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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 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.
Hamlet is saying that although humans may appear to think and act "nobly" they are essentially "dust". Hamlet is expressing his melancholy to his old friends over the difference between the best that men aspire to be, and how they actually behave; the great divide that depresses him.
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".
These difficulties are remedied if we read it thus:
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?
A source well known to Shakespeare is Psalm 8, especially verse 5: "You have made [humans] a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned them with glory and honor."
Scholars have pointed out this section's similarities to lines written by Montaigne:
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
At the conclusion of the Lindsay Anderson film Britannia Hospital (1982), 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 Bruce Robinson's British film Withnail & I (1987), the credits roll after lead character Withnail recites the monologue to an audience of wolves in London Zoo.
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."
In the film Grosse Pointe Blank (1997), 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 film Madagascar (2005), the penguin "Private" tries to enter code into the ship's navigation system by randomly jumping on the keyboard. A section of text on the screen that was entered as "WhATApiece OFworkisPenGuin". This may be a possible reference to the Infinite monkey theorem.
In the stop motion animation film Coraline (2009), the other Ms. Spink and Forcible recite it while performing their trapeze acrobatics.
In the vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), 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 oeuvre, as some eccentric critics have argued.
In the 1967 rock musicalHair, 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 Babylon 5 episode "The Paragon of Animals", one of the characters, Byron, recites Hamlet's "how noble is man..." speech to Lyta Alexander. He uses it to contrast the human race's claim to nobility and compassion with their actual treatment of telepaths like Byron and Lyta.
In the third-season finale of Person of Interest, titled "Deus Ex Machina", part of the monologue is paraphrased by the character John Greer, instead referencing the artificial intelligence system known as The Machine: "What a piece of work is your Machine, Harold. "In action, how like an angel. In apprehension, how like a god.""
The ninth episode of the seventh season of 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.
In season 12 episode 13 of ER, reference is made by Dr. Victor Clemente to Shakespeare as being how he knows the meaning of the word quintessence. Later he paraphrases the "What a piece of work is man!" monologue while at the bedside of his girlfriend who has just suffered multiple gunshot wounds from her husband.
^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.