What's he saying?
"A woman's face with Nature's own hand painted / Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;"
Nature painted you with the face of a woman, you master and mistress of my passion;
"A woman's gentle heart, but not acquainted / With shifting change, as is false women's fashion;"
You have the gentle heart of a woman, yet you are not fickle like so many changeable women;
"An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling / Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;"
Your eyes are brighter than women's, but not as deceptive as theirs; you shed golden light upon any object you gaze upon;
"A man in hue, all 'hues' in his controlling / Much steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth."
A man of your appearance sets the standard for what a man should look like; your beauty attracts the eyes of men and amazes the souls of women.
"And for a woman wert thou first created; / Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,"
And you were first created to be a woman, but Nature fell in love with you (or made a mistake) as she was crafting you,
"And by addition me of thee defeated / By adding one thing to my purpose nothing."
And defeated me by adding one thing to you, a thing that does not aid my goal.
"But since she prick'd thee out for women's pleasure / Mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure."
But since she chose you to be for women's pleasure, your love will be mine, yet the use of your love is for women's benefit.
Why is he saying it?
Sonnet 20 is considered one of the most interesting of the sonnets for its various insights into some of the sonnets' perpetual mysteries, including the true identity of the fair lord and the exact nature of the love that the poet expresses for him. The sonnet is fraught with wordplay and ambiguity - the perfect battleground for scholarly interpretation. Sonnet 20 has generated one of the largest bodies of criticism among the sonnets.
The first quatrain of sonnet 20 describes the fair lord as feminine: having "a woman's face," "a woman's gentle heart," etc. Note that the "master-mistress" appellation can be interpreted both in a literal sense (the fair lord is the poet's master, having control over him, as well as his mistress, with whom he is unfaithful) and in a figurative sense, androgenously (the fair lord is both male and female, or perhaps neither male nor female). The beauty of the fair lord is that of a woman, yet he is still a man; as we read in quatrain two, his appearance attracts both men and women alike.
It is almost as though the narrator is saying all this with the ulterior motive of justifying his own attraction to the fair lord. Scholars are divided over what this attraction really equates to, but the prevailing view is that although the attraction is certainly present, this does not necessarily imply that it is sexual. In lines 11-12, for example, the poet explicitly bemoans the fact that the fair lord was created as a man, but at the same time he explicitly denies any interest in the fair lord's genitalia: "And by addition me of thee defeated / By adding one thing to my purpose nothing." That "thing" is presumably the fair lord's penis, following common Shakespearean wordplay.
In the sonnet's closing couplet - tying in with the theme of platonic love vs. carnal lust - the poet concedes that the fair lord's love can belong to him even as the use of his love (that is, the sexual act) remains for the ladies. Note the poet's pun on the word "prick" in line 13: as a verb it can mean "to choose," while as a noun it can be a vulgar term for "penis." Finally, note that sonnet 20 is the only of Shakespeare's sonnets to use exclusively feminine rhyme - that is, end rhymes of at least two syllables with the final syllable unstressed - perhaps a deliberate attempt to further feminize the fair lord.
For a good example of the kind of creativity used by interpreters of the sonnets, let us consider the position held by some scholars that the poet intentionally encrypted the actual name of the fair lord into the lines of sonnet 20. Support for this hypothesis comes from the fact that the letters HEWS (with U at times in place of W) appear in every line in the sonnet but one; also note the "hue" and "hues" in line 7 (this second instance italicized in the Quarto), and the assonating "use" in line 14. Some take this as evidence for a Mr. Hughes as the true identity of the fair lord. Others see the letters as the poet's initials (WS) plus the first two letters of either Henry or Herbert (HE), possibly resorting to these names since the first letter of William or Wriothesley was already being used. One might even go so far as to claim that Shakespeare's use of the word "wrought" in line 10 was a deliberate alliterative reference to Wriothesley, or that the poet numbered the sonnet in accordance with the fair lord's age (Herbert would have turned 20 in 1600, Wriothesley in 1593). Obviously such interpretation is highly speculative and must remain inconclusive without corroborating historical evidence. But readers can enjoy wondering whether any of these ideas is true.
A summary of a classic Shakespeare sonnet
Sonnet 20 by William Shakespeare is one of the more famous early poems, after Sonnet 18. Its opening line, ‘A woman’s face, with Nature’s own hand painted’, immediately establishes the sonnet’s theme: Shakespeare is discussing the effeminate beauty of the Fair Youth, the male addressee of these early sonnets. Here is a brief summary and analysis of Sonnet 20 in terms of its language and meaning.
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 hew all Hews 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 prickt thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure.
First, as usual with our analysis of the Sonnets, a brief summary of Sonnet 20. Shakespeare says that the Fair Youth was created by Nature to be like a woman, with a woman’s face, a woman’s gentle heart, and beautiful eyes like a pretty woman’s. But each of these attributes is without the downside that’s found in a woman who has them: the Youth’s gentle heart, for instance, isn’t fickle like a woman’s (a little Elizabethan misogyny for us there); similarly, the Youth’s pretty eyes aren’t prone to be rolled (e.g. in disapproval or nagging) as a woman’s are.
This early description of the Youth’s feminine beauty occupies the first six lines of Sonnet 20. Then, in lines 7-12, Shakespeare argues that the Youth attracts the admiration of other men (such as Shakespeare himself) because of his feminine beauty, and astounds all women, also because of his womanly beauty. And it was indeed as a woman (‘for’ means ‘as’ in this line) that the Youth was initially created, until Nature (which is usually personified as female) fell in love with what she had created and added something (i.e. male genitals) to turn the fair woman into a Fair Youth. In doing so, she ‘defeated’ Shakespeare, who can no longer properly expect to enjoy the Youth’s love, now that he is a ‘he’ rather than a she. By ‘adding one thing’ (a penis) which is of no use to the male Bard, Shakespeare is thwarted in his now fruitless desire for the Youth.
In the concluding couplet, Shakespeare ends with a bawdy pun, the verb ‘prickt’ calling up that ‘addition’ between the Youth’s legs. Since Nature has decked the Youth out with a ‘prick’ for women to enjoy, Shakespeare tells him that the love he feels for the Youth is his to cherish, while the women enjoy his ‘love’s use’. In other words, Shakespeare is drawing a distinction between the physical love between a man and a woman, and the spiritual, Platonic and non-physical love he harbours for the Youth.
Sonnet 20 has prompted more analysis and discussion than virtually any other Shakespeare sonnet. Oscar Wilde, in his 1889 short story ‘The Portrait of Mr W. H.’, took the line ‘A man in hew all Hews in his controlling’ as a clue to the identity of the mysterious Mr W. H. to whom the 1609 publication of the Sonnets was dedicated. The italicising and capitalising of ‘Hews’ in some editions is interpreted as a hint, a pun on the name of (entirely fictitious) boy actor Willie Hughes, whom Wilde identifies as the real-life inspiration for the Fair Youth. But as with so much to do with the Sonnets, this remains mere speculation. The Sonnets always wriggle free of such attempts to pin them down to a specific reading.
Indeed, quite what this mysterious line, ‘A man in hew all Hews in his controlling’, is supposed to mean has had commentators of the Sonnets scratching their heads for some time. It could mean that the Youth is a man who, thanks to his complexion, has all facial colours under his control (i.e. he can blush and look pale, almost at will), but this is only one possible interpretation of this line. Quite how we are supposed to analyse it remains unclear, even in the context of the rest of the sonnet.
Sonnet 20 calls out for analysis and interpretation, but ultimately some aspects of it will always elude any attempts to offer up a clear and straightforward reading. However, the general meaning can easily be summarised, and its message is plain: Shakespeare is clearly besotted with the Fair Youth. Quite where the rest of the Sonnets will take this (Platonic) admiration (and whether it will remain Platonic) will be revealed in our future posts on the later Sonnets.
We continue our analysis of Shakespeare’s Sonnets with, predictably enough, Sonnet 21.