What a piece of work is a man

"What a piece of work is man!" is a phrase within a monologue by Prince Hamlet in William Shakespeare's play Hamlet. Hamlet is reflecting, at first admiringly, and then despairingly, on the human condition.

The speech

The monologue, spoken in the play by Prince Hamlet to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Act II, Scene 2, 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:


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.

Differences between texts

The speech was fully omitted from Nicholas Ling's 1603 First Quarto, which reads simply:
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:
Then, by the 1623 First Folio, it appeared as:
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" makes sense applied to "action", but goes very awkwardly with "form and moving".
These difficulties are remedied if we read it thus: