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’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire,—why, it appears 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 faculties! 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?
In these lines, Hamlet speaks to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Act II, scene ii (287–298), explaining the melancholy that has afflicted him since his father’s death. Perhaps moved by the presence of his former university companions, Hamlet essentially engages in a rhetorical exercise, building up an elaborate and glorified picture of the earth and humanity before declaring it all merely a “quintessence of dust.” He examines the earth, the air, and the sun, and rejects them as “a sterile promontory” and “a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.” He then describes human beings from several perspectives, each one adding to his glorification of them. Human beings’ reason is noble, their faculties infinite, their forms and movements fast and admirable, their actions angelic, and their understanding godlike. But, to Hamlet, humankind is merely dust. This motif, an expression of his obsession with the physicality of death, recurs throughout the play, reaching its height in his speech over Yorick’s skull. Finally, it is also telling that Hamlet makes humankind more impressive in “apprehension” (meaning understanding) than in “action.” Hamlet himself is more prone to apprehension than to action, which is why he delays so long before seeking his revenge on Claudius.