A Literary Study of Shakespeare's Sonnet Xx

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 20 is part of the Fair Youth collection of sonnets, describing the beauty of a young man. It is argued that the 20th sonnet is the first poem of the collection that clearly and explicitly states that the subject is not a woman, fuelling the idea that these collections of poems were about a homosexual relationship, and undoubtedly, we cannot ignore the sexuality in sonnet 20. However, it is important not to read the sonnet purely as a piece of rhetoric directed by one man on the beauty of another man, it can as easily be seen as platonic love, or even the love a father has for his son. It is clear though that this sonnet marks a change in direction and tone of the Fair Youth collection.

      The first point to note about the structure of the poem is that Sonnet 20 does not follow the conventional iambic pentameter of the majority of Shakespeare’s collection. This is a reflection on the unconventional themes and meaning behind this particular sonnet. Of course when Shakespeare was writing homosexuality was a sin in a deeply religious world and the idea that two men could have a sexual relationship was evil, so for Shakespeare to dedicate a sonnet to the revealing that the subject of his first 126 sonnets was definitely not a woman: ‘but not acquainted’[1] was wholly unconventional and that’s why Shakespeare changes his usual style of writing.

      If we look closely at the first quatrain we can see it as a description of the beauty of the young mans face in direct comparison to that of a woman. The opening line; ‘A woman’s face, with Nature’s own hand painted’[2] is more of an insult about women than a reflection on the beauty of the man’s. On first reading, it appears to be about the woman’s face, but as we establish that Nature (the use of a pronoun here signifies that Nature is a person) is using the young mans face as a canvas to paint a beautiful picture, we see that it has all the beauty of a woman’s face, without the impurities of...