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.
- Hamlet (2.2.295-302), Hamlet to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
express ] perfectly suited; possibly expressive (full of expression).
apprehension ] the ability to apprehend or understand.
paragon ] without peer; i.e. the most perfect of animals.
quintessence ] Besides the four elements of fire, earth, air, and water, the early alchemists believed that there was a
fifth essence, which was the highest. This, then, means the concentrated virtue of the spirit (the "dust"). Compare As You Like It:
The quintessence of every sprite
Heaven would in little show. (3.2), Celia
Hamlet, speaking with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, explains that he has lost all joy, and although he can still appreciate the grandeur of humanity conceptually, he no longer derives happiness from human interaction. The corrupt moral condition of Denmark is to blame.
Hamlet's reflections on the nobility of man illustrate his profound intellect, curiosity and idealism. The significance of his moral philosophy is made that much greater by the company he keeps, for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern -- also students of philosophy at Wittenberg -- are unmoved by Hamlet's words. Thoughts on human nature do not trouble Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as they do Hamlet, and they are content in their ignorance.
Hamlet, in his current pessimistic state, cannot find inspiration in human potential or anything else. His melancholy, already deep before the Ghost's visit, is now all-consuming. In this depressed mood his philosophic nature has become his undoing -- his "thinking too precisely" has made the "foul and pestilent" world his "prison" and he ends his lofty praise of humanity with the grievous admission, "man delights not me." How fitting that this unintended double entendre is the only thing Rosencrantz gleans from Hamlet's words.
Aside from Hamlet's great wit and select moments with Horatio, only the passage above and his moments with the players (2.2.411-441 and 3.2.1-46) give us a sense of the real Hamlet; the "rose of the fair state", who was once a joyful participant in uncovering the infinite capability of humanity, and the very embodiment of the ideals he himself expounds.
This much-beloved passage, written in prose, is considered to be one of Shakespeare's finest. "Shakespeare has raised prose to the sublimest pitch of verse.... It would be hard to cull from the whole body of our prose literature a passage which should
demonstrate more strikingly the splendour and the majesty of our language, when freed from the shackles of verse" (John Churton Collins).
Hamlet's conversation with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern does not appear in Q1, and the punctuation differs markedly between Q2 and the First Folio versions, reprinted below:
What a piece of worke is a man! how Noble in
Reason? how infinite in faculty? in forme and moving
how expresse and admirble? in Action, how like an Angel?
in apprehension how like a God? the beauty of the
world, the Parragon 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 seeme to say so.
For more on the different versions of the text of Hamlet, please click here.
For more on why the passage does not appear in Q1 and a discussion of Shakespeare's changes and the influence of the philosopher Michael de Montaigne, please click here.
For full explanatory notes for this scene and study questions, please see Hamlet (2.2).
"They are received with cordiality by the Prince, and are entertained without reserve until he perceives they have been corrupted by the King. They are typical of men whose inclinations are good, but who lack character to follow those inclinations. They cannot even practice villainy with success. "You were sent for," says Hamlet, "and there is a kind of confession in your looks, which your modesties have not craft enough to colour." They commit no actual crime in the play, and are apparently no worse than the society in which they move." F. A. Purcell.Read on...
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