What a piece of work is a man  

From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia

Jump to: navigation, search

Related e



Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The phrase "What a piece of work is a man!" comes from Shakespeare's Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act II, Scene 2, and it is often used in reference to the whole speech containing the line.


The speech

The monologue, spoken in the play by Prince Hamlet to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, follows in its entirety. Rather than appearing in blank verse, the typical mode of composition of Shakespeare's plays, the speech appears in straight prose:

I will tell you why; so shall my anticipation prevent your discovery, and your secrecy to the King and queene: 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'er hanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire: why, it appeareth no other thing to me, than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. 'What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! 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; no, nor Woman neither; though by your smiling you seem to say so.

Differences between texts

The speech was fully omitted from Nicholas Ling's 1603 First Quarto, which reads simply:

Yes faith, this great world you see contents me not,
No nor the spangled heauens, nor earth, nor sea,
No nor Man that is so glorious a creature,
Contents not me, no nor woman too, though you laugh.

This version has been argued to have been a bad quarto, a tourbook copy, or an initial draft. By the 1604 Second Quarto, the speech is essentially present but punctuated differently:

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!

Then, by the 1623 First Folio, it appeared as:

What a piece of worke is a man! how Noble in
Reason? how infinite in faculty? in forme and mouing
how expresse and admirable? in Action, how like an Angel?
in apprehension, how like a God? ...

J. Dover Wilson, in his notes in the New Shakespeare edition, observed that the Folio text "involves two grave difficulties", namely that according to Elizabethan thought angels could apprehend but not act, making "in action how like an angel" nonsensical, and that "express" (which as an adjective means "direct and purposive") makes sense applied to "action", but goes very awkwardly with "form and moving".


Scholars have pointed out this section's similarities to lines written by Montaigne (Apologie de Raimond de Sebonde):

Qui luy a persuadé que ce branle admirable de la voute celeste, la lumiere eternelle de ces flambeaux roulans si fierement sur sa teste, les mouvemens espouventables de ceste mer infinie, soyent establis et se continuent tant de siecles, pour sa commodité et pour son service ? Est-il possible de rien imaginer si ridicule, que ceste miserable et chetive creature, qui n’est pas seulement maistresse de soy, exposée aux offences de toutes choses, se die maistresse et emperiere de l’univers?
Who have persuaded [man] that this admirable moving of heavens vaults, that the eternal light of these lampes so fiercely rowling over his head, that the horror-moving and continuall motion of this infinite vaste ocean were established, and continue so many ages for his commoditie and service? Is it possible to imagine so ridiculous as this miserable and wretched creature, which is not so much as master of himselfe, exposed and subject to offences of all things, and yet dareth call himself Master and Emperor.

However, rather than being a direct influence on Shakespeare, Montaigne may have merely been reacting to the same general atmosphere of the time, making the source of these lines one of context rather than direct influence.

References in later works of fiction and music

  • In the rock musical Hair, numerous lyrics are derived from Hamlet, most notably a song titled "What a Piece of Work is Man", which uses much of the speech verbatim.
  • In the Reduced Shakespeare Company's production The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), the more famous solliloquy, "To be, or not to be," is omitted from the Hamlet portion of the production, not for time constraints, or because the speech is so well known, but because the group states that they dislike the speech for momentum and motivation reasons. The "What a piece of work is a man" speech is delivered in its stead.
  • In the film Grosse Pointe Blank, Mr. Newberry says to Martin: "What a piece of work is man! How noble... oh, fuck it, let's have a drink and forget the whole damn thing."
  • In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Hide and Q”, when Q mocks humanity to Captain Jean-Luc Picard by means of Shakespeare quotes, Picard retorts by paraphrasing Hamlet's monologue, noting that "what he might say with irony, I say with conviction."
  • An episode of the television show Babylon 5 aptly named "The Paragon of Animals", had one of the characters, Byron, recite Hamlet's "how noble is man..." speech.
  • In Gettysburg (1993), Union Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain recites from the speech while discussing slavery. To which Sergeant Kilrain responds "Well, if he's an angel, all right then... But he damn well must be a killer angel."
  • Rutger Hauer said he was inspired by this speech when preparing for the "Time to Die" scene in the 1982 film Blade Runner.Template:Cn
  • In the 1982 Lindsay Anderson film Britannia Hospital the computer which is the outcome of Professor Millar's Genesis project recites "what a piece of Work is a Man" up to "how like a God", at which point it repeats the line over and over.
  • In the 1986 film Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Jerry Baskin, played by Nick Nolte, recites this speech on the pier.
  • In Bruce Robinson's 1987 British film Withnail & I, the credits roll after lead character Withnail recites the monologue to an audience of wolves in London Zoo.
  • In the 2009 stop motion animation film Coraline, the other Ms. Spink and Forcible recite it while performing their trapeze acrobatics.
  • In the 2013 vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive, directed by Jim Jarmusch, parts of the monologue are quoted. Notably, Adam (Tom Hiddleston) utters "quintessence of dust" at the death bed of the vampire Marlowe. The plot includes the suggestion that the latter was the original author of the Shakespeare ouvre, as some critics have argued.
  • The ninth episode of the seventh season of the TV show Sons of Anarchy is titled 'What A Piece Of Work Is Man'. This is a reference to the Shakespearean influence of the hit TV series.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "What a piece of work is a man" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

Personal tools