What a piece of work is a man

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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[edit]

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:

Differences between texts[edit]

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.[2]

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? ...
[3]

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".[4]

Sources[edit]

Scholars have pointed out this section's similarities to lines written by Montaigne:

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.[5]

References in later works of fiction and music[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Shakespeare, William. The Globe illustrated Shakespeare. The complete works, annotated, Deluxe Edition, (1986). Hamlet, Act II, scene 2, page 1879. Greenwich House, Inc. a division of Arlington House, Inc. distributed by Crown Publishers, Inc., 225 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10003, USA.
  2. ^ The First Edition of the Tragedy of Hamlet: London, 1603, p. 37. Nicholas Ling & J. Trundell, 1603. Reprinted by The Shakespeare Press, 1825.
  3. ^ Hamlet (1623 First Folio edition) at the Wayback Machine (archived October 18, 2013)
  4. ^ The New Shakespeare: Hamlet. Cambridge University Press, 1968.
  5. ^ Knowles, Ronald. "Hamlet and Counter-Humanism." Renaissance Quarterly 52.4 (1999): 1046-69.
  6. ^ http://www.marloweshakespeare.org/