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Shakespeare Sonnet 4:  "Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend"

Updated on September 21, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

The Real "Shakespeare"
The Real "Shakespeare" | Source

Shakespeare Sonnet 4

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 Shakespeare Sonnet 4


The speaker of Shakespeare’s “marriage sonnets” 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 like himself.

Sonnet 4 engages a finance/inheritance metaphor—spending and lending with such terms as “unthrifty,” “spend,” “bounteous largess,” “sum,” “audit,” and “executor.”

First Quatrain: “Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend”

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.

Second Quatrain: Then, beauteous niggard, why dost thou abus

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 is reprimanding the young profligate 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.

Third Quatrain: “For having traffic with thy self alone”

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, “Then how, when Nature calls thee to be gone, / What acceptable audit canst thou leave?” The speaker wonders just how the young man will give an account of his selfish action after his soul has left this Earth while leaving no beautiful heir to replace him and continue his fair qualities.


Finally, the speaker declares that if the young man does not marry and produce offspring, the lad’s beauty will die, “must be tomb’d with thee,” but if he just takes the speaker’s advice and uses 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.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes


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    • Maya Shedd Temple profile image

      Linda Sue Grimes 2 years ago from U.S.A.

      Thank you, whonu! Yes, I especially love the Shakespeare sonnets. The plays are also wonderful, but the sonnets offer a truly fascinating study.

    • whonunuwho profile image

      whonunuwho 2 years ago from United States

      Interesting reading as is all Shakespeare's works. Thank you for sharing this. whonu