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Summary and Analysis of Sonnet 4 by William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare and a Summary of Sonnet 4

Sonnet 4 is one of William Shakespeare's procreative sonnets, aimed at the fair youth, encouraging him to share his beauty by having children of his own, before he dies. Beauty is seen as a commodity; the language used is that of business and finance.

With previous sonnet 3 focusing on looks and familial ties, and sonnet 5 concentrating on the effects of time, sonnet 4 brings the matter down to earth with its consistent pecuniary approach.

The speaker suggests that the fair youth is deceiving himself if he thinks he can live life abusing the gifts Nature gave him. There'll be nothing to pass on, it'll all be 'tomb'd with thee.'

The form is typical Shakespearean - three quatrains plus an end couplet, fourteen lines with full rhyme. Syntactically, sonnet 4 is a straightforward poem, the quatrains ending with full stops (two question marks at lines 8 and 12), and the clauses relatively unhindered by punctuation.

The argument builds up within the first twelve lines, the contrasts of wasting and giving, sharing and selfishness, abuse and goodness all too stark, the voice consistently questioning the wastefulness.

The couplet wraps the argument up - death will take your beauty in the end.

As Helen Vendler puts it in her book The art of Shakespeare's sonnets, 1997, Harvard University Press:

'The young man's unacceptable behavior is both usurious and profitless; he unjustly hoards his beauty unused and spends it on himself.'

(Sonnet 4, page 62)

The speaker throughout is urging the 'beauteous niggard' to quit being so selfish, so mean, and give, simply give.

  • It is a sonnet of four questions with subsequent answers.
  • The language (diction) relates to business, commodities and economics.

As Hallett Smith noted in his book The tension of the lyric: Poetry in Shakespeare's sonnets, sonnet 4 is:

'built on the idea of spending, saving, hoarding, lending, giving, bequeathing, and the like'

(San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1981)

The emphasis is on material goods, inheritance and so forth. Note the number of words reinforcing the speaker's financially based argument: Unthrifty, spend, legacy, bequest, lend, niggard, largess, Profitless usurer, sum of sums, audit, executor.

As many scholars and critics have noted, this sonnet is perhaps the least musical (sonorous) of all one hundred and fifty-four. Some have gone deep into the phonetics of each line and clause for their objective, technical conclusions but in the end it's the reader who has to make a subjective judgement on the poem's ability to 'sing.'

Sonnet 4 - Meaning of Words

Unthrifty - wasteful

dost - do

thy - your

legacy - money or property left in a will but here beautiful children.

bequest - a legacy

niggard - miser, mean person

largess - money or gifts given generously

usurer - money lender, adding interest

traffic - movement of goods (in the sonnet, self-loving)

audit - financial statement (in the sonnet, offspring)

tomb'd - entombed, buried

executor - person who administers deceased's estate

Sonnet 4


Line by Line Analysis of Sonnet 4

Lines 1 - 4

It's not uncommon for a Shakespearean sonnet to begin with a question, but these opening two lines are exceptional in that they directly accuse the fair youth of plain self-indulgence and wastefulness.

The enjambment, when a line runs on into the next without punctuation helps build up momentum.

Unthrifty, spend and legacy relate to business, economics and inheritance - the youth taking all and not giving, despite the loveliness, or because of?

The initial address, one of three compounds in this sonnet (Unthrifty loveliness, beauteous niggard, Profitless usurer) is almost insulting, suggestive of a severe lack of awareness.

Being born with beauty, given liberally by Nature for those with generous hearts, the fair youth is denying such gifts by being mean.

These opening four lines set the tone for the whole sonnet. A questioning speaker urges this person to open up and stop being miserly before it's too late.

Lines 5 - 8

This next quatrain reinforces the speaker's incredulity and involvement. Two questions are posed - harder questions with a repeated personal 'why dost thou....abuse and use....enjambment adding to the reader's build-up of pressure.

The half rhyme of abuse/use underlines the connectedness of the two. The speaker is saying that the fair youth has too much beauty all to himself and this takes away his ability to truly live.

Lines 9 - 12

The speaker goes one step further in the opening two lines and outright claims that there is self-deception in selfishness. Just note the almost awkward emphasis on the self; line 10 infers two selves to the fair youth, one selfish, the other sweet.

The fourth and final question combines how with what and asks about the future offspring when time is up. That word acceptable carries with it the idea of proportion and fulfilment in the context of wasted energy. What to leave, how much will do?

Lines 13 - 14

Death of body, death of beauty unused. The executor (appointed to oversee the legacy, the accounts upon demise) is Death. This is the inevitable conclusion to the previous argument and questions.

Note the verb tomb'd and the existential play on words with to be, an echo from Shakespeare's Hamlet.

What Is The Metre of Sonnet 4?

Shakespeare's sonnets have iambic pentameter as the dominant metre but not all of the sonnets have the classic daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM beat in every line.

Sonnet 4 offers a little variation - there are trochee feet for example, with the stress on the opening first syllable in some lines.

Let's take a closer look:

Unthrift / y love / liness, / why dost / thou spend
Upon / thy self / thy beaut / y's leg / acy?
Nature's / bequest / gives noth / ing, but / doth lend,
And be / ing frank / she lends / to those / are free:
Then, beau / teous nigg / ard, why / dost thou / abuse
The boun / teous larg / ess giv / en thee / to give?
Profit / less u / surer, / why dost / thou use
So great / a sum / of sums, / yet canst / not live?
For hav / ing traff / ic with / thy self / alone,
Thou of / thy self / thy sweet / self dost / deceive:
Then how / when na / ture calls / thee to / be gone,
What acc / epta / ble aud / it canst / thou leave?
Thy un / used beau / ty must / be tombed / with thee,
Which, used, / lives th' / exec / utor / to be.

All lines have ten syllables, the regular number for pentameter, five metrical feet. Note that the words beauteous and bounteous are scanned as having two syllables (lines 5,6).

Iambic pentameter is found in lines 1, 2, 4, 6, 8, 9, 11 and 13.

Trochees (inverted iambs DUMda) put stress on the first syllable are found in lines 3, 7, 10, 12 and 14.

A spondee (DUMDA) is found in line 5, bringing emphasis to the opening two words.


Sound and Meaning in Shakespeare's Sonnets on JSTOR

‘Love Merchandized’ Money in Shakespeare’s Sonnets on JSTOR

The art of Shakespeare's sonnets : Vendler, Helen Hennessy : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive

© 2022 Andrew Spacey