By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
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.
First, as usual with our analysis of the Sonnets, a brief summary of Sonnet 20.
A woman’s face, with Nature’s own hand painted,
Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion;
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.
A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion:
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).
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
Similarly, the Youth’s pretty eyes aren’t prone to be rolled (e.g. in disapproval or nagging) as a woman’s are.
A man in hew all Hews in his controlling,
Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.
This early description of the Youth’s feminine beauty occupies the first six lines of Sonnet 20.
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.
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.
But since she prickt thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure.
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. If you found this analysis of Sonnet 87 useful, you can discover more about the Sonnets here. Discover more of Shakespeare’s best sonnets with ‘That time of year thou mayst in me behold’, ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds’, and ‘When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced’.