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Shakespeare Sonnet 4: “Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend”

The Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence remains essential in my poetry tool kit. Masterfully crafted, they dramatize love, beauty, and truth.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford - The real "Shakespeare"

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford - The real "Shakespeare"

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 4: “Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend”

The speaker of Shakespeare’s second thematic group, ”The Marriage Sonnets” in the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence, engages a different metaphor for each poem as he continues his one theme of attempting to persuade this handsome young man to take a wife and reproduce handsome children with pleasant qualities like those possessed by the young man. Sonnet 4 employs a finance/inheritance metaphor—spending and lending with such terms as "unthrifty," "spend," "bounteous largess," "sum," "audit," and “executor."

In “The Marriage Sonnets,” the clever speaker puts on display hi wish to persuade the young man to marry and spring off lovely children, and he presents his persuasion in little dramas. Each drama not only entices the young man but also entertains readers and listeners with its brilliant set of images and metaphors. The speaker is both resourceful as well as creative as he fashions his arguments. He plays on the young man’s sense of duty as well as on the lad’s sense of vanity.

Sonnet 4: “Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend”

Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
Upon thy self thy beauty's legacy?
Nature's bequest gives nothing, but doth lend,
And being frank she lends to those are free:
Then, beauteous niggard, why dost thou abuse
The bounteous largess given thee to give?
Profitless usurer, why dost thou use
So great a sum of sums, yet canst not live?
For having traffic with thy self alone,
Thou of thy self thy sweet self dost deceive:
Then how when nature calls thee to be gone,
What acceptable audit canst thou leave?
Thy unused beauty must be tombed with thee,
Which, used, lives th' executor to be.

Reading of Sonnet 4

Shakespeare Sonnet Titles


The Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence does not feature titles for each sonnet; therefore, each sonnet's first line becomes the title. According to the MLA Style Manuel: "When the first line of a poem serves as the title of the poem, reproduce the line exactly as it appears in the text." APA does not address this issue.

Commentary

The speaker presents his drama using a finance metaphor in this sonnet.

First Quatrain: Why so Selfish, Dude?

Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
Upon thy self thy beauty's legacy?
Nature's bequest gives nothing, but doth lend,
And being frank she lends to those are free:

The speaker begins by asking the young man why he persists in spending his amiable qualities only for his own selfish pleasure. The speaker then tells the lad that nature did not engender in him his good qualities for himself only, but rather Mother Nature simply lends those qualities. And Mother Nature freely puts those qualities on loan to him. The speaker informs the young man that the latter did not have to earn his beauty from nature, but he does have the duty to pass on those fine qualities that nature started in him.

Appealing to the young man’s sense of duty as well as his vanity, the speaker fashions his money or financial metaphor to attempt to engage the young man’s interest. As an advice giver, this speaker feels he must marshal all of his useful arguments to impress upon the young lad the serious nature of his persuasion.

Second Quatrain: Misuse of Beauty

Then, beauteous niggard, why dost thou abuse
The bounteous largess given thee to give?
Profitless usurer, why dost thou use
So great a sum of sums, yet canst not live?

Chiding the young man by labeling him " beauteous niggard," or selfish beauty, the speaker demands to know why the lad is misusing his "bounteous largess." Trying to shame the young man by accusing him of misusing his fine features, the speaker hopes to move the lad to do as the speaker believes his should. Because the speaker has clearly established his intentions and motives in the first three sonnets of convincing the younger man to marry and procreate, the speaker allows his metaphor to work without even mentioning the target terms of marrying and reproducing.

The speaker then accuses the young man of behaving like a "Profitless usurer," again employing the financial metaphor. The speaker continues in reprimanding the young man for hoarding his wealth of positive qualities, when he should be using them for a greater good. The young man’s failure to use his gifts properly is made even worse because those gifts cannot endure eternally. The speaker continues to engage the notion of brevity of life as he tries to impress upon the lad the urgency of the situation.

Third Quatrain: Selfish Attitude

For having traffic with thy self alone,
Thou of thy self thy sweet self dost deceive:
Then how when nature calls thee to be gone,
What acceptable audit canst thou leave?

In the third quatrain, the speaker again chides the young man for the selfish attitude for which the speaker is often accusing the lad. The speaker employs his oft-repeated question, how will you account for yourself after you have wasted the precious time allotted you, if you do not follow my wise suggestions and perform your duties. The speaker is always trying to convince the young man that he has the best interests of the lad in mind as he continues to persuade.

The speaker wonders just how the young man will give an account of his selfish action after the time arrives for him to pass from this life if he leaves no beautiful heirs to replace him and continue his fair qualities. The speaker often feigns confusion or lack of understanding after he has accused the lad of some heinous quality such as overweening vanity.

The Couplet: A Lonely Ending

Thy unused beauty must be tombed with thee,
Which, used, lives th' executor to be.

Finally, the speaker declares that if the young man does not marry and produce offspring, the lad’s beauty will die with him; the speaker has made it clear that such an act is the height of cruelty and failure of duty. However, if the young man will just take the speaker’s advice and use his beauty properly, he would leave a living heir, who, upon the death of the father, could serve as his executor. The speaker tries to motivate the young man to follow his advice, by painting a lonely portrait of the young man in old age.

The speaker continues to offer scenarios that play out against the young man’s better interests if the latter fails to follow the advice of the former. The clever speaker continues to paint a sad future for the young man, if he remains unmarried and childless. The desire for beautiful children to replace the beautiful qualities of the young man after he has become aged and lost those qualities continues to spark the speaker to use all of his talents to persuade and even enlighten the young man to perform as the speaker wishes.

Shakespeare Identified Lecture, Mike A'Dair And William J. Ray

© 2020 Linda Sue Grimes