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Sonnet 20 by William Shakespeare

Today for Wednesdays with the Bard, it is one of Shakespeare's bawdier, yet in some ways more tragic, sonnets, Sonnet 20 ("A woman's face, with nature's own hand painted"). This is one of the many sonnets written to the Fair Youth, who is described as an exceedingly beautiful - and perhaps somewhat androgynous - man. That Shakespeare appears to have felt something far more intense than mere affection for the Fair Youth is readily apparent in this poem, despite Shakespeare punning with all his might. (Yes, "prick" had the same double meaning back then.)

I'm posting this particular sonnet today because Rufus Wainwright's song setting has been playing loudly on brainradio for the past day or so.

Sonnet 20
by William Shakespeare

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.

Form: Shakespearean sonnet, meaning that it's written in iambic pentameter and with the rhyme scheme ABABCDCDEFEFGG.

Discussion: The first eight lines are all a tribute to the youth's beauty and gentle spirit (more on that in a moment), in which Shakespeare says that the Fair Youth is so very attractive that he attracts men and women alike. The turn (also known as a volta) comes in the ninth line, when the poet bemoans the fact that the Fair Youth is a man, saying that Nature started to create the Fair Youth as a woman, but at the last moment, bestowed him with male genitalia. In the final couplet, the poem turns a bit farther still, as is common with Shakespeare's sonnets, saying that since the Fair Youth is a man, they can love one another emotionally, but not physically.

This poem can be read quite comically and in bawdy fashion. In line one, the phrase "with nature's own hand painted" is a reference to natural beauty; the term "painted" was frequently used to indicate the wearing of thick cosmetics (think of Queen Elizabeth and all that white lead-laced makeup) by women and men of that era, in an effort to cover over scars left by smallpox or other skin issues. Here, the implication is that the Fair Youth is a natural beauty.

The first two lines say that the Fair Youth is pretty, with a feminine face.

The second two lines say that the Fair Youth is tender-hearted (like a woman), but not inconstant or fickle - Shakespeare thereby takes a bit of a slap at womankind, while praising the Fair Youth.

The fifth & sixth lines say that the Fair Youth's eyes are prettier than a woman's eyes, less apt to stray, and that finding favor in his eyes adds worth to the person he admires.

The seventh & eighth lines note that the Fair Youth is, in fact, a man, but one who attracts the admiration of men and women alike.

The ninth through twelfth lines say that nature first intended to create the Fair Youth as a woman, but she became so enamored of this particular creation that at the last moment, she added "a thing" to the Fair Youth that is "nothing" to the speaker. The use of the word "thing" means precisely what you think it might; the use of the word "nothing" has a double meaning: on the one hand, it means that it's of no use to the speaker; on the other hand, the word nothing sometimes meant "no thing" (thereby meaning vagina) back in Shakespeare's time. Which does he mean? Does he mean he can't have a physical relationship with a man, or that he will simply regard it as "no thing"? I suppose it might be all in the delivery.

The final couplet again uses sexual puns: "But since she pricked thee out for women's pleasure" means, on the one hand "since she chose you to please women" and, on the other, "since she gave you a prick so that you could please women". "Mine be thy love, and thy love's use their treasure" is a bit tricky to parse. "Mine be thy love" means both "I'll keep your love" and "I want your love", but the word "mine" might also refer to the speaker's own penis, given the construction of the sentence and the earlier reference to a man being "pricked out". "And thy love's use their treasure" also has multiple meanings. "Love" here might be a euphemism for penis, so that women are using the Fair Youth for sex, or if the speaker is considered to be the Fair Youth's love, then use of the speaker for sex is being discussed. The typical understanding of this last couplet is that Nature gave the Fair Youth a penis, which means he can physically satisfy women while remaining emotionally faithful to the speaker, but given the potential ambiguities, I think Shakespeare is saying that both the Fair Youth and the speaker (probably Shakespeare) will have to satisfy their carnal urges elsewhere, despite their immense affection. That's sad, don't you think, despite all the puns and humor used in the poem?

I'm not the only one who sees the pathos here. Rufus Wainwright obviously saw it as well. He set 10 of Shakespeare's sonnets to music for a stage production by the Berliner Ensemble, and this was one of them. He has said in interviews that he believes this to be the "greatest sonnet ever written". (I can understand why he might think so, based on his own life and circumstances, although I'd probably pick Sonnet 116 ("Let me not to the marriage of true minds"), but that's just me - and on a different day, I might choose a different one.)

Here's video of Rufus Wainwright performing Sonnet 20 from his album, All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu:

Heart-rending, isn't it?

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