All This Useless Beauty
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 4
MAY 31, 2013 by SARAH SKWIRE
Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
Upon thyself 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 thyself alone,
Thou of thyself 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.
—William Shakespeare, Sonnet 4
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 4 is certainly not shy about its economic preoccupations. The poem’s first word, “unthrifty,” serves notice to the reader that economics will be crucial to understanding the poem. The sonnet records the poet’s struggle to understand why the young man he addresses does not want to have children. In a quest for an answer the sonnet’s speaker poses four increasingly challenging versions of the same question.
The first version of the question, “Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend / Upon thyself thy beauty’s legacy” demands to know why, given so much beauty to pass on to the future, the young man spends it on himself. More than just an erotic pun, this accusation that the young man “spends upon himself” and thereby denies future generations their inheritance—and even their existence—is an important economic argument as well. Unlike those who chastely bide their time for marriage, the subject of this poem is not saving his wealth. He is “unthrifty.” Rather than circulate his beauty appropriately in society through marriage and children, his giving and receiving begins and ends with himself. So, while he does not commit the social sin of hoarding, neither does he engage in trade or exchanges. And he doesn’t invest for the future. A legacy, as these lines’ paradoxes remind us, is meant to be something that is inherently forward looking and other regarding. This young man turns his legacy back upon himself.
Nature, argues the speaker, never intended for him to behave this way. Nature has a legacy of her own. His beauty is only his insofar as it was a bequest from nature, and it was lent, and only lent, to him with the expectation that he would pass it on to his children as freely as nature passed it to him. Rather like an entailed estate, it is the responsibility of the beautiful not to waste their capital, but to keep it in good condition so that it can fulfill its natural purpose—the engendering of children.
That clarified, the speaker of the sonnet goes on to demand, “Then beauteous niggard, why dost thou abuse / The bounteous largess given thee to give?” Just identified as “unthrifty loveliness,” the young man is now “beauteous niggard.” His appearance is unchanged, but his economic status is reversed. An “unthrifty” person who spends excessively and inappropriately and only on himself, he is also a “niggard” who is disinclined to spend at all. This shift implies that, spend though he may upon himself, none of the young man’s spending is anything but niggardly unless it breaks out of the endless cycle of self-regard and self-obsession.
The sonnet’s third question begins with the poem’s final and most important epithet, “Profitless usurer.” This is a self-contained contradiction. Usurers are defined by their profit-seeking and profit-creating behavior. To be a profitless usurer is to be no usurer at all. The oxymoronic nature of this epithet is heightened by the question that contains it. “Profitless usurer, why dost thou use / So great a sum of sums yet canst not live?” The young man’s usuries, if that is what they are, are so poorly performed that he is unable to eke out a subsistence from them. This is because, as with the transactions critiqued by the poem’s earlier questions, the young man deals only with himself. He uses a great “sum of sums” from his legacy of beauty—lends it out with the understanding that it will be returned with interest—but since he lends only from himself and to himself, there is no possibility of accruing interest or making a profit.
The incredulous speaker of the sonnet notes that because this closed circle is the extent of the young man’s engagement with the world, “having traffic with thyself alone / Thou of thyself thy sweet self dost deceive.” The refusal to circulate beauty and wealth denies to others and to oneself the pleasures and profits of its increase. The young man not only withholds himself from potential mates and children. He takes himself from himself—losing not merely potential profit but, the speaking implies, actual capital.
Behaving in this way, the speaker continues, what can he expect to achieve? “Then how when Nature calls thee to be gone, / What acceptable audit canst thou leave?” He has refused to engage in the most human of activities. He has wasted in selfishness and self-indulgence the generous gifts lent to him by nature. He has neglected the responsibilities implied by those gifts. There can be nothing left for him but death: “Thy unused beauty must be tombed with thee, / Which used lives th’executor to be.”
The young man is accused over and over again of self-obsession, of abuse, and of irresponsibility. But it is not the market that produces that corruption. It is, instead, the young man’s refusal to participate in the humanizing exchanges of the market that is at fault. The speaker does not object to the young man because he is a usurer. He objects to him because he is a failed usurer. Usury requires exchange, transaction, and engagement with the community. The young man’s behavior does none of these things. He makes no profit. He leaves no legacy. His fault is not usury. It is faulty usury.