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 prick'd thee out for women's pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure.
This sonnet has much of interest for those seeking to delve to the root the nature of Shakespeare's passion. Many have thought that it contains clues, anagrams and acrostics of the young man's name. As KDJ points out, its placing here, as sonnet 20, probably relates to the primitive associations of the number with human anatomy, each human having 20 digits (fingers and toes) in all.
Clearly this might be one of the key sonnets which could unlock the secrets of Shakespeare's heart. At some stage any reader has to come to terms with the implicit sexuality contained in it, for it is an open declaration of love by one man for another man, something which few ages in the history of the world have been able to view with complete equanimity. But we should not exaggerate the importance of this one humorous exercise of wit so as to make it into a credo of the whole sonnet sequence. Declarations of love abound in what follows, and this sonnet is not exceptional in that respect. In fact it has more appeal as a display of ingenuity than as a deeply committed betrothal scene. Although it does undoubtedly underline some of the contradictions that arise when one man loves another, Christian charity demands that we do not overstress this, for love is love in whatever sphere it moves, and the love which Shakespeare describes in 1-126 seems to be infinitely more altruistic and self-giving than that of the poisonous love of the dark lady sonnets which conclude the sequence.
'You were created by Nature as a woman but more beautiful than any woman, for you do not have their faults. But Nature changed her mind as she made you, and turned you into a man, for she herself adored you, and, perhaps desiring congress, gave you male parts. Therefore I cannot love you with the fulness that I would love a woman. But let me have your real love, while women enjoy the physical manifestation of it, which I know to be merely a superficies'.
Critics have mined this sonnet for clues as to the youth's identity, and much attention has been given to the use of hew and Hews in line 7 (see the Quarto reading for the spelling). HV points out that Shakespeare appears to have attempted the task of ensuring that the letters of the word hews (or hues) occur in every line, as though he were playing some sort of word game. With the exception of line 11 whch contains only an h and an e, (the absence being made up as it were by two hews in line 7), each line has its actual or equivalent hews.
Since we are dealing here with letter occurrences it is worth investigating whether or not these are above average, and I set out below the comparisons for the average number of occurrences of these letters per sonnet (taking all the sonnets) compared with the number actually found in sonnet 20.
From this it appears that w and s are likely to be significantly different, though h and e are not. There may be various explanations for this. The sonnet does not contain any of the interrogative words how, what, when, where, who, why (though which occurs as the relative pronoun); and sweet also is missing, which, especially when repeated, has an effect on the letter score. The absence of these would actually depress the score for these letters, so it is even more likely that they are above the norm.
Supporters of Southampton or Pembroke could well see in this an affort to wreathe together the letters HE and WS, for Henry, or Herbert and William Shakespeare. It is perfectly possible that some such trick was intended, but very probable that we shall not ever be able to verify whether it was or no.
Finally a note on the fact that this is the only sonnet of the 154 which has all feminine rhymes. (Although Booth claims the distinction for sonnet 87 also. He perhaps overlooks estimate and determinate which fit Sidney's category of "sdrucciola".) I append below the passage from Sidney's The Defence of Poesie published in 1595, which sets out the rules. The work was written circa 1581, and was probably in circulation a long time before publication, so it could have been known to Shakespeare before 1595. The full text for those who wish to read more may be found on the link to other authors.
It may be questioned whether, in a sequence of poems which contain such intensity of feeling, the writer would have bothered himself with such apparent trivialities. The fact is that it was fashionable to know of such matters, and all writers would have been aware of them. The quotation from George Chapman's All Fooles appended below is appropriate, and shows what was current and in vogue at the time. There are records of it being performed in early 1598.
Now for rhyme, though we do not observe quantity, we observe the accent very precisely, which other languages either cannot do, or will not do so absolutely. That "caesura," or breathing-place, in the midst of the verse, neither Italian nor Spanish have, the French and we never almost fail of. Lastly, even the very rhyme itself the Italian cannot put in the last syllable, by the French named the masculine rhyme, but still in the next to the last, which the French call the female; or the next before that, which the Italian calls "sdrucciola:" the example of the former is, "buono," "suono;" of the sdrucciola is, "femina," "semina." The French, of the other side, hath both the male, as "bon," "son," and the female, as "plaise," "taise;" but the "sdrucciola" he hath not; where the English hath all three, as "due," "true," "father," "rather," "motion," "potion;" with much more which might be said, but that already I find the trifling of this discourse is much too much enlarged.
From Sir Philip Sydney's A Defence of Poesie.
I could have written as good prose and verse
As the most beggarly poet of 'em all,
Either Accrostique, Exordion,
Epithalamions, Satyres, Epigrams,
Sonnets in Doozens, or your Quatorzanies,
In any rhyme, Masculine, Feminine,
Or Sdrucciola, or cooplets, Blancke Verse:
Y'are but bench-whistlers now a dayes to them
That were in our times;
From All Fooles II.1.170-178 by George Chapman
The 1609 Quarto Version
AWomans face with natures owne hande painted,
Haſte thou, the Maſter Miſtris of my paſſion,
A womans gentle hart but not acquainted
With ſhifting change as is falſe womens faſhion,
An eye more bright then theirs,leſſe falſe in rowling:
Gilding the obiect where-vpon it gazeth,
A man in hew all Hews in his controwling,
Which ſteales mens eyes and womens ſoules amaſeth,
And for a woman wert thou firſt created,
Till nature as ſhe wrought thee fell a dotinge,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpoſe nothing.
But ſince ſhe prickt thee out for womens pleaſure,
Mine be thy loue and thy loues vſe their treaſure.