Shakespeares sonnets Sonnet 20 A womans face with Natures own hand painted William

Shakespeare (1599) While this sonnet may appear at first to make a straightforward statement regarding the beloved, a closer look shows just how confusing is the gender situation presented here. To begin with, the speaker never identifies him/herself by gender. Therefore, the speaker can be either male or female. The identification of the lover as the Master Mistress of the speaker's "passion" confuses the issue as to whether the beloved is male or female. There is also the question of what exactly Nature "added" to the beloved that "defeated" the speaker's "purpose" in regard to the lover. This poem may very well have been designed purposely to be confusing, to make a statement that love itself is stronger and more important than the individual bodies of the lovers themselves.

Throughout the poem, the speaker refers to the personified "Nature" as the creator of the beloved. While we may assume that if Nature did it, it is "natural," and the way things should be, as the poem progresses we can see that the speaker believes that Nature is capable of making mistakes, mistakes that deny him or her pleasure in love. Lines 1 and 2 describe the lover as having "A woman's face" (l. 1) "painted" by Nature. This phrase suggests that the beloved is as beautiful as someone wearing cosmetics, but this beauty is totally natural. But does this image mean that the beloved is a woman whose face Nature painted, or does it mean that the lover is a man upon whom Nature has painted a face that looks like a woman's? Line 2 does not help us figure this out because it describes the beloved as being the speaker's "master-mistress." How are we to interpret that phrase? Does it mean the beloved is a dominating, masterful woman, or a man who looks like a woman or has other womanly characteristics? The speaker does not identify his or her own gender, leav ing the following possibilities for interpreting the scenario of these two lines: A male lover has a woman beloved who is manly or masterful; a male lover has a male beloved who looks like a woman; a woman lover has a woman beloved who is manly or masterful; a woman lover has a male beloved who looks like a woman. Several critics suggest that this poem is androgynous or hermaphroditic, while others argue for one reading or another based on what they believe to be Shakespeare's "sexual orientation" (a phrase and a concept unknown in the early modern period). A close reading of these lines allows all four to be possibilities.

Lines 3 and 4 do not help untangle this problem. The lines refer to early modern ideas of women as having both positive and negative qualities, often in the same individual. A woman was expected to be gentle but also fickle. Thus, the beloved has a "woman's gentle heart" either because she has been born with one or because he is unusual in having this characteristic. Whether man or woman, the beloved's heart is not fickle or changeable, a negative characteristic a woman may be born with that a man may avoid because of his gender. Cultural attitudes also suggested that women's eyes were supposed to be bright. Line 5 tells us that the beloved's eyes are "more bright" than most women's, so bright that the light from them make the person gazed upon seem to be covered with gold ("gilded," l. 6). The eyes of the beloved are also "less false in rolling" (l. 5)—that is, less prone to wander and gaze longingly, or lecherously, at other potential love objects. Again, the lover's sex is ambiguous. If a woman, she displays all positive aspects and contains no negative ones; if male, he possesses all the good female qualities and none of the bad. The word hue (l. 7) can mean either "looks," "complexion," or "appearance." Thus, the beloved either looks like a man—or is a man— whose beauty is greater than that of all other men or women. As a result, this beauty "steals men's eyes" and amazes "women's souls" (l. 8). This dominating, manly beauty, or the male or female beloved, has a powerful effect on both men and women.

The final quatrain reveals the problem that the speaker encounters in the beloved. Line 9 tells us that the beloved was created first, or primarily, "for a woman" (l. 9). This could mean that the lover is male, having been created for a woman's sexual use, or the beloved could have been created to be a woman. Unfortunately, while she was creating the beloved, Nature "fell a-dot-ing" (l. 10), or did not pay close attention, or behaved foolishly. Consequently, she added "one thing" (l. 12) that removed the beloved from the lover. That thing was "nothing" (l. 12) that the lover needed or wanted. The couplet attempts to explain the "one thing." It states that Nature "pricked thee out for women's pleasure" (l. 13). on one level that line can simply indicate that nature "chose" the beloved to provide women with pleasure. But how was that to happen? If the thing added to the beloved was a "penis"—and the word prick was also slang for the penis in the early modern period—then we can say that nature gave a womanly beautiful man a sex organ that was designed for a woman and not the male speaker. But there is another possibility. Since nothing could also be slang for a woman's vagina, the addition referred to could also be a clitoris, a woman's organ of pleasure. Again this presents a number of possible readings: A heterosexual male lover is upset because the beautiful person he loves has a penis, something he wishes his lover did not have; a homosexual male lover is upset because the beautiful person he loves has a clitoris, something he wishes his lover did not have; a heterosexual female lover is upset because the beautiful person she loves has a clitoris, something she wishes her lover did not have; a homosexual female lover is upset because the beautiful person she loves has a penis, something she wishes her lover did not have. The sad final line indicates that the speaker will always love the beloved, but in a nonsexual way. The beloved's sexual activity ("use," l. 14) will be the "treasure" (l. 14) of the others who want a lover of the beloved's biological sex.

See also Shakespeare, William; Shakespeare's sonnets (overview).

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