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.