“Sonnet 20: A woman’s face with Nature’s own hand painted” by William Shakespeare – An Exploration of Transgender Issues

Venus and Mars

Venus and Mars

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.

In this romantic “fair youth” sonnet, Shakespeare explores the physical beauty he sees in the youth. He sees the young male as possessing both male and female characteristics, the best of both genders; hence the reference to the youth being “the master-mistress” of Shakespeare’s passion.

The first ten lines are pretty clear, where the poet describes the physical aspects of the facial features, and particularly on how the youth’s face has many feminine qualities. But the last four lines are of particular interest.

The ending focuses on the youth’s genitalia, particularly the fact that he has a penis. When I studied Shakespeare in college, the professor gave a lecture about Shakespeare’s use of the word “nothing.” Basically, nothing meant “no thing,” or the lack of a penis; in other words, nothing means vagina (think “Much Ado About Nothing”). So in this sonnet, Shakespeare is expressing his belief that the youth is really a woman trapped within a man’s body, that “one thing” was added to the youth’s “nothing.” He goes as far as to make a pun about how Nature “pricked thee out for women’s pleasure.” If you think about it, this is a pretty radical poem.

As I read about legislation being passed in the US that discriminates against transgender individuals, I cannot help but wonder why we have not evolved more as a society. These were clearly issues that have been dealt with for a long time now, and Shakespeare certainly seems to have been comfortable with this. Maybe our lawmakers should take some time and read more Shakespeare.

Well, enough politics for one day. Thanks for stopping by and having an open mind. Cheers!

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2 Comments

Filed under Literature

2 responses to ““Sonnet 20: A woman’s face with Nature’s own hand painted” by William Shakespeare – An Exploration of Transgender Issues

  1. jeff, i am super impressed with this offering. really quite a timely note!

    • I’m so glad you liked the post. Sadly, it is timely. It really upsets me to see legislation being passed that discriminates against people. We are at a dangerous juncture.

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