Sonnet 4

Shakespeare Sonnet 4

VNthrifty louelineſſe why doſt thou ſpend,
Vpon thy ſelfe thy beauties legacy?
Natures bequeſt giues nothing but doth lend,
And being franck ſhe lends to thoſe are free:
Then beautious nigard why dooſt thou abuſe,
The bountious largeſſe giuen thee to giue?
Profitles vſerer why dooſt thou vſe
So great a ſumme of ſummes yet can’ſt not liue?
For hauing traffike with thy ſelfe alone,
Thou of thy ſelfe thy ſweet ſelfe doſt deceaue,
Then how when nature calls thee to be gone,
What acceptable Audit can’ſt thou leaue?
Thy vnuſ’d beauty muſt be tomb’d with thee,
Which vſed liues th’executor to be.

Sonnet 4 makes explicit the accounting motif of the prior sonnets. The youth’s willingness to spend prodigally upon himself and not at all on someone else is the cause of nature’s ultimately unsatisfied “Audit”. Its opening epithet defines him as, “Vnthrifty louelinesse.” “Vnthrifty” means ‘wasteful’ or ‘not used providently;’ “louelinesse” is both his ‘beauty’ and his ‘capacity to love.’ He is asked why he spends upon himself his “beauties legacy,” the beauty he has received as a bequest and which he should bequeath to his issue but squanders on himself (“spend / Vpon thy selfe;” in Sonnet 129 it is an “expence of Spirit” that is wasted). The quadruple repetition of “thy selfe” emphasizes his absorption in self. The beauty bequeathed him by nature is not a gift but a loan, which an executor might hold in trust. Nature, being free with her wares, lends to her own, to those who are equally free: “And being franck she lends to those are free.” The line plays on the alliterative pairing, ‘frank (from francus = free) and free.

The second epithet, “beauteous niggard,” recalls Sonnet 1’s “chorle,” who “makst wast in niggarding;” “beauteous” is a poetical form of beautiful; “niggard” is one who hoards for or in himself. The youth is asked, “why doost thou abuse, / The bountious largesse giuen thee to giue?” To abuse oneself was a social colloquialism intending not to do oneself justice, but was used also of the sin of incontinency either with a woman or by the self. Thomas Howell in his moral “Fable,” attached to his translation of Ovid’s Narcissus section, identifies Narcissus as one incapable of using his gifts (“lackes the skyl, so godlye gyftes to vse”) and casts him as a figure of self abuse, because “he consumeth, himself that doth abuse.” 1 Sins of self abuse were subject to biblical condemnation: Paul cautions, “Be not deceaued: neither fornicatours, nor idolatours, nor adulterers, nor weaklinges, nor abusers of them selues with mankinde . .  shall inherite the kingdome of God” (1 Cor. 6.9; BB). The youth, unwilling to pass on his “bountious largesse”,” like Narcissus abuses it. He is a “Profitles vserer,” one who refuses to lend out money, so that no gain accrues. He is asked why he is prepared to “vse / So great a summe of summes yet can’st not liue?” A “summe of summes” (“summa summarum”) was firstly an accounting term, being in medieval ledgers the final totals in each column that required balancing. The volume or tome itself came to be called a summa summarum, in which all details were laid out. 2 The youth is thus asked why he should spend the totality of himself upon himself: “vse” means not so much ‘use for profit’ (as a userer) which he won’t do, but ‘use up’ in or for himself. The result is that he cannot live or give life. Secondly the original Latin phrase, “summa summarum,” while intending the totality of something, was used bawdily: Plautus, for example, writes of “Venus in whose hands arises the height of heights (“summa summarum”) of lovers.” 3 The youth thus uses his “great . . summe of summes,” but to no creative purpose. He is accused of “hauing traffike with thy selfe alone.” To “traffike” was to deal commercially, often shadily. The result of trafficking only with the self is no profit or return. But a “traffic” was a whore or strumpet 4 and to ‘traffic’ was to have sexual intercourse. 5 To traffic with oneself alone was considered a sin of self-abuse, because it was not procreative.

Since the youth cheats himself by himself or for his own sake (“of thy selfe thy sweet selfe dost deceaue”), he has ignored the Pauline warning above, “Be not deceaued.” The poet’s last question addresses, as does Sonnet 126, his final day of reckoning, after nature has called him “to be gone.” What “acceptable Audit” will he leave? An audit was an official examination of accounts, often conducted orally after Luke 16.2, “Howe is it, that I heare this of thee” (‘audit’ is from audire = to hear), and was used of the final judgment after death (see Sonnet 126). If he die without begetting his beauty in another, what kind of statement of accounts would nature find acceptable? His beauty, not having yielded a return (“vnus’d”), must be buried with him (“tombed;” but suggestive of ‘tomed’ or recorded in a summa summarum). If, however, beauty were to be used and an heir produced, then the child could act as beauty’s guardian and trustee (“executor to be”).


4.1. Thomas Howell, The fable of Ouid treting of Narcissus, translated out of Latin into Englysh Mytre, With a moral therunto, uery pleasante to rede (London: Thomas Hackett, 1560) D1r; Shakespeare may also have in mind Horace’s words on spending (in Thomas Drant’s translation), “Away with wealth, if that a man / haue not a tyme to vse it: / The niggarde to straite to him selfe, / what doth he but abuse it? / Who sekinge howe to benefite his heire in al he can” (Horace, Horace his arte of poetrie, pistles, and satyrs Englished, trans. Thomas Drant (London: Thomas Marshe, 1567) C7v.

4.2. The first “Summa Summarum” was William Poul of Pagula’s Speculum iuris canonici ac reportorium et vocatur Summa Summarum, a 14th century compendium of Canon Law.

4.3. Plautus, Truculentus, 1.1.24-25, “Venus, / quam penes amantum summa summarum redit.”

4.4. Compare Robert Greene, A Disputation, Betweene a Hee Conny-catcher, and a Shee Conny-catcher, whether a Theefe or a Whoore, is most hurtfull in Cousonage, to the Common-wealth. Discovering the Secret Villanies of alluring Strumpets. With the Conuersion of an English Courtizen, reformed this present yeare, 1592 (London: A[bel] I[effes], 1592) A4v, “a trafficque, or as base knaues tearme vs strumpets.

4.5. See Thomas Lodge, The Life and Death of william Long beard (London: Richard Yardley, 1593) B3v, “with this faire damosell William Long beard traffiqued his fancies.”

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