Analysis of 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.

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; (lines 1-4)

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.

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. (5-8)

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.

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 (9-12).

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 accidently 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.

But since she pricked thee out for women’s pleasure,

Mine be thy love, and thy love’s use their treasure (13-4).

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.