A critical reading of a Shakespeare sonnet
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 4 sees the Bard analysing the Fair Youth’s refusal to have children from a slightly different perspective, using the metaphor of economic and financial activity. In what follows, we analyse Sonnet 4 (‘Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend …’) in terms of its images of money and spending, as a way of elucidating its meaning.
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.
Monetary and economic language abounds in Sonnet 4, right from that first line: ‘Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend’. In summary, Shakespeare begins Sonnet 4 by asking the Fair Youth why he is extravagantly wasting his beauty when he should thriftily be saving some up for future use. The word ‘legacy’ suggests not only something that has been passed down to him – he has inherited his beauty from his parents – but also something that is finite and non-renewable and thus needs to be used sensibly. (Once your beauty has gone, you won’t get it back.) Nature doesn’t give us beauty, the Bard goes on: she merely lends us beauty for a short time. Being ‘frank’ (i.e. free or generous), Nature lends to those who are free-spirited and generous themselves, because she trusts that they will return the favour and in turn pass on their beauty to someone else (i.e. their children).
This being so, Shakespeare continues, why, beautiful but stingy person, do you misuse the generous gift that you have been given? You’ve been given this beauty so that you may in turn give it to others, yet you are actually a moneylender (‘usurer’, with connotations of miserliness or stinginess) who makes no profits from his dealings because he uses a great deal of his money but doesn’t get enough back to live on. (This is an awkward paraphrase of Shakespeare’s meaning: when he says in line 8, ‘yet canst not live’, he means ‘you’re like a moneylender who doesn’t earn enough profit to live on’ but also ‘because you won’t share your beauty with anyone and sire an heir, you will not live on through your children after you are gone’. At least, that’s our analysis of his meaning here.)
Continuing the economic analogy, Shakespeare argues: because you only trade or do business with yourself, you are like a moneylender who tries to deceive his customers; but because you’re your only customer, you end up cheating yourself, and no one else. And when you die, what will you have to show for it? Note here how ‘nature’ comes back into the poem: Shakespeare’s sonnet is a deft mixture of man-made financial metaphors and references to nature as the ultimate ‘lender’ and auditor.
No, concludes Shakespeare – if you continue on this path, your unused beauty (unused because you have not married and begotten children) will be buried with you, but if you used your beauty instead, it would live (in the form of your children) to be your ‘executor’ and to keep your name alive after you are dead. (This last line also continues the economic flavour to Sonnet 4: an ‘executor’ is, among other things, someone who looks after someone’s estate, including their money and land, after they are gone.)
We cannot conclude this brief analysis and summary of Sonnet 4 without drawing attention to the potential references to self-pleasure (our old friend, masturbation, which we also glimpsed in Sonnet 1) in the sonnet. In that first line, for instance, ‘spend’, as well as bearing its financial meaning, can also refer to the act of ejaculation: it is used in this sense in Restoration writings, such as in the Earl of Rochester’s ‘I rise at eleven, I dine about two’, and although the Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation is from Samuel Pepys in 1662, the term may have been in use considerably earlier than this. The first two lines of Sonnet 4 might then be understood to mean ‘Why do you spend on yourself the very thing [your ‘seed’, to put it politely] that is capable of continuing your beauty’s legacy [i.e. a child]?’ Perhaps not; but because we encountered such suggestive language in the earlier sonnets, our ears and eyes are, to an extent, primed to pick up on it, even if the evidence is less persuasive in this case.
That concludes our short introduction to, and analysis of, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 4. What do you think of this sonnet?
Continue to explore the Sonnets with our analysis of Sonnet 5.