Sonnet XX, by William Shakespeare

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,
Which 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 pricked thee out for women's pleasure,
  Mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure.

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Among the first set of Shakespeare’s sonnets, Sonnet 20 stands out as one of the most forthright in addressing the idea of Shakespeare’s physical relations with the young man. However, the sonnet leaves much open to interpretation, and has therefore been used both to support and refute the idea of Shakespeare as a participant in the homosexual act. While the sonnet does allow for multiple interpretations, critics who try to make the sonnet fit a platonic interpretation seem to be looking at the poem only on a superficial level and ignoring the multiple shades of meaning that support a homosexual reading.

Before the issue of Shakepeare’s possible homosexuality in regards to this sonnet can even be properly addressed, the issue of whom the poem is addressed to must be dealt with. Gender is left deliberately ambiguous throughout the entire sonnet, as “the poet has carefully chosen puns which apply to the male, the female, or both at once, all suitable for praising this epicene creature who unites the best of both sexes within himself at once” (Kolin 10). Throughout the sonnet, there are nine references to women or the female pronoun and only four to men, and the gender of the addressee is only once indicated with the pronoun “he” in line seven.

The second line of the poem best exemplifies this confusion of gender, with the confusing phrase “master mistress.” There are several interpretations of this contradictory line. The poet could be referring to a man serving him as a mistress, or to a mistress who has taken control of the speaker in the manner of a master (Bredbeck 59). Several other lines contain a similar level of confusion, as in lines four to six. These lines allow for two interpretations of the narrative, one, “the speaker is addressing a woman who surpasses the ‘fashion’ of other women, and through her chaste gentility ‘gilds’ the man on whom she ‘gazeth.’” (Bredbeck 59). Yet there is also the possibility that the speaker addresses a man, and that the line “a woman’s gentle heart” is meant as a comparison, suggesting that this is a womanly man.

As within the poem there can be no definite determination, the best clue comes from the greater context. Sonnet 20 falls within the first 126 sonnets, and is therefore classified as one of the “young man” sonnets. Fit within this sequence, the addressee must be a male, despite some attempts by editors throughout the last centuries to change the pronouns and indicate that Shakespeare was addressing a woman. But if Shakespeare is addressing a man, this brings the reader to face the idea of homosexuality, allusions to which are so thinly veiled throughout the poem. There are two main schools of thought on whether Shakespeare was in fact referring to sodomy and a homosexual relationship. Some prefer to see the relationship as purely platonic friendship. However, the sexual side of the sonnet cannot be ignored, and it clearly suggests a more physical intimacy.

Those who take the sonnet’s language without analysis of the many connotations advance a narrative for the poem where Shakespeare is addressing the young man from a purely platonic standpoint. The speaker is interpreted as saying that he loves the man for his heart, but nature has never meant for them to be together physically. Booth takes that stance with his interpretation of the sonnet, saying that “men are like men, and, to put it crudely as Shakespeare does, they don’t fit together; men are unlike women, and they do fit together” (Booth 110).

Similarly, a reading of Sonnet 20 in context with the earlier sonnets can suggest a platonic interpretation of the affection between the poet and the young man. This allows for one reading that takes the sonnet as a vehement denial that the poet’s friendship has anything but “innocent and honorable” intentions (MacKenzie 11). Reading passion as a “outburst of feeling” that is entirely nonsexual in nature removes “any hint of perversion from the sonnet (MacKenzie 11). Furthermore, when defending the idea of a platonic relationship, some critics say that by choosing to address the poetry to a young man, Shakespeare is merely expressing a desire for the unattainable in the tradition of courtly love. The sexual undertones of the poem are then explained away as but a “predictable extreme” of courtly love in seeking the unattainable (Booth 180). This allows the dismissal of any homosexual implications, and adds an interpretation that Shakespeare’s young man sonnets are to some extent a work of satire mocking courtly love.

However, to merely classify this desire for a man under the category of “courtly” love is to ignore the many differences between Shakespeare’s work and the traditional poetry of courtly romance. The nature of Renaissance writings on courtly love was to dream about attaining that which was believed to be completely unattainable. However, in Shakespeare’s poetry, the implications go beyond the traditional “worship from afar” mentality of courtly love. As one critic wrote, “sonnet 20 may be a poem of courtship, but Shakespeare does not stop there. Unlike most Renaissance poets who write about love, Shakespeare goes on to write about what happens when emotional desire becomes the physical act” (Smith 252). When Shakespeare’s work moves to the level of describing the physical, as certainly sonnet 20 alludes to repeatedly, it can no longer be dismissed as merely courtly love.

Most important to a platonic interpretation of the sonnet is the final couplet. Many critics have put great emphasis on the final couplet as undermining any possible homosexual interpretation of the sonnet. The platonic reading of this couplet affirms, “the young man is for women’s pleasure” (Kolin 10). Therefore the boy’s love and affection is given to the poet, but the sexual enjoyment of him is reserved to women (Hammond 83). This interpretation is best drawn from the use of the verb “use” to draw a distinction between the poet’s love of the youth, and women’s use of him sexually: Mine be thy love, and thy loves use their treasure” (Hammond 66). However, a more precise reading of this line would suggest that the poet is acknowledging the boy’s right and need to be with women for reproductive purposes, but that does not mean he has abandoned the idea of a sexual relation of his own with the boy. This allows for a homosexual interpretation of the line, such as that championed by one critic, where the speaker is saying “Since you were created to be used as a women (i.e. penetrated), I will be your lover, and others (presumably women) will have to masturbate’” (Bredbeck 60). This interpretation can be made based on the play of words surrounding the rhyming treasure and pleasure.

When this interpretation of the final couplet is taken, other interpretations become apparent for the rest of the sonnet that show a fully developed set of allusions to sex and the physical resolution of the poet and the young man’s relationship. Several sexual puns contribute to the development of this line of thought. The reference in lines three and four to the young man not being “acquainted with shifting change” draws on the pun where “acquaintance” means equipped with a “cunt” (Rubinstein 209) Similarly, in line twelve the phrase “by adding one thing to my purpose nothing” may draw upon the use of the word nothing as slang for women’s private parts. This suggests a highly physical interpretation where the man’s body is as good to the speaker as that of a woman.

Another area where potential sexual innuendo exists is in line seven, “A man in hue, all hues in his controlling.” In the original Quarto version of line seven, the word “Hews” is emphasized and italicized. This draws attention to the word and suggests that Shakespeare wanted the reader to see more than one possible meaning behind the word. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “hew” is an obsolete form of the word “hue,” which means primarily form but also can mean to assume or fake an appearance. Taken in this secondary meaning when juxtaposed with the word false in lines four and five, the emphasis of this word can be taken as an attack on the young man’s truthfulness by the poet, saying that the young man is false as a woman but in a different manner, in his appearance and actions. It can also have a more sexual connotation, implying that the man can take on the “hue” and role of a woman for the speaker.

Another theme of the sonnet that supports a homosexual interpretation is found within the continual references to nature and the creation scene presented in lines ten to thirteen. Here Nature is depicted as “adding a penis to a half finished woman” and in doing so invoking “the specter of sodomy” (Halpern 26). While the poem then makes a “surface argument that this penis stands definitively in the way of sexual contact,” that is a naïve assumption. (Halpern 26). Instead, the penis is incidental and unnecessary in the interactions of the poet and the young man, and therefore the young man’s penis is reserved to women.

With all the undertones of physical relations present in this sonnet, it is not hard to develop a homosexual interpretation where the two have physically consummated their relationship. This also functions within the larger context of the young man sequence, as “we can see in the first twenty sonnets a progression in which the poet’s sexual feelings for the friend, held carefully in check at first, gradually emerge as the poet’s real subject and homosocial desire changes by degrees into homosexual desire” (Smith 248). Whether this reading actually reflects homosexual actions on the part of Shakespeare cannot be determined; however, the speaker of the poem should be interpreted as having experienced homosexual desire, and likely action, with the young man addressed.

Works Cited

Booth, Stephen. An Essay on Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Yale University Press, New Haven and London: 1969.

Bredbeck, Gregory W. “Tradition and the Individual Sodomite: Barnfield, Shakespeare, and Subjective Desire.” Homosexuality in Renaissance and Enlightenment England: Literary Representations in Historical Context. Ed by Claude J. Summers. The Haworth Press, New York, 1992.

Halpern, Richard. Shakespeare’s Perfume: Sodomy and Sublimity in the Sonnets, Wilde, Freud, and Lacan. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2002.

Hammond, Paul. Figuring Sex Between Men from Shakespeare to Rochester. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2002.

Kolin, Phillip C. “Shakepeare’s Sonnet 20.” Explicator. 45:1, Fall 1986.

MacKenzie, Barabara A. Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Their Relation to his Life. Maskew Miller Limited, Cape Town, 1946.

Rubinstein, Frankie. A Dictionary of Shakespeare’s Sexual Puns and their Significance. St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1984.

Smith, Bruce R. Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare’s England: A Cultural Poetics. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1991.

Shakespeare's Sonnet no. 20: An analysis

1609 Quarto text ("u", "v" and "s" modernised)

1    A Womans face with natures owne hande painted,
2    Haste thou, the Master Mistris of my passion,
3    A womans gentle hart but not acquainted
4    With shifting change as is false womens fashion,
5    An eye more bright then theirs, lesse false in rowling:
6    Gilding the obiect where-upon it gazeth,
7    A man in hew all Hews in his controwling,
8    Which steales mens eyes and womens soules amaseth,
9    And for a woman wert thou first created,
10  Till nature as ?he wrought thee fell a dotinge,
11  And by addition me of thee defeated,
12  By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
13       But since she prickt thee out for womens pleasure,
14       Mine be thy love and thy loves use their treasure.

        A woman's face
With nature's own hand
 A woman's gentle heart,
               An eye more bright

Hast thou, the master-
               mistress of my passion,   passion: suffering; affliction

    A woman's        face
    A woman's gentle heart
False women's        fashion
For a woman wert thou first created
  And women's souls amazeth
  For women's pleasure

                Not acquainted           acquaintance: carnal knowledge
quaint: cunt with shifting change shift: a woman's under-garment to shift: to change one's clothing as is false women's fashion, fashion: the make or form of anything More bright than theirs, (False women's fashion,) Less false in rolling: Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth, The master- mistress of my passion, A woman's face A man in hue hue: colour or shade of color A man in hew, hew: shape; form (Obs.) All Hews in his controlling, capital letter and italics in original (Hughes?) TO THE ONLIE BEGETTER OF THESE INSUING SONNETS MR. W. H. dedication of the Sonnets Which steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth, With nature's own hand painted For a woman wert thou first created, Nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting, Me of thee defeated She pricked thee out For a woman wert thou first created, She pricked thee out for women's pleasure, And by addition me of thee defeated By adding one thing One thing to my purpose thing: male or female genitalia (my passion) nothing. nothing: male or female genitalia But since she pricked thee out prick: to choose, to mark prick: penis Mine be thy love And thy love's use use: interest (cf. usury); benefit And thy loves use or profit of lands and tenements (For women's pleasure) Their treasure. treasure: semen (see Sonnet II; female genitalia (see Sonnet CXXXVI)

What is all this about? What I have done is to emphasize the connections between different parts of the poem, based solely on the arrangement of words and their literal and figurative (metaphorical or slang) meanings. The notes in italics are not the only meanings of the words glossed, but those that seem most relevant or revelatory.

There are many parallels within the poem, in the sense of two or more different phrases or words which have some element in common. In some cases the parallels are variations on essentially the same idea ("A woman's face"/"A woman's gentle heart"); but sometimes the parallelism of the phrasing points up a difference ("more bright than theirs, less false in rolling"), or even a contradiction or antithesis ("A woman's face"/"A man in hew"). Parallels are important in determining the meaning, since they draw attention to the similarities and differences of concepts.

As we will see, ambiguity is also an essential part of the poem: both in the sense of a clearly-expressed ambiguity of gender, and in the sense of several possible meanings coexisting in the more obscure passages.

The most common words in the poem are "woman", with 6 uses, and "thou" (you) also with 6 (counting also "thee" and "thy"); next most common is "me" (counting "my" and "mine") with 4. "Man" comes in with a lowly 2 mentions. Given that the object of the poem turns out to be male, this is already an unusual distribution. It has also been remarked that this is one of only two sonnets employing only feminine rhymes.

The connection with the dedication is a speculation dating back at least to Oscar Wilde's The Portrait of Mr. W.H.: he put forward the theory that the dedicatee was a young actor named Will or William Hughes, based on the frequency of wordplay involving "will" (although Shakespeare was also "Will"!) and "hew", "hue", "use", "usury".

Lines 1-4

The first clause up to "Hast thou" has an obvious meaning - too obvious. If the poet were addressing a woman, it would be absurd and tautological to tell her that she had "a woman's face". Our suspicions are confirmed by "master-mistress", which could mean either a womanly man or a manly woman.

"A woman's gentle heart" merely echoes the first line, but a further clue comes from "not acquainted with shifting change". The poet sets his subject apart: his or her heart is not so changeable as those of "false women". The double meaning reinforces the contradiction of femaleness by adding a more physical aspect. However, it is still possible that the poet is addressing a particular woman, one who behaves or dresses like a stereotypical man.

Lines 5-8

"An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling" repeats the contradiction of femaleness; "rolling" eyes were associated with flirtation and inconstancy. Line 6 is a cliché of the period: rays were imagined coming out of a person's eyes to illuminate the thing looked at. "Gilding" suggests that whatever he or she looks at is enhanced or honoured by the gaze, and contrasts strongly with "rolling".

"A man in hew" or "hue" seems to contradict "a woman's face": his or her colour and shape are manly! Possibly this refers to the rest of the body, in which case "shape" would be the most plausible meaning. "All Hews in his controlling" finally fixes the mysterious person as male, but otherwise is obscure. It may mean that other people's features are "controlled" by his, or that he has command over all features within himself (self-control being a stereotypically male attribute). Since "Hews" is, unusually, italic, the line may contain a private joke or hidden meaning that we can't 'get'. Line 8 is a fairly straightforward description of the effects of the man's physical appearance on both sexes, which the poet is certainly not immune to: "steal" means, here, to take possession of.

Lines 9-14

The end of the poem is more obscure. "For a woman" in this context means "as a woman"; if it is read literally in the modern sense as "for a woman" then it is difficult to extract any meaning at all from what follows. "Doting" means weakness of mind, excessive affection, foolishness or idiocy. The implication is that Nature (personified as a woman) was so in love with her creation that she made a silly mistake: the mistake is the "addition", which "defeated" the poet's "purpose" towards the would-be woman.

"Adding one thing to my purpose nothing" means little if we do not know the Elizabethan dirty words. Shakespeare takes the crudest differentiation between male and female: men have 'a thing' hanging between their legs, women have 'nothing'. "Nothing" has the double meaning of 'no penis', and the 'vagina' which is the poet's "purpose". Sexual desire is definitely here, but in a very confused state. Roughly, the poet imagines the object of his desire as a woman and implies that he would have her, but is defeated by the presence of a penis, which he fancifully imagines as nature's fond mistake.

"Pricked thee out for women's pleasure" seems clearer: the slang prick = penis was first recorded at the end of the 16th century, just when the sonnets were being written. The other interpretation is that Nature, despite endowing the man with a penis, marked him out to experience "women's pleasure", i.e. to get pleasure from being made love to by a man. However, this is somewhat implausible: the double meaning of "pricked" then becomes nonsensical, and if the man were intended to enjoy homosexuality it is difficult to understand why the poet is "defeated".

The greatest ambiguity is in the last line. The usual reading of "thy loves use" (no apostrophe in original) is "thy love's use". This establishes an antithesis with "thy love", suggesting that the physical employment of the man's love (i.e. sex) should be for the women, but the main - possibly the spiritual or emotional - part should be kept for the poet. The line also metaphorically asks that he should give the women the interest, but save the capital of his love for the poet.

The repeated payment of interest on, or gathering of profits from, a fixed loan or piece of property is a striking metaphor for preserving or keeping back the essence of love despite having love affairs. Shakespeare often used legal or financial imagery in the Sonnets (e.g. CXXXIV). "Treasure" then has a triple meaning: the financial one of profit or payment, the commonplace metaphor of a beloved object for the women, and the bawdy one of semen.

Alternative "homosexual" reading

The alternative reading, consistent with the idea that Nature marked the man out to enjoy homosexuality, is "thy loves use their treasure". His women loves should use their own sex organs, in other words masturbate, while the man's love (whether Platonic or physical) should be entirely for the poet. Note that the pronunciation of "use" is different here, with a 'z' rather than an 's'. Hence if one reads the poem out loud, one or other meaning has to be chosen. (This may not have been true in Shakespeare's day, since English pronunciation has changed considerably.)

With the "gay" reading, one loses the antithesis between "thy love" and "thy love's use", and the resulting rich financial metaphor. There are also grammatical problems: the "loves", being plural, should have "treasures", if this means their sex organs. (Shakespeare could have written "pleasures" and "treasures", but he didn't.) The use of "treasure" with the double meaning 'semen' is common in Shakespeare's sonnets addressed to men (those with lower numbers), while the meaning 'female genitalia' occurs in a higher-numbered sonnet addressed to a woman. Also, the last line would have an imperative verb, "mine be thy love" conjoined with an indicative, "thy loves use their treasure", which is awkward compared to the usual reading where "thy love's use be their treasure" is implied. Consistency would require something like "Mine be thy love, let thy loves use their treasures." or "thy loves should use their treasures", if this were the primary meaning.

This reading remains as a possible overtone (particularly since "treasure" could retain the connotation of female genitalia), grammatical and semantic problems undermine any claim that the sonnet expresses a desire for gay sex. The sexual confusion of the whole poem inevitably implies a strong homoerotic element, however one cannot reconcile the disappointment of the poet "defeated" by Nature's "doting" "addition" to his "purpose nothing", with the idea that he relished sex with a man.


One can speculate on whether the society of the time would have tolerated an open statement of homosexual desire. It is certainly possible that the rejection of these desires, expressed in this sonnet, is a result of self-censorship. But in the absence of other evidence, one cannot tell if such self-censorship did actually occur. It is also possible that the sonnet is about an occasion on which Shakespeare mistook the man for a woman, in which case an absurdly misplaced heterosexual desire would be the subject. The text cannot tell us which, if any, of these stories is correct.

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