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Analysis of Poem 'Sonnet 20' by William Shakespeare

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

'Sonnet 20' Analysis

'Sonnet 20' explores the boundaries between male and female sexuality and is one of Shakespeare's more radical sonnets. It focuses on the so-called 'fair youth' - a real or imagined dear friend of the poet who to this day remains anonymous.

Reading through, there's little doubt that the speaker is describing the physical characteristics of a male, who has a certain feminine appeal which draws attention from both men and women.

  • There are also references to sexuality and the nature of sexual attraction. The speaker is addressing this person directly, basically saying that ' you're a beauty no doubt, with great feminine charm, but Nature gave you a penis so women are your pleasure, and procreation possible. But at least we share a lasting, platonic kind of love?'

Some claim that this sonnet reflects a homoerotic interest on behalf of the speaker (and Shakespeare), and there are strong arguments for and against this notion. It could be claimed also that this is a pro-bisexual sonnet because the first 8 lines promote a homosexual viewpoint, the last 6 lines a heterosexual.

In reality, we shall never know, for there are no definitive facts about the nature of William Shakespeare's love life, save that he was married to Anne Hathaway in Stratford-upon-Avon, and had 3 children with her. The debate rages on and all we can do is read and admire the sonnets for what they are, one of the greatest artistic achievements.

Suffice to say that there are 126 sonnets out of the 154 focusing on the fair youth, which implies that the relationship was extremely strong, be it an idealised or intimately physical love. Sonnet numbers 53 and 99 are of particular interest when it comes to physicality and beauty.

  • What 'Sonnet 20' does highlight is the dual nature of this person's character. He looks like a woman, he's the master mistress of the speaker's passion, he has a gentle heart but is such a man he controls the male company he's in; both men and women are in thrall to him, even Nature fell for him and gave him male genitalia so that he could please women, disappointing the speaker in the process.

This is complex stuff. The speaker is plainly in awe of this person, deeply in love, yet realises that this love can never be consummated. All the speaker can do is praise the beauty and accept the fact that the fair youth is naturally attuned to the female of the species.

'Sonnet 20' is an English or Shakespearean sonnet, made up of three quatrains and a closing couplet. It was first published in 1609 by Thomas Thorpe in London (the Quarto edition).

'Sonnet 20'


Line by Line Analysis - The Octet

'Sonnet 20' relies on subtle contradiction, ambiguity and wordplay to explore the relationship between the speaker and the fair youth.

Line 1

Naturally like a woman, no painted face - Elizabethan women of note tended to put on various cosmetic chemicals and pastes to enhance their beauty, a background of white with red cheeks. Here the speaker is saying that the fair youth has no need of these artificial coverings. That word with=by.

Line 2

One of the most talked-about lines in Shakespearean literature is the enigmatic Hast thou master mistress of my passion (Master Mistress - capitals in the original 1609 version) which can be interpreted as:

  • Have you the main controller of my emotions.
  • Have you master of my sexuality, mistress to my passion.
  • Have you androgyne in control of my love and lust.
  • Have you master of these verses, mistress to my life's work.
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To have mastery over something is to be in control no doubt, and to be the master mistress is to be the top dog, the all-powerful Venus in Mars, and Mars in Venus, the acknowledgement that the fair youth combines both male and female energies like no other.

Phonetically the line is also of interest - the repeated st of Hast/master/mistress brings the teeth together in a kind of aggravated whisper, whilst the alliterative effect of the m softens and soothes.

Lines 3 and 4

The pure iambic pentameter continues, the regular rhythmic beats building, the unstressed endings bringing a sense of loss and fading. And enjambment helps maintain the flow of sense from 3 to 4.

The speaker is clearly describing a male who has female qualities, including a gentle heart, but he's not changeable and fickle like the false women of the day.

Line 5

He also has a bright eye but is not flirtatious with it, unlike those same women who are prone to rolling, that is flashing, theirs. In Elizabethan times it was considered a mark of beauty if the eyes were sparkly. To achieve this effect women applied belladonna (an extract of this most poisonous plant) to dilate the pupils and achieve a state of arousal.

The speaker is having a go at the fashionable women of the day who had to use heavy cosmetics and makeup to beautify themselves; the fair youth has enhanced properties and they're all-natural.

Line 6

The first time in the sonnet that the iambic foot is inversed, a trochee in the first foot bringing stress to that first syllable: Gilding....So intense are the fair youth's eyes that they give everything he looks at a golden sheen.

It was believed that the eyes sent out a beam or ray which touched everything seen - so here we have the speaker alluding to this theory as praise for the fair youth's character continues.

Line 7

With the previous six lines supporting the idea that here we have a man with a woman's face, heart and eyes, line 7 introduces the reader to the actual man, the so-called fair youth.

The word hue has several meanings: complexion, appearance (including colour), or form. So the speaker is basically saying that here is a man who can outdo any other man; in company, he's the dominant form.

Again, some alliteration helps the single syllables ride the rhythmic iambs.

Line 8

Allied to line 7 - there's no doubt about it, the fair youth can turn a head, even a man's head so in control is he and whilst he's doing this any women who come across him, why, he'll take possession of their very souls.

Line by Line Analysis - The Quatrain

The first 8 lines, an octet, set the scene, describing the female characteristics of the young man, the surface appearance so to speak. The next four lines, the quatrain, deal with more fundamental issues like sex and sexuality. The final couplet is the conclusion to what has gone before.

Line 9

The speaker states boldly that the youth was first created for a woman (as a woman), that is, anatomically he had all the organs of a female.

Line 10

But nature in the process of making him, fell in love (fell a-doting), which means to uncritically adore someone.

Line 11

This line has unusual syntax which suits the sense, because the speaker asserts that nature, a-doting, added something to this woman and that something has to be a penis - male genitalia - thus defeating the speaker.

In other words, because this being now has a male organ, the speaker loses the chance of a sexual relationship, thus confirming the speaker as hetero or bisexual? Which is all a bit bawdy, tongue-in-cheek.

Line 12

So this fair youth, initially intended to be a woman, was made a male because nature changed her mind, adding one thing, as already mentioned, the thing, which made all the difference.

That single addition undermined the speaker, resulting in nothing. We have here the speaker attempting to understand the complexities of sexuality and sexual attraction. Here is a beauty of a man, so feminine looking, kind and stable and true, so attractive, yet unavailable sexually to the speaker.

Line 13

This line contains the pun - pricked thee out - the phrase meaning marked out to be a man, using a pin to select from a list (prick being known as slang for the male organ in the 1590s).

So the speaker is saying that nature chose the fair youth to give women pleasure, that is, sexual pleasure.

Line 14

Ultimately the speaker can only experience platonic love because the fair youth is destined to physically satisfy women. Two loves are juxtaposed, the former arguably the deepest and most intimate, the latter sexual, where treasure means interest or reward.

What Is the Metre?

'Sonnet 20' is unique among the sonnet sequence for having 14 lines all with feminine (or weak) endings, ie unstressed. Because the voice is lowered this creates a wistful tone, suggesting that the speaker wants to hang on but is resigned to loss.

Most of the lines in this sonnet are pure iambic pentameter, five feet with the extra beat, but there are exceptions where an iamb becomes a trochee *, with inverse stress. The trochee breaks the regular rhythm and adds emphasis to the stressed word.

1. A wo / man’s face / with na / ture’s own / hand pain / ted,

2. Hast thou the master mistress of my passion,

3. A woman’s gentle heart but not acquainted

4. With shifting change as is false women’s fashion,

5. An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling:

6. Gilding / the ob / ject where / upon / it ga / zeth, *

7. A man in hue all hues in his controlling,

8. Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.

9. And for a woman wert thou first created,

10. Till nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting,

11. And by addition me of thee defeated,

12. By add / ing one / thing to / my pur / pose no / thing. *

13..But since she pricked thee out for women’s pleasure,

14. Mine be / thy love / and thy / love’s use / their trea / sure. *

  • This is an unconventional sonnet because all of the lines have that extra syllable, the 11th, which is called a feminine ending, or weak ending.
  • Feminine endings are unusual, so to create a sonnet where all lines have an extra beat and are not pure iambic pentameter is the choice of the poet. Shakespeare knowingly worked on this. He could have chosen words to fit the pure iambic template but chose not to. Why?
  • He knew this would cause readers to sit up and take note. He wanted his work to reflect the feminine aspect of the fair youth's character and the speaker's sense of loss.
  • All lines are basic iambic pentameter plus extra beat (11 syllables) except lines 6, 12 and 14.

What Are the Literary Devices?

There are several literary devices in this sonnet, including:


When two or more words begin with the same consonant and are close together in a line. This varies the texture of sound and adds interest for the reader.

master mistress....false women's fashion...than theirs...hues in his...woman wert...And by addition...


When two or more close words contain vowels that sound similar. For example,

face/nature/painted...Hast/master/passion...woman wert...And by addition...adding/thing/nothing...since/pricked.


When contradictory terms appear next to each other: line 2:

master mistress.


When human characteristics or behaviour is applied to an object or thing - so line 1:

nature's own hand painted...


A play on the meaning of words - line 13...since she pricked thee out...a play on the word prick, which means marking out, also slang term for the male organ, a term known in the latter years of Elizabethan England.


© 2018 Andrew Spacey

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