Shakespeare Sonnet 4 - Analysis

Study Guide to Shakespeare's Sonnet 4

William Shakespeare circa 1600

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Shakespeare’s Sonnet 4: Sonnet 4: Unthrifty Loveliness, Why Dost Thou Spend is interesting because it is as concerned with the fair youth passing on his attributes to his children as the preceding three sonnets. However, to achieve this, the poet uses money lending and inheritance as a metaphor.

The fair youth is accused of being frivolous; spending on himself, rather than thinking of the legacy he could be leaving his children. The fair youth’s beauty is used as currency in this poem and the speaker suggests that beauty should be passed onto his offspring as a kind of inheritance.

The poet again depicts the fair youth as quite a selfish character in this poem, suggesting that nature has lent him this beauty which he should pass on – not hoard!

He is warned in no uncertain terms that his beauty will die with him which has been a recurrent theme in the sonnets. The poet uses business language to clarify his purpose and his metaphorical position. For example, “Unthrifty”, “niggard”, “usurer”, “sum of sums”, “audit” and “executor”.

Discover the sonnet first hand here: Sonnet 4.

Sonnet 4: The Facts

  • Sequence: Fourth in the Fair Youth Sonnets sequence
  • Key Themes: Procreation, death prohibiting the continuation of beauty, money-lending and inheritance, not leaving a legacy to offspring, the fair youth’s selfish attitude in relation to his own attributes.
  • Style: Written in iambic pentameter in sonnet form

Sonnet 4: A Translation

Wasteful, beautiful young man, why do you not pass on your beauty to the world? Nature has lent you good looks but she only lends to those who are generous, but you are a miser and abuse the amazing gift you have been given.

A money lender cannot make money if he does not pass it on. If you only do business with yourself you will never reap the benefits of your riches.

You are deceiving yourself. When nature takes your life what will you leave behind? Your beauty will go with you to your grave, not having been passed on to another.

Sonnet 4: Analysis

This obsession with the fair youth procreating is prevalent in the sonnets. The poet is also concerned with the fair youth’s legacy and is committed to convincing him that his beauty must be passed on.

The metaphor of beauty as currency is also employed; perhaps the poet believes that the fair youth would relate to this analogy more easily as we are given the impression that he is quite selfish and greedy and is perhaps motivated by material gains?

In many ways, this sonnet pulls together the argument set out in the previous three sonnets, and arrives at a conclusion: The Fair Youth may die childless and have no way of continuing on his line.

This is at the heart of the tragedy for the poet. With his beauty, the Fair Youth could "have anyone he wanted", and procreate. Through his children, he would live on, and so too would his beauty. But the poet suspects that he will not use his beauty properly and die childless. This thought leads the poet to write "Thy unused beauty must be tombed with thee."

In the final line, the poet considers that perhaps it is nature's intention for him to have a child. If the Fair Youth can procreate, then this leads the poet to consider his beauty enhanced because it fits into the overarching "plan" of nature.

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Jamieson, Lee. "Shakespeare Sonnet 4 - Analysis." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Jamieson, Lee. (2023, April 5). Shakespeare Sonnet 4 - Analysis. Retrieved from Jamieson, Lee. "Shakespeare Sonnet 4 - Analysis." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).