Sonnet 20

Shakespeare Sonnet 20

A Womans 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.

Sonnet 20 has gained notoriety for its phrase, “thou the Master Mistris of my passion.” Its apparent homoeroticism has caused divergent readings, sometimes supportive, sometimes defensive. The sonnet’s argument, however, is strategically placed in the sequence, following as it does exhortations to the youth to father a child, because it sees the poet ultimately acknowledging that his physical attractiveness is for the use of women, while his non-physical love will remain the poet’s domain. (The sonnet is one of only two in the sequence with feminine endings to its lines; the other is Sonnet 87.) The youth’s beauty is, the sonnet argues, “with natures owne hand painted,” not therefore an artificially contrived beauty obtained through cosmetics. It is the first of a number of sonnets where Shakespeare treats (often disapprovingly) of cosmetics: in Sonnet 82 “grosse painting” is indicted and in Sonnet 83 he observes of the youth that “I neuer saw that you did painting need.” In Sonnet 20 the friend is free of artificially applied beauty, his face having been coloured solely by nature.

Applying cosmetics to the face was a widespread Elizabethan practice: white fucus, normally made of mercury sublimate, was laid as a foundation or base coat and a second red fucus, generally made of vermilion or mercuric sulphide, was then applied to cheeks and lips. Instructions on how to mix a fucus were readily available: Hugh Plat in his Delights for Ladies gives the following for a “minerall fucus:” “Incorporate with a woodden pestle and in a woodden morter with great labour foure ounces of sublimate, and one ounce of crude Mercurie at the least sixe or eight houres (you cannot bestowe too much labour herein) then with often change of colde water by ablution in a glasse, take away the salts from the sublimate, change your water twise euerie day at the least, and in seuen or eight dayes (the more the better) it will bee dulcified, and then it is prepared. Lay it on with the oyle of white poppey.” 1

It was known to Elizabethans that such cosmetics were highly dangerous; writers condemned both their use and their long-term effect. Thomas Tuke inveighs against this “inuersion of nature, to dissemble and hide the naturall visage with an artificial . . Truly vertue is the best beautie, which is indeed so beautiful and bright, that were it to be seene with eies, it would draw and hold all mens eye vnto it. A vertuous woman needs no borrowed, no bought complexion, none of these poysons . . What doe this white and red paint, and an hundred other poisons of colours in an honest body?” 2 The effects of the the fucus of mercury sublimate and the ceruse made of white lead were evident. Richard Haydock observes that “such women as vse [sublimate] about their face . . become disfigured, hastening olde age before the time,” while the use of ceruse causes them to “quickly become withered and gray headed, because this doth so mightely drie vp the naturall moysture of their flesh.” Tuke contains a warning that, when sublimate is applied to the face, “it drieth vp, and consumeth the flesh that is vnderneath;” it makes women, “tremble . . as if they were sicke of the staggers.” 3

The youth, claims the poet, is the “Master Mistris of my passion.” On the one hand “Master Mistris” carries the homoerotic sense of a ‘masculine mistress of the poet’s affection,’ a reading that is emphasized if the two words are hyphenated as they often are by modern editors; on the other hand the youth can be construed as the dominant or chief (“Master”) controller (“Mistris”) of the poet’s passion (compare JC 3.1.163, “Master Spirits of this Age”). Shakespeare is being technically correct, because “Mistris” rather than ‘master’ was used of words such as “passion,” which are feminine in Latin.

As the youth has a “Womans face,” so also he has a “womans gentle hart.” His heart is kindly and well-born; it is always constant: it does not know, is “not acquainted” with “shifting change,” as is the case with the ephemerality of fashion; “false womens fashion” is the fashion of “false women,” particularly of courtesans either male or female. In using “acquainted” Shakespeare is also anticipating the sonnet’s later fescennine sub-text: Florio’s dictionary has an entry giving the English for Becchina (from “Becchi, goats, or cuckolds”) as “a womans quaint or priuities.” Shakespeare, as later with a-maze (“amaseth”) and a-doting (“a dotinge”), is thus playing with the neologism, ‘a-cunted,’ intending either not equipped with a cunt – below he has a prick – or unapproached by a cunt, hence not having known sexually or virginal, as well as constant (compare Robert Greene’s like pun in “he that acquainteth himselfe . . with any of these Connycatching strumpets”). 4

The youth has “An eye more bright then theirs, lesse false in rowling.” Artificially induced bright eyes were part of courtly practice, where drops of belladonna were used to dilate the pupils and make the eyes sparkle. Used consistently, belladonna gave the eyes a lifeless appearance, a result to which Shakespeare alludes in Sonnet 67.6 “And steale dead seeing of his liuing hew.” Here the youth’s eyes are “more bright” than the chemically induced bright eyes of the courtly lady. They are also “lesse false in rowling,” straighter and more direct, therefore, and not like the coquettish looks of the court lady and the practice of making the eyes more alluring. Youth, is defined by John Davies in Microcosmos as a time when “we Wantons play, in Venus plaies / And offer Incense to a rowling eie.” A rolling eye was the object of censure: Tuke, condemning “wandring, or rolling eyes,” has recourse to Isaiah’s lament “Because the daughters of Zion are hautie . . with wandering eyes, [sidenote: “As a signe, that they were not chaste”) walking and minsing as they goe” (3.16; GV). Preachers pronounced against it: George Hakewill claims that it is “by a rowling vnsetled eie [we discouer] wantonnesse” and Henry Smith in his A Preparative to Marriage accounts “a rolling eye” as one of “the forerunners of adultery.” 5 The youth gives no such sign of not being chaste or “false.” Furthermore his eye, being bright, is able to add a golden lustre to any object on which it might look (“Gilding the obiect where-vpon it gazeth”); the eye was thought to issue forth a beam with which to enlighten the object on which it looks (compare the sun as a “soueraine eie  . . Guilding pale streames” in Sonnet 33.2-4).

The youth is termed “A man in hew all Hews in his controwling;” “hew” can mean shape, figure, or even apparition, hence a man whose shape or bearing dominates all other shapes or deportments. But the sonnet’s cosmetic conceit argues primarily for “hew” as colour. As in Sonnet 82, where the youth is “as faire in knowledge as in hew” and needs no painting, so here in his natural colouring and complexion he has a mastery over all other hues falsely laid on as cosmetics (“controwling” may also carry the bawdy notion of ‘cunt-rolling’). The antecedent of “which” in “which steales mens eyes” is “hew:” the youth’s complexion captivates or distracts the eyes of men just as Marina’s “excellent complexion . . did steale the eyes of yong and old” (Per. 4.1.40-41). Likewise it confounds or stupifies (“amazeth”) the “soules” or inner emotions of women.

The sestet is an elaborate conceit: Dame Nature, when first creating the young man, intended him to be a female (“for a woman”). But as she created him (“as she wrought thee”), Nature became besotted or fell inordinately in love with her creation (“fell a dotinge”) and cheated or deprived the poet of the friend by adding to her creation male organs (“by addition”; compare Sonnet 135.4, “to thy sweet will making addition thus”). The sestet’s “addition,” “one thing,” “nothing,” “prickt,” and “treasure,” all continue the sexual punning, in the case of “prickt” and “addition” from musical idioms. Contemporary musicians such as William Barley and Thomas Morley defined four kinds of musical points or pricks: “The first of perfection, the second of addition, the third of deuision, and the fourh (sic) of alteration.” 7 Firstly “The pricke of perfection is that which beeing placed with a perfect note, defendeth it from imperfection.” Morley explains that it is used in the first mode, the “perfect of the more prolation” (or lengthening), whose “signe is a whole cirkle with a prick . . in the center or middle.” 8 The second prick, which Barley calls “the pricke of addition,” adds to a note a further half-length of its normal time-value. The upright phallic suggestiveness of some Elizabethan musical notation, the frequent use of a “nothing” (a term for the vagina) or circle with a prick in its middle, and the “pricke of addition,” whose function is elongation, all combine to give a bawdiness on which Elizabethan poets often drew, as does Shakespeare in Sonnets 134 and 135.

Nature, thus, by a prick of addition has “defeated” the poet by adding a penis (a “thing” was used of both the male and female sexual organs), which is of no value or “vse” to the poet (“to my purpose nothing”), but with a hint of ‘which cannot serve as a vagina.’ In the final couplet the poet indicates a change of direction. Nature has “prickt” out the young man: either has chosen the young man by using a pin to select from a list, or has equipped the young man with a prick or penis. The “purpose” of the prick is that it be used “for womens pleasure,” to give pleasure, particularly sexual pleasure, to women. The poet thus resolves to accept the “loue” of the youth, which he implies is a higher love than the physical love (“thy loues vse”), which is the province or “treasure” of women. There is, finally, a suggestion in “treasure” of a women’s private parts and in “vse” (as there is in Sonnet 6.5) of gain or issue; hence that which issues from the youth’s love (children) will be the “treasure” of future women.


20.1. Hugh Plat, Delights for Ladies, to adorne their Persons, Tables, closets and distillatories with Beauties, banquets, perfumes and Waters (London: Peter Short, 1603) G7v.

20.2 Thomas Tuke, A Discourse Against Painting and Tincturing of Women (London: Edward Marchant, 1616) 21.

20.3. Richard Haydock in Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo, A Tracte Containing the Artes of curious Paintinge Caruinge Buildinge written first in Italian by Io: Paul Lomatius painter of Milan And Englished by R[ichard]. H[aydock] student in Physik (Oxford: Joseph Barnes, 1598) 130; Tuke B4v.

20.4. Greene, Disputation A3r.

20.5. Tuke 36.

20.6. John Davies, Microcosmos. The Discovery of the Little World, with the government thereof (Oxford: Joseph Barnes, 1603) 65; Hakewill 90; Henry Smith, A Preparative To Mariage (London: Richard Field, 1591) 68.

20.7. Barley D4v.

20.8. Morley 12.