Shakespeare’s Sonnet #4, Read by David Hurley


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 usèd, lives th’ executor to be.

Four questions are addressed to the young man in this sonnet. The key rhetorical features are anaphora and erotesis, combining to produce anaphoric erotesis in the first three of them.

Notice how the apparent openness of the first question is swiftly closed down by what follows; by a statement as to the nature of nature’s bounty, the “legacy” of beauty that has been bestowed upon the young man which, as it turns out, it is not so much a legacy as a loan, the terms of which the young man has violated by his onanistic refusal to “be free”.

Preliminary Clause(s)Interrogative Clause
Unthrifty loveliness,why dost thou spend Upon thyself thy beauty's legacy?
Then, beauteous niggard,why dost thou abuse The bounteous largess given thee to give?
Profitless userer,why dost thou use So great a sum of sums yet canst not live?

Having closed down any opportunity for response or defence, the poet fires off two more rhetorical questions to complete the anaphoric sequence.

The young man is “unthrifty” in the sense that he wastes his stock of beauty upon himself. He is “niggardly” (note the noun/adjective inversion) in that he does not seek to invest it in winning a woman. He is “profitless” in that his investment will yield no profit or multiplication; he shall die childless.

(It is interesting to note that it is the borrower of nature’s beauty, the young gentleman, not Nature, the original “lender” personified in the opening quatrain, that is accused of the sin of “usury” together with the double sin of wastefulness-in-niggardliness.)

The “conclusion” that follows the third question is of course not an answer to the question, but rather the climax of the poet’s own line of reasoning and the emotional appeal of the first ten lines of the sonnet.

“The design of the erotesis or interrogation is to awaken attention to the subject of discourse, and is a mode of address admirably calculated to produce a powerful impression of the truth of a subject, as it challenges the impossibility of contradiction. Thus, ‘How long, Cataline,’ exclaims Cicero, ‘will you abuse our patience?'”
(David Williams, Composition, Literary and Rhetorical, Simplified, 1850)

Helen Vendler compares this sonnet to a “secularized homily” of “the reproach of the cleric to the sinner”1 and the final question, with it’s impatient “how then… what…”2 brings us to the “last judgement” of the tomb: will there be an acceptable “audit” (the Last Judgement as financial reckoning of the “traffic” of beauty…) or will beauty live in a new generation or will beauty die with the old gentleman?

David Hurley


1 Helen Vendler, The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets , p. 63.

2 Is the fourth question a case of Shakespearian anthimeria? He seems to have substituted “what” for “an” and reversed the order of the 12th line to strengthen its emotional and rhetorical impact at the expense of its grammatical coherence:

Then how, when nature calls thee to be gone,
Canst thou leave an acceptable audit?

Perhaps his first thought was something that didn’t quite scan:

Then what acceptable audit canst thou leave
When nature calls thee to be gone?