Sonnet XX

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.

   h  e  w  s
 All 32.9  59.3  12.3 32.4 
 20  33 63   16  40

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,
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.


1. A woman's face with nature's own hand painted,
Nature is depicted as the artist painting, or creating, the young man's face. The point being made is that the face is as beautiful as that of a woman, but better in that it has none of the defects associated with female beauty. Also implied is that the face is natural, not disfigured by cosmetics, giving it superiority over a female face, which was so often false and artificial.
2. Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion;
the master mistress - probably intended to be enigmatic, implying that the young man evokes the adoration and devotion which would be due to a mistress, but that he is also masterly in controlling his devotees. It could conceivably suggest that the young man was an androgynous type, having the sexual characteristics of male and female. Some therefore interpret it as meaning 'you, the object of my homosexual desire'. However the word passion does not usually in Shakespeare have the meaning of sexual desire or infatuation. Its more frequent use is that derived from Christ's passion on the cross, and it means suffering, or affliction. It can also mean mental derangement, or an attack of frenzy as a result of such. It was also used at the time to describe a heartfelt speech, and could be extended to cover the production of a series of sonnets, such as these. One could therefore paraphrase it as 'You, whose face was created by nature herself, inspire in me these deeply felt verses. You master my soul, but you also make me adore you as I would a mistress'.
3. A woman's gentle heart, but not acquainted
272-3. Indeed one would be hard put to imagine Cordelia subjected to the vices of fickleness and duplicity here described. Heroines of the later plays also are unusually close to perfection - Hermione and Perdita in A Winter's Tale, Imogen in Cymbeline, and Miranda in The Tempest. This may indicate a relatively early date for this sonnet. On the other hand one may take this part of the sonnet as a comparatively conventional description of the worse side of female character, brought in to point up by contrast the excellence of the youth who is the inspiration of the sonnets.

but not acquainted can also mean 'not having a quaint', a slang word for cunt in Elizabethan times. See KDJ Sonn. p.150, n3-4. Reinforced by the secondary meaning of l.4. (See below).

4. With shifting change, as is false women's fashion:
Proverbial characterisation of women in general. With shifting change implies continually changing one's mind. Shakespeare would have known Virgil's comment Varium, et mutabile semper femina - A woman is ever a fickle and changeable thing. Aeneid IV.569. shifting change could also refer to changing of clothing, which women would require to do more often owing to menstruation. Hence the youth was even superior to them in that respect. (Cf. Sir, I would advise you to shift a shirt... If my shirt were bloody, then to shift it. Cymb I.2.1).
5. An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
less false in rolling - the rolling eye was perhaps productive of the strange oeilliads and most speaking looks referred to in Lear, IV.5.25, where Regan is describing her sister's amorous advances to Edmund. It suggests flirtatiousness and duplicity.
6. Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
Gilding = giving a golden sheen to. Cf. Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy. XXXIII l.4. whereupon = upon which. The eye was thought to send out rays which touched the objects it saw.
7. A man in hue all hues in his controlling,
hue = appearance, aspect of the face; complexion, colour. (But see the note on hews, the Quarto spelling, in the Introduction above.) his can either be taken with man or with controlling. The general sense is that the youth is a man in appearance, embracing all manly features in himself; or that his appearance is so sublimely that of a man that all who surround him are dominated by him and take their cue (as to appearance, behaviour etc.) from him. A few commentators have seen in this line a reference to a man called Hughes, based on Q's italicisation of Hews, but there is no supporting evidence for this, other than the line's undoubted opacity. It may be that there is a meaning buried in it that was obvious to the original circle of readers, but it is unlikely that we will ever recover it. (See above).
8. Which steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth.
Which refers to hue, possibly also to A man in the previous line. steals = takes possession of, overwhelms. Similar to the sense of steal in to steal the scene.
9. And for a woman wert thou first created;
And you were first created as a woman. for = as.
10. Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
Nature, as she was making you, fell hopelessly in love with you.
11. And by addition me of thee defeated,

Renaissance vase There is a passage in Plato's Charmides which might have given rise to the humour of these lines. Chaerophon and the others are admiring Charmides, and praising him to Socrates. 'Then Chaerophon called me and said 'What do you think of the young man, Socrates? Has he not a handsome face?' 'Exceedingly so' I replied. 'But,' he said, 'if you were to unclothe him, he would appear to you to have no face at all; for his form and shape is so perfect'. The others all agreed with Chaerophon, and assured me of the same thing. So I said 'Good Heavens! you would declare him to be completely incomparable if there were one other thing, some small addition, which could by chance be made to him'. 'What is that?' said Critias. 'If his soul also were as well made as his body'. etc. (Charmides. 154D.) It is unlikely that Shakespeare looked at the original Greek, but in the circles in which he moved such passages might well have been discussed, and the general ambience of Plato's world of young men, with their older admirers, might not have been too far removed from that of the small coterie of men surrounding the beautiful youth of the sonnets. All Plato's works had been translated into Latin not later than 1499, by Marcilio Ficino of Florence. No doubt these translations would have been available in English libraries, to some of which Shakespeare and his circle would have had access.

by addition me of thee defeated = by the addition (of a penis) Nature deprived me of you. Nature, being female, would require the one she loved to be male.

12. By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
By adding is tautological, since by addition occurs in the previous line. However it reads fairly easily, and perhaps emphasises the superfluous nature of the addition from the poet's viewpoint. one thing to my purpose nothing = one thing (a penis) which is irrelevant. The sense of this could be that he loves the youth as a man loves a woman, and therefore his love having a penis is nothing to the purpose, for he would prefer him to have a woman's body.
13. But since she prick'd thee out for women's pleasure,
she = Nature; prick'd thee out = made a mark on the tally sheet (that you were to be a man); gave you a prick. See 2H4III.2.152etc., where Falstaff enrols soldiers by 'pricking' them on his list. OED 17a. gives 1592 as the earliest recorded date of the use of prick = penis, recording it as coarse slang. But, as with all coarse terms, its use, though unrecorded, is probably much earlier.
14. Mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure.
'The merely physical love of which you are capable may be set aside for women's use. But love substantive, that which the soul delights in, may be reserved for me.' There clearly is an opposition set up here between two aspects of love, aided by the use of puns and references to genitalia, and the fact that one can love even though deprived of the enjoyment of the latter.