Dr. Richard Grinnell, Associate Professor of English, Director, Shakespeare in London program

"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.

I love Shakespeare’s Sonnet #20 because it’s so teachable. It’s the first time in the sonnets that we see—sort of clearly—that Shakespeare is writing to someone who was supposed to be, but actually isn’t, a woman. Nature’s fault, of course: “Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting, / And by addition me of thee defeated, / By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.” The poem has the wonderful double entendres that make Shakespeare so edgy, and plays upon a central theme of his plays: it’s actually sort of hard to tell a man from a woman. It’s not an easy sonnet, but it pays off nicely.