In the play Hamlet, the prince is visited by two fellow university students, brought to Elsinore by Hamlet’s murderous uncle, to spy on him. They find him depressed and spiritually paralysed. He tells them that ‘I… have lost all my mirth, foregone all customs and exercise.’ The world has become, for him, totally without interest. The very erstwhile beautiful fresh air has become, for him, ‘nothing … but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.’ He goes on to tell them that for him, all the wonder of human beings is meaningless – that it offers him no pleasure. The full quote of this famous “what a piece of work is man’ speech reads:
‘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?
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.’
One of the reasons that Shakespeare’s plays are so universal and have lasted so long, with new productions being staged daily around the world, is that they raise profound questions about human existence. The action and the poetry raise these questions and, quite often, the characters themselves ask the question directly. King Lear constantly asks those around him, and even in his incoherent ramblings, who he is. ‘Who is it that can tell me who I am?’ he cries in desperation as his world crumbles around him. When Macbeth wavers in Lady Macbeth’s plan to murder King Duncan, and seems to lack the courage to go ahead with it, she says ‘Are you a man?’
Those are two examples of Shakespeare’s constant visiting of the question about what a human being is. His plays can be seen as an extended investigation of human identity. In the case of King Lear the question is concerned with individual human identity: in Macbeth’s case, it is about qualities such as courage. When Hamlet raises the question directly in his speech to Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern he is addressing a profound existential question. He is going to the heart of the question of what a human being is. He says: ‘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?’ (act 2 scene 2) For all its wonder, he is saying, a human being is essentially only a pile of dust.
That is not only a profound expression of depression but a quite shocking view of human worthlessness. The contrast between the angelic heights to which human beings can rise on the one hand, and their mortal corruptible bodies on the other, is overwhelming. When considering the wonders of the universe human beings are insignificant. Shakespeare would have known the Psalms, and here he has Hamlet echoing the psalmist in Psalm 8: ‘When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him?’ The psalmist is asking the same question and concluding that human beings are insignificant.
Various elements of the play – character, plot, language – explore the scale of human identity. There is a lot about death and decay in Hamlet, particularly in the imagery: the text is peppered with it – “the sun breeds maggots in a dead dog;” “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark;” “It is an unweeded garden that grows to seed.” An extension of that is the proliferation of disease imagery throughout the text.
Shakespeare moves forward with new preoccupations in every play, and introduces new themes as he goes on, but that insistent strain of what it means to be a human being runs through them all.
Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet, performing ‘What a piece of work is a man’
Other Shakespeare quotes about human life
Life’s but a walking shadow (Macbeth)
The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together. (All’s Well That Ends Well)
And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe.
And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot;
And thereby hangs a tale. (As You Like It)
Thy life’s a miracle. (King Lear)
from this instant, There’s nothing serious in mortality (Macbeth)
(See NSS 50 Shakespeare quotes about life)