What Does What a Piece of Work is Man Mean?

What a Piece of Work is Man Meaning

Definition: Humans are special and unique amongst other living creatures. While they have many amazing qualities, they also have terrible qualities.

Origin of What a Piece of Work is Man

The famous English playwright William Shakespeare coined this expression. It appeared in his play Hamlet, a tragedy from the year 1602.

The main character, Prince Hamlet, speaks this line in Act II Scene 2. He explains that humans seem noble and great, but really are like dust.

To give more context to the line, read more of his monologue:

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.

Examples of What a Piece of Work is Man

what a piece of work is a man This example shows two coworkers who are discussing a third coworker’s merits and shortcomings.

Regina: I don’t understand how John always has the highest sales for our department. It doesn’t make any sense.

Ginny: In what way?

Regina: Well, he is very creepy. No one here in the office likes him. It’s hard to imagine how he can have such high sales while simultaneously being so rude. He once pushed a woman in her wheelchair out of the way from the pop machine just so he could get a drink first!

Ginny: That’s awful! What a piece of work is man.

hamlet what a piece of work is man In this example, two friends are talking about a comedian who was once beloved, but now is almost universally despised.

Kevin: It’s shocking that this comedian was once viewed in such high regards by all of America. Now that everyone knows the violence he was capable of, he disgusts everyone.

Steve: I know! What a piece of work is man!

More Examples

This excerpt is about an unusual version of Shakespeare’s play.

  • What a piece of work is man, indeed! To bare or not to bare isn’t the question — it’s the whole conceit of a nude, all-male outdoor “Hamlet” beginning Aug. 10 in Brooklyn. –New York Daily News

This excerpt is from an article that lists different theories on why humans are different than other animal species.

  • What a piece of work is man! Everyone agrees on that much. But what exactly is it about Homo sapiens that makes us unique among animals, let alone apes, and when and how did our ancestors acquire that certain something? The past century has seen a profusion of theories. Some reveal as much about the time their proponents lived in as they do about human evolution. –National Geographic


The quote what a piece of work is man can refer to the play Hamlet, the uniqueness of the human species, or the irony of how terrible a person can be.