‘Sonnet 20’, also known as ‘ A woman’s face, with nature’s own hand painted’ is number twenty of one hundred fifty-four that Shakespeare wrote over his lifetime. It is part of the prolonged Fair Youth sequence of sonnets (numbers one through one hundred twenty-six) and is one of several that has inspired readers to question the author’s, or at least the speaker’s, sexuality. Throughout this sonnet, and several others in the series, the speaker appears to exhibit homosexual tendencies. There has been a great deal of debate over whether this is actually the case and if it is if Shakespeare is speaking for himself or for a character.
The poem combines male and female attributes in the first few lines. It is unclear at first as the speaker is discussing this person’s beauty if they are in fact a man or a woman. He says that their face is as beautiful as a woman’s but their mind is less fickle. They are less liable to cheat. The speaker discusses in the last lines of the poem how the listener’s body was made for women, meaning he has male genitalia, but that the speaker will love him all the same.
The poem is structured in the form which has come to be synonymous with the poet’s name. It made up of three quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one concluding couplet, or set of two rhyming lines. The poem follows a consistent rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG and it is written in iambic pentameter. But, there is a difference. In all of Shakespeare’s sonnets this is only one of two that has an extra syllable at the end of each line. There has been much speculation about what this means, even relating back to the question of sexuality.
As is common in Shakespeare’s poetry, the last two lines are a rhyming pair, known as a couplet. They often bring with them a turn or volta in the poem. They’re sometimes used to answer a question posed in the previous twelve lines, shift the perspective, or even change speakers.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 20’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, personification, and metaphor. The first of these, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “master-mistress” in line two and “false” and “fashion” in line four.
A metaphor is a comparison between two unlike things that does not use “like” or “as” is also present in the text. When using this technique a poet is saying that one thing is another thing, they aren’t just similar. There is a good example in line six where the speaker compares the young man’s gaze to “gilding”. It turns everything it touches to gold. This is a lovely way of saying that he blesses the world with his sight.
Lastly, personification. It occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. In the last lines, as is common in these sonnets, Shakespeare refers to nature as a personified force that has the ability to create in a specific way. The force is referred to as a woman who has the agency to make as she sees fit.
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;
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 20,’ the speaker begins by presenting a series of images that confuse whether or not he is speaking about a man or a woman. This is maintained throughout the poem until the last few lines. He tells the intended listener, who is usually considered to ba young man (the Fair Youth), that he has a face that’s as beautiful as a woman’s. It’s so beautiful that he doesn’t need to change. It was painted (as if with makeup) by nature.
The second line has a famous word/phrase in it, “master-mistress”. This is part of the gender-bending dynamics at play in the poem. The listener is a man, or is he a woman? The speaker is actively navigating between the two.
The listener has a woman’s heart, meaning he is gentle, but he is less fickle. He doesn’t cheat as a woman would.
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.
In the second quatrain of ‘Sonnet 20’ the speaker goes on to say that the listener has eyes are that more beautiful than a woman’s. But, as he stated before, this listener is “less false in rolling” than women. He is less inclined to cheat. His eyes “Gild,” or cover in gold, everything that they gaze at. This is a beautiful metaphor that is used to say that everything is improved or blessed by the young man’s gaze.
The seventh and eight lines are interesting ones. They allude to the young person’s beauty once more but also suggest that that beauty appeals to both men and women.
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.
In the third and final quatrain of ‘Sonnet 20’ the speaker says that for “a woman” this person was created, alluding to their male gender. Nature made this person, (an example of personification) but she went farther than she intended to. This is a sexual allusion related biologically make organs that the speaker, a man, does not have any use for. It is “one thing to [his] purpose nothing”.
But since she pricked thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love, and thy love’s use their treasure.
The sexual innuendoes continue in the next lines. The word “pricked” is used to refer to a phallus but also to the creation of the man. He was made for “women’s pleasure”. This is something that the speaker is navigating and which seems to be less of a problem than a modern reader considering the past might think.
‘Sonnet 20’ concludes with the speaker saying that nature made “thee” for women but that he’ll keep the young man’s love. The women can have his body.