You have a woman's gentle heart, but you are not prone
With shifting change, as is false women's fashion;
To fickle change, as is the way with women;
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
You have eyes brighter than their eyes, and more sincere,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
Lighting up the very object that they look upon;
A man in hue, all 'hues' in his controlling,
You are a man in shape and form, and all men are in your control,
Much steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth.
You catch the attention of men and amaze women's souls [hearts].
And for a woman wert thou first created;
You were originally intended to be a woman;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
Until Nature, made a mistake in making you,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
And by adding one extra thing [Nature] defeated me,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
By adding one thing she has prevented me from fully having you,
But since she prick'd thee out for women's pleasure,
But since Nature equipped you for women's pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure.
Let your body be their treasure, and let me have your love.
with...painted (1): a natural beauty.
master-mistress (2): likely male-mistress. This line is hotly debated. Please see commentary below for more.
false (4): unfaithful.
rolling (5): straying.
Gilding (6): making the object seem golden.
Sonnet 20 has caused much debate. Some scholars believe that this is a clear admission of Shakespeare's homosexuality. Despite the fact that male friendships in the Renaissance were openly affectionate, the powerful emotions the poet displays here are indicative of a deep and sensual love. The poet's lover is 'the master-mistress of [his] passion'. He has the grace and features of a woman but is devoid of the guile and pretense that comes with female lovers; those wily women with eyes 'false in rolling', who change their moods and affections like chameleons. Lines 9-14 are of particular interest to critics on both sides of the homosexual debate. Some argue these lines show that, despite his love for the young man, the poet does not want to 'have' him physically. The poet proclaims that he is content to let women enjoy the 'manly gifts' that God has given his friend. He is satisfied to love the young man in a spiritual way. But others contend that Shakespeare had to include this disclaimer, due to the homophobia of the time. "The meaning is conveyed not just by what is said but by the tone. The argument may serve to clear Shakespeare of the charge of a serious offense..." (Spender, 99).
Even if the poet is, in this sonnet, refraining from physical relations with the young man, the thought of such relations appears to consume and please his imagination, and "from what we soon learn about the friend, with his 'sensual fault' and lasciviousness, it seems unlikely that, to him, such a relationship would be unthinkable" (Spender, 99). Moreover, in light of later sonnets such as 56 and 57, where the poet, in essence, tells us that his friend is cheating on him, it becomes harder and harder to conclude that the "cheating" is merely of a emotional, and not physical, nature.