most scholars reject it nowadays! That doesn’t mean that it isn’t right, because it could be, but the story behind the theory is just odd.

      A scholar in the 18th century proposed that W. H. (who the collection is dedicated to) was a musician for an Earl but then Oscar Wilde changed him into a seductive young actor who was working in Shakespeare’s company in a short story! It’s such an odd way for a theory to come about but who knows, maybe Wilde was right 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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