Hamlet’s ‘What a piece of work is a man’ speech is among the most famous prose speeches from Shakespeare’s play. It has become well-known, and is sometimes used in television and radio adverts; it was also memorably recited by Richard E. Grant’s character Withnail at the end of the British cult film Withnail and I (1987).
Before we offer a summary and analysis of this part of Hamlet, here’s a reminder of Hamlet’s ‘what a piece of work is a man’ speech, which appears in Act 2 Scene 2:
I will tell you why. So shall my anticipation prevent your discovery, and your secrecy to the King and Queen moult no feather. I have of late – but wherefore I know not – lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises. And indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame the earth seems to me a sterile promontory. This most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire – why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! And yet to me what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me – nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.
What does Hamlet mean in this speech? Why does he praise man as ‘a piece of work’, yet appear to be so thoroughly depressed? Let’s take a closer look at this moment in the play, through summarising and analysing his speech, a bit at a time:
I will tell you why. So shall my anticipation prevent your discovery, and your secrecy to the King and Queen moult no feather.
Hamlet’s speech appears during a long scene involving many of the principal characters in Hamlet. At this point in Act 2 Scene 2, Hamlet is talking to his old friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who have turned up at Elsinore. Hamlet asks them what led them to visit the castle. He suspects they were sent for, and, upon pressing them, they admit as much.
Hamlet asks them why they were sent for – but then he tells them he will answer that question for them, so they don’t have to break their confidence with Gertrude and Claudius (Hamlet’s mother and stepfather), by telling him something that they were sworn to secrecy on.
The phrase ‘moult no feather’ means ‘sustain no loss’ or ‘be unimpaired’. In other words, if Hamlet answers his own question rather than forcing them to answer, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s honour (which they pledged to the King and Queen) will not be damaged, because they haven’t had to reveal something they shouldn’t.
I have of late – but wherefore I know not – lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises. And indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame the earth seems to me a sterile promontory.
Hamlet tells them that recently he has lost all ability to be happy. He doesn’t know why he has become unhappy (‘but wherefore I know not’): this is similar to Antonio’s words, which open The Merchant of Venice (‘In sooth, I know not why I am so sad’).
Hamlet also says he has ‘forgone all custom of exercises’, i.e. he has given up taking part in sports, especially those customary ones which men about the court traditionally played (the notes in the excellent Arden edition of the play, Hamlet: Revised Edition (The Arden Shakespeare Third Series), mention specifically fencing and tennis, reminding us that these sports were linked with Laertes earlier in the play).
Hamlet’s ‘it goes so heavily with my disposition’ means ‘it has made me so thoroughly depressed’: he has become so utterly miserable as a result of this inexplicable melancholy that the beautiful world seems to him to be nothing more than a ‘sterile promontory’, i.e. a barren headland, as if the world is but a mere rocky outcrop in a much larger sea.
This most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire – why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.
Hamlet goes on to say that the sky that hangs above them, like a magnificent roof that has been decorated around the edges with golden fire (i.e. the sunlight), seems to Hamlet to be nothing but a horrible collection of disease-ridden vapours. Hamlet is in such a state of depression that although he can see the beauty in the world, he cannot appreciate it – everything seems diseased, ugly, ‘off’.
What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals!
Now we come to the most famous words of this speech: ‘What a piece of work is a man’ means ‘what a masterpiece of creation is a human being’: God really excelled himself when he created mankind. Man’s capabilities are ‘infinite’ or endless, and the shape of the human body, and the movement of that body, are well-modelled and invite our admiration.
In his action, too, man is like an angel, and in his mental abilities (‘apprehension’) he is like a god. He is the most beautiful thing in the world and the greatest of all the animals.
And yet to me what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me – nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.
Despite all of these inestimable qualities, however, to Hamlet the human body (the determiner ‘this’ suggests the actor playing Hamlet should gesture to his own body when he utters these words) means nothing, and does not delight him. No, he cannot take pleasure in the beauty of the female body either (he anticipates a bawdy comeback from Guildenstern about the women of the court ‘delighting’ him).
‘Quintessence of dust’ is an interesting phrase. Ever since the Book of Genesis in the Bible (‘dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return’), the idea has been around that man was fashioned from dust and will return to dust after death.
‘Quintessence’, meanwhile, means a ‘concentration’ of something: man is a concentration of dust, packed together to create this almost magical being. Quintessence was also thought to be the stuff that heavenly bodies such as stars were made out of: it literally means ‘fifth essence’, complementing the four earthly classical elements (earth, air, fire, and water).
What does Hamlet’s ‘What a piece of work is a man’ speech mean, in terms of its significance to the overall play? The key thing to bear in mind is that Hamlet has adopted what, earlier in the play, he called an ‘antic disposition’: he is pretending to be mad so he can investigate the claims of the Ghost (from Act 1) and try to get to the bottom of the matter. Is the Ghost for real, or some demon sent to make mischief? Is what it speaks true: was Old Hamlet really murdered by his own brother, Hamlet’s uncle Claudius, as he slept in his orchard one afternoon?
So, Hamlet may genuinely feel depressed, and is speaking the truth to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Or he may be merely saying he is depressed, performing a show, affecting the best of Elizabethan melancholy for his appreciative audience (who will then report back to the King and Queen to say that Hamlet is feeling out of sorts). So, ultimately, even this great speech we have to take with a pinch of salt.