January 2, 2008

Shakespearean Sonnet du Jour

Sonnet #20
One of the most overtly homoerotic of Shakespeare's sonnets.

The identity of the young man to whom Shakespeare wrote the majority of these sonnets has provoked centuries of heated scholarly debate. Most agree that he is probably the "Mr. W.H." to whom the sonnets were dedicated, but theories diverge as to just who Mr. W.H. was. Some see the repeated word "hue" in line 7 as a clue, plus several instances in other sonnets where the word "Will" appears italicized in the 1609 printing, and leads them to invent an imaginary boy actor named William Hughes (a lengthier discussion can be found here), upon whom Oscar Wilde bases his short story The Portrait of Mr. W.H.. The majority swap the initials to come up with Henry Wriothsley (pronounced "rose-ly"), 3rd Earl of Southampton, the young nobleman who was Shakespeare's early patron.

Geekery Alert: Shakesonnets are written in iambic pentameter, i.e. ten syllables, accent on the even ones (dee DUM dee DUM dee DUM dee DUM dee DUM). In the case of Sonnet 20, each line contains an extra unaccented syllable at the end. These are known as 'feminine endings,' which for a sonnet written to an androgynous youth is a lovely connection between form and theme. Also note the 'cocky' punnery in line 13.

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.

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