Act II Scene 2
The monologue, spoken in the play by Prince Hamlet to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
I will tell you why; so shall my anticipation prevent your discovery, and your secrecy to the King and queene: moult no feather. 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 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 is speaking to his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, although they would better be described as colleagues, and Hamlet has guessed that they were sent by the king and queen to quiz him about his strange behaviour. Hamlet tells them he will explain what is wrong before they find out although we know he has no intention of doing this. He adds, to reassure them, that the secrecy of the assignment they are carrying out for the king and queen will not be compromised to even the smallest extent. The expression ‘moult no feather’ means that it will not be diminished, as when an animal moults, to the slightest degree, not even a single feather.
Hamlet first admits he is no longer the jolly character he used to be but he adds what is the biggest lie of entire monologue ‘wherefore I know not’. It is clear to us that he knows very well, and, as his mother guesses, he is distraught to distraction by his mother marrying his uncle shortly after his father’s death. He therefore knows exactly why he lost his mirth but pretends otherwise. He has also stopped all those activities that he used to undertake as a matter of custom.
Hamlet moves slowly from this point into a rising crescendo of denunciation of the world although, as we shall see, it ends in a question. He starts with the earth which he dismisses as a sterile promontory a simple and basic rejection of the fecundity of the planet. He switches to the sky and rather than simply reject it he stops in mid speech with the powerful phrase ‘look you’. One can image that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not paying attention, they probably have no idea what he is talking about, and so he tries to grab their attention by stopping and saying ‘look you’, that is, pay attention. Having got their attention he is able to launch into a two-part flowery description of the sky as a ‘firmament’ and a ‘majestical roof’. He has almost overplayed the rhetoric but continues with an equally flowery denunciation of the sky as foul vapours. It is as if he now feels he has almost gone too far as he switches the topic from the features of the world to man himself. He starts with a sentence that seems like a rhetorical statement which emphasizes the complete change of pace and tone.
Note that he also says ‘is a man’ rather than ‘man’. One is reminded of the Neil Armstrong statement during the first moon landing and the argument about whether he said ‘one small step for man’ or ‘one small step for a man’. Hamlet is obviously talking about all men, or in a modern interpretation all people. He then quickly and in short sentences builds, layer upon layer, an image of the multiple god-like wonders of a person. One expects him then to demolish this wonderful construct he has verbally created as he did with the earth and the air. But he does not.
At the point we expect the killing blow that demolishes all the false qualities of a person he stops and a question hangs in the air. ‘What is this quintessence of dust?’ Even the word quintessence is unexpected as it harks back to the spiritual essence of life from ancient antiquity, the magical fifth element. Having reach this deep philosophical question Hamlet has probably completely lost Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and ends one of the most profound monologues ever spoken with a joke. The joke tells us that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are operating at the level of the seaside postcard and the smutty joke. It could be that Hamlet also feels he was becoming too lucid, not mad enough to fool them and so wants to lighten the conversation to hide his saneness.