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A Brief Analysis of Shakespeare's Sonnet 20

Updated on August 22, 2014

A Brief Analysis of Shakespeare's Sonnet 20

It is very common in modern academia to find aesthetic things being used for any purpose but the aesthetic. Much of the aesthetic glory of the Western Tradition, from the Greeks to the present, has, in the academy, been subjected to a Procrustean reshaping, so that it might serve the private agenda of private individuals. And so the Marxist critic has asked the Gargantuan Shakespeare to please bend down and fit himself, if he would not mind, into the thimble of Marxism; similarly, the Feminist critic has taken the vast Continent of Shakespeare and tried to crunch it down until if fit into the cozy confines of a feminist coffee klatsch. The works of the Western Literary Canon, so marvelously defended by the likes of Harold Bloom, have, one by one, been twisted, stretched, shortened, or maimed by one Procrustes after another, until their necks are small enough to take on the yoke of this ideology or that, and have thence been forced under the whips of these overlords to drag their respective cartloads of dung until, by time and attrition, they have come to be as revered as is the chariot of Phoebus, coursing its fiery path across the firmament.

The only problem with this is that, with very little exception, much of this reshaping has been wrought, not by a disinterested and objective scholarship, but by a petulant political whimsy that has neither time nor patience to endure the same process by which all other great things before have proven worthy of critical accolade. Shakespeare has had to endure 400 years to earn his accolades; today, canonical mastery is conferred within minutes. All artistic utterance must be instantly masterful because all has been made political. And because the political demands fairness now, now, very now, it follows that any combination of words, no matter how haphazardly cobbled together, must be revered because they have issued from a person, and all people are supposed to be equal under the law.

But poetry is not of that sense of law. Poetry abides by its own law. And its own law is lawless and vagabond. It is a law every bit as rigorous and unforgiving as the penal code, and it punishes any interloper who dares to confuse it with what it is not. It will not bow to religion or feminism or Marxism or atheism or vegetarianism or Catholicism or Protestantism or environmentalism. Poetry will not be nice. Poetry will not act properly. Poetry refuses to be music, no matter with what inane cadence it is nowadays recited. Poetry will not show its credentials merely because it is read loudly or quickly or violently or with exaggerated gesticulation. Poetry will not be quiet merely because the man reading it is pale and lifeless with nihilism. Poetry will not be intelligent merely because the person reading it is intelligent. Poetry will not become rhythmical merely because the person reading it is forcing vocal rhythm upon it. Poetry will not appear by way of a numbing accretion of flowery language and adjectives. Poetry will not show up merely because the words claiming to be poetic issue from someone well-intentioned. Poetry will not be fair. Poetry will not stop breast cancer. Poetry will not clean up the environment. Poetry flees from the activist. Poetry shies away from the fanatic. Poetry will refuse an invitation to the communist commune. Poetry will not wear khaki. Poetry will not wield the hammer and sickle. Poetry will never apologize. Poetry does not magically appear merely because unstable people shed tears at its recitation. Poetry does not increase with the poet's increase of feeling. Poetry does not favor a kind poet any more than it favors a dastard. Poetry issues whence it will, regardless of the moral character of its source. Poetry may be written by a genocidal maniac. Poetry might not be produced, even though the person claiming to be a poet be also a saint. Poetry is not poetry because it deals with dogs or cats. Poetry is not poetry merely because the person claiming to be a poet has a wonderful ability to network with other poets in his region and provide them federal grants to continue grinding out what they consider poetry. Poetry is not poetry merely because it comes in a sweet little thing called a chapbook and is printed on recycled paper by scantily clad people living in a kibbutz. Poetry is not poetry because it is difficult to understand. Poetry is not poetry because it is easy to understand. Poetry is not poetry because it rhymes. Poetry is not poetry merely because people who call themselves poets feel like writing poetry in a form that looks very much like a paragraph. Poetry is not direct. Poetry is not a headline in a newspaper. Poetry does not aim to be clear. Poetry does not happen merely because a person claiming to be a poet makes a denotative statement like, "I was not accepted to Princeton in 1938 because I am a woman." Poetry does not happen when the person claiming to be a poet and claiming to have had an out-of-body experience blurts out onto a page a concatenation of words which are so impenetrably cryptic as to be beyond the analytical power of everyone on earth to understand except the person claiming to be a poet. Poetry does not happen in the willful omission of punctuation. Poetry does not magically appear because the words are in lines. Poetry does not happen merely because the poet refuses to capitalize the letter "i." Poetry is not to be had by changing the font on one's computer to italic. Poetry does not happen more often to people who are inebriated. Poetry does not happen merely because a lot of people with long hair and guitars are sitting in a circle smoking hash. Poetry has not come to bring life and bring it more abundantly. Poetry gets no one into college. Poetry does not care if you are sick. Poetry does not happen more often when it deals with the subject of people with special needs. Poetry cares no more for the poet lost in love than it does for the poet rotting in hate. Poetry refuses to wear a pink ribbon, no matter what the cause, even if it were a ribbon that said, "Save Poetry!" Poetry does not march on Washington. Poetry does not march at all, not to your drum or mine or even to silence. Poetry respects not the dead, not the living, nor the victim, nor the young, nor the old. Poetry does not frown on smokers any more than it smiles on teetotalers. Poetry couldn't care less what college you graduated from. Poetry does not care what country you came from. Poetry cares nothing about race. Poetry cares nothing for religion.

Poetry, in essence, does nothing ("does," here, means "performs an action" or "has the power to change something). Poetry does not act. It is not functional. Poetry does not influence or motivate or correct or improve or eliminate or prevent or solve or save or instruct or preach or condemn or praise or win or lose. If you were drowning and I threw you a poem, you would drown. If you were poor, and I gave you a poem, you would stay poor. If you are a woman who does the same work a man does but is not being paid the same as the man is paid, and I give you a poem, you will be a woman who does the same work a man does but is not being paid the same as the man is paid. If you are trying to save Arctic seals from extinction, and I give you a poem about seals, the seals will still die. If you are downtrodden and no one cares, and laws are passed to keep you downtrodden, and every one in the country you live in rejoices to find you downtrodden, and there are holidays to celebrate your downtrodden status, and I step in just in time and give you a poem, you will be downtrodden. If you are a descendent of native peoples, and you are living on a reservation, and you think you should not be living on a reservation, but should be living in a better place, and I hand you a poem about how horrible it is to live on a reservation, and you read it and dance around a fire and scream and whoop, and spirits appear from your forefather's days and hover about and smile down at you and wampum is being exchanged and white men are being scalped and burned at the stake for their crimes against your nation and you eat that poem and breathe its goodness down into your very soul and ingest it and you become the poem as it becomes you in the great cycle of life, you will be a descendent of native peoples with stomach ache on a reservation.

Well, then, what in hell is poetry for?

Poetry shows. Poetry illuminates. Poetry reminds. Poetry captures truth in words before it gets away.

Poetry is a verbal insight, a sudden drawing aside of a curtain to reveal a hidden or forgotten truth behind. But, unlike other verbal insights (like maxims, proverbs, and truisms, and even the remarkably well-written prose from a crack newspaper editor), poetry's words do not direct the reader to something beyond themselves, the way a road sign does or the words of a menu do. In other words, with all other kinds of verbal statements, the reader is expected to value the words for something they indicate beyond themselves; for example, a driver values a road sign that says, "10 miles to Boston," not because of the words themselves, but because he wants to get to Boston. The words, the message, in this case, is a means to an end. Not so with poetic language. With poetic language one cannot say, "What Shakespeare is saying, in other words, is . . . ." because there are no other words. The words of a well-wrought poem cannot be made to say the same thing in words different from the words the poem is written in. This is because poetic language is not a means to an end, but an end in itself. Think of it this way: when we are madly attracted to someone, we do not kiss that person because we are concerned about the survival of the human race through procreation. We may procreate with this person at a later time, but while we are kissing that person, we are interested only in the kiss and in the person we are kissing. We are not kissing her because we consider it the most expeditious way to sample a taste of her culinary expertise or because we believe a kiss will weaken her to the degree that she will finally reveal the secrets behind her perfectly grown tulips or because what we really want is to hear her talk about her job. We do not kiss her because she kisses and tells, but because she kisses and kisses and kisses and just likes to kiss. We are kissing her because kissing her is very, very pleasurable and because we do not know any other thing that is quite appealing in exactly the same way that kissing is. It is the same, on certain occasions, with appetite. When we are very hungry and find ourselves sitting down in front of a plate of delicious food, we enjoy the food for its own sake. Sating ourselves is the immediate and final object. It is the odd person who, famished for three days, begins to devour a leg of lamb while gasping, "You know, don't you . . . mmmmfffffmmmmmffff . . . that lamb . . . mmmmmfffmmmmmfmf . . . has certain enzymes which . . . mmmmmmffffffmmmmmm . . . help one sleep?" We would stare at this person indeed. The person who has gone three days without water does not contemplate the delightful concept of the bond between the hydrogen and oxygen molecule while he is gulping the water down his parched throat. It is the same with poetic language.

When we come out of the theater after just having seen King Lear, for instance, we do not halt on the sidewalk and turn to our friend and say, "You know what? I'm going to donate more money to nursing homes." No. We halt on the sidewalk because we can barely walk, because the verbal force of what we have just witnessed has concussed us into insight. We have been paralyzed so that we might dance! We have witnessed an unparalleled perception of our human nature grafted inextricably to an unparalleled rhetorical mastery. The two have, in a sense, chemically bonded until they are one, and we can not think of one without the other. We have been stopped by a hand imperious and strong and have been forcibly turned toward ourselves and commanded, in stentorian tones, to "LOOK!!!" And we look, but we do so through Shakespeare's words. We cannot get King Lear by seeing a painting of him; we cannot get King Lear by listening to someone describe the play to us. We cannot get King Lear by reading a very well written summary of the play, even were each and every word of the original translated into the most clear modern English imaginable. We would have the content, perhaps, but we would not have King Lear, because we would not have the medium through which King Lear was intended to come to us: WORDS. It is quite the same thing as saying that you might very well play Beethoven's Fifth Symphony on a kazoo; yes, you might get every note right. You might assemble a thousand kazoo players renowned for their kazooing and have them kazoo away until their spittle drown the high-toned folks in the balconies. But you would have none of Beethoven, because to have Beethoven you must have the instruments he intended his notes to be played with.

And what is the effect on us of this experience? It is an interesting thing: we feel the strangest sense of having found ourselves by being for a time lost, of having things clarified for us through a purposeful confusion, of being righted only by being toppled, and by being refreshed by being exhausted. But this explanation does not hit the mark dead on. Let me try again:

We do not actually find ourselves by being lost. It is truer to say that, the truth of the poet's perceptions having been brought before us in so graphic and lucid a manner and with such rhetorical force, we find ourselves shaken loose, for a time, from our most dearly held but false presuppositions about life and about ourselves. At our most secure and arrogant moment, when we arrive to the theater fresh from having conquered some part of the financial world and find ourselves privately gloating over our success and how it has put off for a considerable time to come our need to recall our mortality, at our full-fed bloat, at our most supercilious, onto the stage comes King Lear, mad, flowers wreathed through his hair, pointing at Poor Tom 'O Bedlam, and crying out, "Thou art the thing itself:/ unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare,/ forked animal as thou art. Off, off, you lendings!/ come unbutton here" (Act III, scene iv). With this, Lear tears off his clothes, making himself naked beneath the ominous and pitiless storm that swells and spills above him. We witness this, are overawed, and we are stripped naked as well. We realize with a shudder that without our clothes, cars, money, and job, we, too, are "poor bare, forked animals." This is not a call to action, a statement of a need for change, a political movement, a grass-roots march to save the homeless; it is a perception of the true state of man, a mirror to show all of us what and who we are. It is intended to make us SEE, not encourage us to DO. And the difference is tremendous. Lear's plight is not grievable; no union can or will come to his aid, for Lear is showing us the true state of ourselves. And that is something that no political action can possibly alter or influence. Lear's perception is not pleasant. "Tough," Shakespeare says. "This is who you are."

All of this means something very simple. To truly appreciate a poem, we must understand from the outset that the poem means what the words say it means. Not just that. The poem means through its words. The poem and its words cannot be separated if we are to say we understand the poem. The poem is what it is as much through its words as a hammer is what a hammer is because of the combination of the material it is made of and the shape it is in. We cannot call it a hammer if it looks like a pancake. A hammer is valued because it hammers. And a poem is valued because it "poems." I am not trying to be cute here. The Greek word for poetry is "poein," which means "to make" or "a thing made" or "a fabrication."

Poems are "made" things. Or seen another way, a poem "makes" something. "Makes" in this sense means "creates." A poem, when properly conceived, winds up making something new. But how? I will borrow here from the late Father John Boyd, a Jesuit priest who taught me poetic theory at Fordham University back in 1992. He has now passed on, but I cherish the memory of that man and the book he wrote on the subject of poetry (called "A College Poetics") because he did a rare thing. He showed me what poetry is. Clearly. Ineradicably. Philosophically. Definitively. Once taught by him, there was no going back into the vague wishy washy of statements like, "Well, it means what you want it to mean" or "Beauty is subjective, you know" or "Poems mean anything you want them to mean" or "Poems shouldn't be analyzed; it takes all the fun away from them." Our current Poet Laureate Billy Collins is very fond of saying this. He is adamant that a poem must not be analyzed. He compares the analysis of a poem to a witness tied to a chair and beaten and forced to spit out its meaning. But Billy Collins does this for one simple reason. Billy Collins is not a poet. I say this again, loud and clear for all the world to hear: Billy Collins is not a poet. He does not know the first thing about poetry. If he did, he would not only not say that analysis ruins poetry, but he would say that one might spend the rest of one's life analyzing those juicy little words and letters until one analyze them to atoms and to quarks, and still the poet would not tire of it. The poet knows that poetry becomes more and more clear the closer and closer one comes to the words! One night after class, Fr. Boyd and I walked along under the heavy limbs of the sycamore trees that line Edward's Parade to this day. When I told Fr. Boyd that I liked to write poetry, he turned to me, almost as if the two of us were to about to share a Masonic secret, and he said, with considerable excitement, "It's about the words, isn't it? It's about the words, wouldn't you agree?" And I turned to him and said, "Of course. What else would it be about?" And he said, "I don't know."

The poet knows that the only and best way to understand a poem is to read it several thousand times. The poet knows this because he knows that, unlike the meaning of a road sign or an item in a menu, a poem means from the inside out, not from the outside in! The poem is found meaningful in much the same way as a woman is found attractive. We like the poem because, not in spite of, its words. We find a woman attractive not because of something she does, but because of something she is. We are attracted to her. Only her. Her skin, her eyes, her hair, her mouth, her nose. We are not attracted to her because we do the same job she does. I have grown tired unto death of men on reality tv shows trying to act romantic by asking the woman over a candle lit table and goblets of red wine and under a full moon, "Hey, what do you like to do in your spare time?" The woman should not leave him walking but running, for he does not know what he is about. When I am across the table from a woman I claim to be attracted to, I would not give a kingdom of diamonds to hear a single word about what her plans are for the future, or where she sees herself in ten years, or whether or not she likes riding horses or walking on the beach or taking in a Broadway show or going to a baseball game. I am not interested in these things for the simple reason that they are things beyond her, past her, to the side of her, after her, or before her. I am interested in HER! And so I will gaze like an idiot into her eyes and not hear a single word she says, and I will not ask her to fill out a resume or tick off a checklist of things she likes to do after work. I want her; I will endure all the rest, whether I find it interesting or not, because it starts with her. I do not want to find out that I am compatible with her. I want her! I do not want to know how she feels about third world countries; they may rot in hell for all I care. I want her! I do not give a dead rat in a high breeze whether she would like to help me work in a soup kitchen. Let the soup fester. I want her!

This was the mistake the missionary made when he tried to woo Jane Eyre. He was a perfectly likable man. His name was, I think, St. John (pronounced "sinjin"). He was saintly. He was a better man, even as a fiction, than I am. And he was very much interested in Jane! Oh, he was interested in Jane! But how? He loved religion more than anything else in the universe, and his dearest wish was to go to a foreign land and help the poor. And I say "Hurrah!!!" But here's the problem. He wanted Jane to marry him, not primarily because he was mad about her. Not because he could not take his eyes off of hers. Not because he could hardly breathe when he was in her company. No. He was mad about the idea that she would be a very good partner for him in the divine work he planned to do in the foreign land. He was not, in the end, in love with Jane; he was in love with what she could help him do. He actually believed that fleshly attraction was of a lower level of love than love for God, and, so, while he might not actually be attracted to Jane, and, while Jane might not actually be attracted to him, this was of small moment to him. He was looking far beyond her into the empyrean mists of heaven. Jane was, to him, a chariot to bring him to Heaven. Jane was an adjunct. And this is precisely why, although Jane found him one of the most dignified and high-minded and generous souls ever to draw breath, she also found his overtures repulsive, as she certainly ought to. A woman may be only a woman, you might say. After all, she is not God, is she? But when you claim to love her because she is the best and fastest way to bring you to God, she has every right to ask you to stop cheating on her.

What has all of this to do with Sonnet 20? Everything. In all of the above I have been trying to show how important it is to focus on language, not private agenda, when analyzing literature. To approach Sonnet 20 correctly, then, we must avoid the latter of these.

Critics of Sonnet 20, however, approach the poem leading with their agenda, not their eyes. They start by hoping Shakespeare was homosexual; then they impose that hope, that belief, on everything he wrote. Sadly, this does not work. Nor does it work for any other person holding any other belief.

To set the record straight, however, I must say that besides missing the truth about this poem, there is another error perhaps just as dangerous. The intense focus on what Shakespeare's sexual identity might have been misses the entire point behind admiring Shakespeare in the first place: his poetry. We go to Shakespeare for a mighty language that carries a mighty thought. We do not go to him to find out what sort of sex he had.

I was applying, once, for a job teaching high school English. As part of the interview process, the Supervisor of the department asked me the following question:

"What would you say if I told you that Shakespeare's works had been written by a woman?"

I stared at her a second, then answered, "And what would you say if I told you they had been written by a turtle?"

"What is that supposed to mean?" she asked. She did not look pleased.

I said, "It simply means that you care more about the question of the author's identity than of the author's aesthetic merit. Your approach is political; mine is aesthetic, and the teaching of English is about the teaching of things that are aesthetic, not political. If we had discovered Shakespeare's works for the first time on the moon and we discovered that a Martian had written them, it would make no difference to their greatness. What matters is not who he was, but what he did." I did not get the job. She was not interested in the likes of me, for what she wanted was a minion, a willing conduit, who would help her spread her message. I remember that she looked as insulted as though I had slapped her. People who are surprised to find the study of Shakespeare primarily an aesthetic enterprise should leave the teaching profession as soon as they possibly can. They are toxins, cancers, to the work we do, and they do not seem to understand the profession they have joined.

Shakespeare might have been bisexual. I don't care. He might have been homosexual. I don't care. He might have been an environmentalist, a vegetarian, a Catholic, a Protestant, an atheist, a lover of women, or a hater of women. For all I know, he might have enjoyed his free time standing on his head. My whole point is IT DOES NOT MATTER!!! What matters is not these things, or other things like them, but HIS POETRY!!! If we cannot bring ourselves to enjoy him for that? Then we must leave him alone and try to get a seat in Congress.

To make analysis easier, I provide the poem:


A woman's face with Nature's own hand painted (1)
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion; (2)
A woman's gentle heart, but not acquainted (3)
With shifting change, as is false women's fashion; (4)
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling, (5)
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth; (6)
A man in hue, all hues in his controlling, (7)
Much steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth. (8)
And for a woman wert thou first created; (9)
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting, (10)
And by addition me of thee defeated, (11)e
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing. (12)
But since she prick'd thee out for women's pleasure, (13)
Mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure. (14)

Much is made of lines 1 and 2. Many critics consider "[a] woman's face" and "master-mistress" as evidence of Shakespeare's sexual attraction to another man. This analysis is as erroneous as it is amateurish. Consider that there are some men so handsome that they take on an almost feminine appearance. It appears that Shakespeare's friend was one of these. This is given more weight when we consider line 2. Since the friend is obviously male (we shall prove this later), and since he is extraordinarily handsome, he is a "master-mistress" or a man who looks like a woman, as we said before. Lines 3-8 (inclusive) say that this man, this friend, although he looks feminine, is actually better than a woman: he is not as fickle, his eyes are less deceptive. There is a pun at the end of line 3 so masterful, it is practically unbelievable: the poet says that the young man is not "acquainted" with shifting change. The word "acquainted" is etymologically related to the word "cunt." I do not mean to be vulgar, only etymologically honest. The following is an excerpt from an online dictionary of etymology:


"female intercrural foramen," or, as some 18c. writers refer to it, "the monosyllable," Middle English cunte "female genitalia," by early 14c. (in Hendyng's "Proverbs" -- ʒeve þi cunte to cunni[n]g, And crave affetir wedding), akin to Old Norse kunta, Old Frisian, Middle Dutch, and Middle Low German kunte, from Proto-Germanic*kunton, of uncertain origin. Some suggest a link with Latin cuneus "wedge," others to PIE root *geu- "hollow place," still others to PIE *gwen-, root of queen and Greek gyne "woman."

The form is similar to Latin cunnus "female pudenda" (also, vulgarly, "a woman"), which is likewise of disputed origin, perhaps literally "gash, slit," from PIE *sker-(1) "to cut," or literally "sheath," from PIE *kut-no-, from root *(s)keu- "to conceal, hide."

Hec vulva: a cunt. Hic cunnus: idem est. [from Londesborough Illustrated Nominale, c.1500, in "Anglo-Saxon and Old English Vocabularies," eds. Wright and Wülcker, vol. 1, 1884]

First known reference in English apparently is in a compound, Oxford street name Gropecuntlane cited from c.1230 (and attested through late 14c.) in "Place-Names of Oxfordshire" (Gelling & Stenton, 1953), presumably a haunt of prostitutes. Used in medical writing c.1400, but avoided in public speech since 15c.; considered obscene since 17c.

in Middle English also conte, counte, and sometimes queinte, queynte (for this, see q). Chaucer used quaint and queynte in "Canterbury Tales" (late 14c.), and Andrew MARVELL might be punning on quaint in "To His Coy Mistress" (1650).

"What eyleth yow to grucche thus and grone? Is it for ye wolde haue my queynte allone?" [Wife of Bath's Tale]

Under "MONOSYLLABLE" Farmer lists 552 synonyms from English slang and literature before launching into another 5 pages of them in French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese. [A SAMPLING: Botany Bay, chum, coffee-shop, cookie, End of the Sentimental Journey, fancy bit, Fumbler's Hall, funniment, goatmilker, heaven, hell, Itching Jenny, jelly-bag, Low Countries, nature's tufted treasure, parenthesis, penwiper, prick-skinner, seminary, tickle-toby, undeniable, wonderful lamp, and aphrodisaical tennis court. Dutch cognate de kont means "a bottom, an arse," but Dutch also has attractive poetic slang ways of expressing this part, such as liefdesgrot, literally "cave of love," and vleesroos "rose of flesh."

Alternative form cunny is attested from c.1720 but is certainly much earlier and forced a change in the pronunciation of coney (q.v.), but it was good for a pun whileconey was still the common word for "rabbit": "A pox upon your Christian cockatrices! They cry, like poulterers' wives, 'No money, no coney.' " [Philip Massinger: "The Virgin-Martyr," Act I, Scene 1, 1622]

From this entry it should be obvious that Shakespeare might very well have been making a pun on "cunt" in the word "acquainted." In other words--if this analysis of the pun be correct--the young friend is not "a-cunt-ed" or "not equipped with a "cunt." In other words, though he might have a feminine look, he is not anatomically a female.

The heart of my argument, though, comes in lines 9-14. Let's set these off for easier analysis: to the right of each line will be my translation:

And for a woman wert thou first created; (9) You were supposed to be created a woman,

Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting, (10) Until Nature, as she made you, started to dote on you,
And by addition me of thee defeated, (11) And, by anatomical adding, defeated me,

By adding one thing to my purpose nothing. (12) By adding one thing to you that I have no use for.
But since she prick'd thee out for women's pleasure, (13) But since she equipped you to please women,

Mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure. (14) Let your spiritual love be mine and your physical love women's treasure.

What do these lines reveal? Let us summarize, first, what they are saying: the young handsome friend of the poet was apparently first meant to be a woman. But Nature (a female), as she fashioned him, began to fall in love with him. She therefore needed to change the friend into a male and give him one thing that would be useful to her but not to the poet. In fact, it would be "to my purpose nothing," says the poet. What is this "one thing"?

Shakespeare hints at it by a masterful pun in line 13: "prick'd." Even today we speak of the penis as a "prick." Nature, therefore, fell in love with the beautiful person, transformed "her" into "him" and did so by adding a penis. This addition, says the poet, is "to my purpose nothing." In other words, the poet claims not to have any purpose for this penis. I have one question for my reader: has there ever been a male homosexual who has considered his lover's penis as something he has no use for?

Now, just to set the record straight. Even after all this analysis, I still cannot say for sure whether Shakespeare were a homosexual, a bisexual, or a heterosexual. I have said earlier that this question is a distraction in the study of Shakespeare, which should be about his aesthetic prowess, not the private expression of his libido. Further, it is possible here that the poet is not to be considered the same as Shakespeare, but might be a fictive persona designed to articulate the Bard's perceptions on the mystery of love that this poem is an attempt to display and fathom. But let us say we are determined to settle upon some conclusion here. What would it be? The only thing we can say for sure is that the poet of Sonnet 20 is decidedly not a homosexual.

Joseph Pedulla

Friday, August 22, 2014


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