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“Sonnet 4: Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend” by William Shakespeare

"Death and the Miser" by Hieronymus Bosch

“Death and the Miser” by Hieronymus Bosch

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.

Similar to Shakespeare’s first three sonnets, this one also deals with the theme of procreation, but the tone is different. I know there is a lot of debate about whether these sonnets were written for a young man or a young woman. While I feel that the first three sonnets are speaking to a woman, based upon the use of metaphors regarding flowers, mothers, and childbirth, for this one I will adhere to the consensus and say that he composed this for a male youth.

The metaphors used here are primarily associated with business, particularly accounting and money-lending. This would certainly be more within the realm of men during Shakespeare’s time. The entire poem is strewn with words associated with business: unthrifty, spend, lend, profitless, usurer, sums, audit, executor.

The person to whom the speaker is addressing is clearly obsessed with business affairs and is directing all his energy into the pursuit of financial success. The speaker is letting him know that he is wasting his youth in the quest for material gains and that he should shift his focus towards finding a wife and starting a family. If he fails to do so, he will die a lonely, solitary miser, and after his death, the only legacy he will have left will be some money which a lawyer will dispense with.

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