Essay On Sonnet 20 Shakespeare



with...painted (1): a natural beauty.

master-mistress (2): likely male-mistress. This line is hotly debated. Please see commentary below for more.

false (4): unfaithful.

rolling (5): straying.

Gilding (6): making the object seem golden.

Sonnet 20 has caused much debate. Some scholars believe that this is a clear admission of Shakespeare's homosexuality. Despite the fact that male friendships in the Renaissance were openly affectionate, the powerful emotions the poet displays here are indicative of a deep and sensual love. The poet's lover is 'the master-mistress of [his] passion.' He has the grace and features of a woman but is devoid of the guile and pretense that comes with female lovers; those wily women with eyes 'false in rolling', who change their moods and affections like chameleons.

Lines 9-14 are of particular interest to critics on both sides of the homosexual debate. Some argue these lines show that, despite his love for the young man, the poet does not want to 'have' him physically. The poet proclaims that he is content to let women enjoy the 'manly gifts' that God has given his friend. He is satisfied to love the young man in a spiritual way. But others contend that Shakespeare had to include this disclaimer, due to the homophobia of the time. "The meaning is conveyed not just by what is said but by the tone. The argument may serve to clear Shakespeare of the charge of a serious offense..." (Spender, 99).

Note the similarity to Marlowe's poem Hero and Leander (1598):
The barbarous Thracian soldier, moved with
Was moved with him, and for his favour sought.
Some swore he was a maid in man's attire.
For in his looks were all that men desire, --
A pleasant-smiling cheek, a speaking eye,
A brow for love to banquet royally;
And such as knew he was a man would say,
"Leander, thou art made for amorous play:
Why art thou not in love, and loved of all?
Though thou be fair, yet be not thine own
Sonnets 18-25 are often discussed as a group, as they all focus on the poet's affection for his friend. For more on how the sonnets are grouped, please see the general introduction to Shakespeare's sonnets.

How to cite this article:
Shakespeare, William. Sonnet 20. Ed. Amanda Mabillard. Shakespeare Online. 8 Dec. 2008. < >.

Marlowe, Christopher. Hero and Leander. London: E. Matthews and J. Lane, 1894.
Spender, Stephen. The Riddle of Shakespeare's Sonnets. New York: Basic Books, 1962.
Wright, George Thaddeus. Shakespeare's Metrical Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

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Did You Know? ... "Of the countless editions of the works of Shakespeare that show a frontispiece likeness of the poet, it is a singular fact that by far the greater number favour the 'Chandos' portrait. The face and features of Shakespeare as 'imaged' in that portrait are those with which his readers are probably most familiar. It is not easy to account for this, since the Chandos Portraitportrait is certainly not the first in point of genuineness, whatever may be its degree of artistic merit. Possibly it satisfies more fully the popular ideal of the likeness of a great creative poet than does the bust or print just referred to. Be that as it may, the 'Chandos ' portrait, for various reasons, more than justifies its being kept in the custody of the nation as a very rare and valuable relic of its greatest dramatist." Alexander Cargill. Read on....


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July 16, 2014

Analysis of William Shakespeare's Sonnet #20 "A woman's face with Nature's own hand painted"

Shakespeare liked to challenge the mind, and push the boundaries of the accepted norms of society. Sonnet 20 is famously ambiguous when it comes to the sex of both the speaker and the beloved, which leaves the poem open for several interpretations. I believe that Shakespeare did this show that love and sexuality are ambiguous. The ambiguity in this poem lies in sexual orientation: the lover is male and the beloved is female; the lover is male and the beloved is male; the lover is female and the beloved is male; the lover is female and the beloved is female. Homosexuality was definitely considered taboo, and was not publicly talked about during Shakespeare's time. Shakespeare is asking his readers to consider that love comes in all forms, and doesn't necessarily need to be defined; love is pure and good no matter what form it appears in. Many critics believe that this poem is purposefully androgynous or hermaphroditic, and pushes the boundaries of gender and sexuality.

The speaker begins the first stanza by stating that the beloved's face is as beautiful and natural as a woman's face when she is not wearing any makeup. So is the speaker saying that the beloved is a woman or is the beloved effeminate? The second line does not help us to determine the gender of the beloved. Is the speaker referring to his beloved or Mother Nature herself when he says "master mistress of my passion"? If you believe that the beloved is male then the speaker would be talking to Mother Nature, in this second line, and not his beloved. But if the speaker is talking to the beloved it would have to mean that the beloved is female. This brings about the question of what gender the speaker is. Typically I tend to equate the speaker's gender with the author's gender, but this poem is written in a way that is purposefully deceptive; perhaps the unknown genders are a way for people to insert themselves into the text, so that it is more relatable to them. In line three, the beloved is said to have a "gentle heart," which is typically a trait used to describe women during this time; women were supposed to be gentle, but also fickle. Having a gentle nature is the complete opposite of the manly man, which helps the argument that the beloved is an androgynous character. The speaker states in the first line, that Nature created the beloved; therefore the beloved should have been made correctly because Nature is not supposed to make mistakes. As the poem progresses it is apparent that Nature does indeed make mistakes, which deny the beloved pleasure in love. The beloved is not clearly defined by a gender role, which creates confusion and prohibits the beloved from experiencing love in the typical manner.

The second quatrain moves away from the beloved's female qualities and begins to discuss how the beloved is like a man. His eyes are brighter than a woman's; women were supposed to have eyes that were bright-radiating with happiness, sparkling, and beautiful. The beloved's eyes were also less likely to betray his love by gazing upon other potential lovers. The beloved's eyes gild-a decorative technique for applying fine gold leaf or powder to solid surfaces-whatever they behold. Line seven can be interpreted in several ways depending on how the word hue-form, complexion, color/appearance-is defined. If hue is defined as form then it can be interpreted as: "a man in form, all forms are in his control" or in other words he controls all people. When hue is used describe complexion then the line can be interpreted as: "a man in completion, he has control over all other completions," meaning he has the power to make people blush or grow pale. Finally, if hue is used as appearance then the line is interpreted as: "a man in appearance, he can put forth any appearance that he wants." As a man the beloved has the ultimate power-he can take on all traits, and control everyone. In the last line of the second quatrain, the narrator states that the beloved is so captivation that he outshines all other men, and the women only see him. Eyes are a major motif in this second quatrain; in the beginning of the quatrain the narrator describes the beloved's eyes as being effeminate, but by the end of the quatrain the beloved has a man's eyes. Both men and women are captivated and outshined by the beloved-the narrator is putting the beloved on a pedestal; the beloved rules over all people, because he is so beautiful.

The beloved was originally created for a woman's sexual desires, or the beloved was originally created as a woman. During the creation process Mother Nature became infatuated with the beloved, and she didn't pay close enough attention to what she was created. Mother Nature added "one thing," which makes it impossible for the beloved to experience love the way most people experience it. Perhaps the beloved was originally created as a woman, but nature accidentally added a male's genitalia. The word "nothing' is often used as slang for a woman's genitalia. By adding this "one thing" where "nothing" should be makes it impossible for the lover and the beloved to ever truly be together sexually.

The rhyming couplet tries to explain the "one thing." Nature created the beloved to give women pleasure, but how is this to happen? The narrator created (wrote about him) the beloved because the narrator wanted to be loved by his beloved. "Prick" is also used as slang for a man's genitalia. "Thy love's use their treasure," could mean that only the beloved can satisfy himself sexually; because the beloved is different from everyone else, he/she cannot be satisfied by typical sexuality. Treasure is most likely used here to mean sexual enjoyment. The lover and his beloved cannot be together sexually because of this "one thing," so they must remain platonic friends, which must be incredibly frustrating for both.
This poem can also be commentary on the way that plays in Shakespeare's times were put on. Men played both men and women's parts in the plays, which could cause confusion. Men with the most effeminate qualities were most likely picked to play the female roles, which could account for the hermaphroditic images.


Shakespeare, William. "20." The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Sixteenth Century/The Early Seventeenth Century. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: Norton, 2006. 1064.

Published on July 16, 2014 by Sophia Brookshire © All Rights Reserved


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