Piece of Work Meaning and Origins

author of the line cowards die many times before their deaths
Though everyone knows the author of the popular phrase "Piece of Work" they may not realize it. That's because the quote is originally derived from a play by William Shakespeare (that William Shakespeare). That play, perhaps the most famous play in history, was Hamlet. The story (whose full title is The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark) tracks a ghost (and former King of Denmark) who tries to have his avenge his death. However this page is merely about one line that Shakespeare drops along the way that has become a cornerstone of the english language.

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Many phrases coined by Shakespeare have become so common in our language, it can be hard to trace them back to the source! Calling someone a “piece of work,” for example, comes directly from act 2, scene 2 of Hamlet. During a monologue to his friends Rosencranz and Guildenstern, Hamlet remarks “What a piece of work is man!” However, it took time for the phrase to develop into the insult it is today.

When Was Hamlet First Published?

Putting a date to Hamlet’s publication can be tricky. When Shakespeare was writing his plays, they were meant to be experienced in the theater, not necessarily read in print. This means that, even if historians have a “first” record of a play being printed and distributed, the play was probably being performed before then. 

The first surviving publication of Hamlet is the first quarto, published in 1603. This version is much shorter than the version we know today, and is sometimes referred to as “the bad quarto.” The next publication was the second quarto in 1604, which is much longer than the 1603 version. The third version used by historians is found in the folio, a printing of Shakespeare’s complete works, from 1623. This version was published seven years after the author’s death. The versions we read today are a combination of these original texts, worked and re-worked by editors over the centuries. 

When and Where Was Piece of Work Said?

Hamlet is part of Shakespeare’s “middle plays,” meaning it was probably written between 1599 and 1602. At this time, Shakespeare wrote his most famous tragedies and dramas. He explored heavy themes like murder, power, betrayal, and madness. Along with Hamlet, the middle plays include works like Julius Caesar, King Lear, and Macbeth—stories of men in important positions, all of them dealing with major philosophical or moral quandaries. 

Hamlet was written at a tumultuous time for England and all of Europe. Shakespeare’s middle plays were written at the end of a pivotal monarch’s reign: Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603). Elizabeth had no children, which raised a troubling question of who would ascend to the throne after her death. It left many English citizens with a sense of insecurity and apprehension.

This was not the only source of uncertainty in this time; in the decade before writing Hamlet, Shakespeare lived through an outbreak of plague, war in Ireland, unrest on the Continent, and the death of his son, Hamnet. At the time of writing this play, Shakespeare has gone through some of the darkest and most painful experiences possible, both personally and on a national level. 

Context of the Quote In Hamlet

“What a piece of work is man!” is spoken during a monologue by Hamlet. At this point of the play, Hamlet is knee-deep in his big dilemma. His uncle has killed his father and married his mother, thereby becoming King of Denmark. Hamlet is tasked with avenging his father’s death by killing his uncle, but he can’t find the right place or time to do so. In this passage, Hamlet discusses how recent events have impacted his state of mind. 

What Does ‘Piece of Work’ Mean?

Although calling someone a piece of work is an insult today, Hamlet begins this train of thought positively. Man is a piece of work that is “noble in reason, and infinite in faculties…in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god” (2.2.327-330). Man is intelligent and beautiful, “the paragon of animals” (2.2.331).
“Piece of work” could refer to man being well-crafted, or designed by God as superior.

And yet, to Hamlet, there is no joy to be found in his fellow man. He goes so far as to call humanity a “quintessence of dust” (2.2.332). This means that, at our essence, we are all dust, and will all be dust again someday. 

So why the quick reversal? At this point in the play, Hamlet is clearly suffering from a deep sadness. Right before this quote, he discusses how he has “lost all mirth, [and] foregone all custom of exercise” (2.2.319-320). In other words, he takes no interest in the things that used to make him happy. The earth “seems to me a sterile promontory” (2.2.322) and “this most excellent canopy…this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire—why, it appears nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors” (2.2.322-326). Here again we see the sharp juxtaposition. The world is beautiful and majestic, but Hamlet sees disease, filth, and sterility; just like man is beautiful, intelligent, and marvelous to behold, but is somehow only dust to Hamlet. 

You could blame his change in mood on a few things: to name a few, the revelation of how his father died, the pressure associated with assassinating his uncle, the uncertainty associated with his own future as the former heir to the throne, or the question of what role his mother played in his father’s death. Hamlet has undergone a complete disillusionment with the world around him, and it’s reflected in the stark contrast between then and now. It may be appropriate that “piece of work” is used negatively today, since ultimately that’s where Hamlet’s monologue is leading to. 

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