Sonnet No. 20

On most occasions when I post one of Shakespeare’s sonnets I don’t comment on the content or meaning, preferring to let you all make your own interpretation. This one, however, think deserves some discussion. At first reading it appears to be describing the poet’s love for a feminine-looking young man, and that has led to the interpretation that it was written about one of the many actors that played female roles on the Elizabethan stage. That could well be the case, of course, but it’s not at all obvious to me that this is describing sexual desire for said gender-bending individual. In fact, if you study this sonnet carefully you will find numerous puns and a liberal dose of sexual innuendo so I rather think this is just a bit of fun, rather than a serious discussion of the bard’s sexuality. The reference to “prick” in the penultimate line is obvious, but there’s also “nothing” in the previous line which Shakespeare often uses as a euphemism for a vagina. An even more clever and playful element is the existence of an extra unstressed syllable in each line (making 11 instead of the usual 10 in iambic pentameter), suggesting something added, fairly obviously a penis; the suggestion is that nature made this beautiful person as a woman but then added the “one thing” referred to in the poem.

Anyway, what I love most about this particular sonnet is its humour and ambivalence. That’s probably also why I enjoyed watching the Ladyboys of Bangkok so much on my birthday. So I hereby dedicate this post to them!

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,
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.
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.
But since she pricked thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure.

Sonnet No.20 , by William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

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