Sonnets for Advent 7: Sonnet 20

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Sexual ambiguity – expressed both in appearance of the beloved and through the way in which desire is encountered – crackles through this sonnet.

The phrase ‘master-mistress’ seems to relate this poem to Twelfth Night, or What You Will, in which we hear Duke Orsino say to Viola disguised as the page Cesario:

‘And since you called me master for so long,
Here is my hand. You shall from this time be
Your master’s mistress.’ (5.1.322-3).

Interestingly, the portrait of Shakespeare’s patron, Henry Wriothesley, the third Earl of Southampton and Baron of Titchfield, which you here see was for many years thought to represent a woman, but was shown in 2002 to be a man (the attire is male, and the sitter is clearly a younger version of the later portraits of Shakespeare’s earl-patron).

Sonnet 20 is here read by Harry Fox Davies

Sonnet 20
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.

Find out more about Shakespeare’s Sonnets via our free on-line course

Listen to the same sonnet being read by a student at the University of Tubingen by clicking here.

You might like to treat yourself to The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s own, exclusive edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, edited by our Honorary President, Professor Stanley Wells C.B.E., and beautifully printed by Oxford University Press. Find out more by clicking here.

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson

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