In recent years, there has been an increasing amount of attention given to possible homoerotic and non-binary gender themes and characters in the works of William Shakespeare. Sonnet 20 is considered by many scholars and spectators to be the most palpable example of these themes in Shakespearean sonnets:
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,
Much 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 prick’d thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure.
At first glance it might appear that this sonnet was written about a woman, but that is definitely not the case. The second line makes this very clear, when the individual is referred to as the “master-mistress of my passion”. Once the revelation has been made that this sonnet is indeed about a male, the first line takes on a new meaning; this male has a “woman’s face”; that is to say he is likely very lovely and effeminate. Shakespeare then goes on to describe this man as being more desirable than a woman is, and then obviously is described once more as being a male, “A man in his hue, all ‘hues’ in his controlling”. As this sonnet goes on, it gets more and more interesting: Shakespeare is in essence writing that this man was originally made a woman, until nature literally “prick’d” him out; that is to say, endowed him with a penis, thus causing the narrator (presumably a male as well, given the conflict and lamenting tone present in this sonnet) to say that nature has defeated him by an “addition”, “by adding one thing to my purpose nothing”. It is also stated that he was pricked out for women’s pleasure, i.e. given a penis in order to naturally please a woman (and not a man, furthering conflict), and this pleasure is the “treasure” mentioned in the last line. The homoerotic implications and gender bending in this sonnet are quite obvious when the sonnet is re-read with close attention to detail, and not taken at face value.