What a piece of work is man
What's the meaning of the phrase 'What a piece of work is man'?
The literal reading of this speech by Hamlet is that 'man is a supreme creature'. However, as with many of Shakespeare's more famous speeches, this is open to interpretation and scholars disagree. Even the punctuation is disputed. The placement of the exclamation marks (or the commas as in some versions) changes the meaning entrely. It could be that either the angels or the gods that are being said to be admirable, for instance. Early manuscripts vary and so Shakespeare's intention isn't entirely clear.
What is clear is that Hamlet is saying that, although man appears to be noble and admirable, he himself can find no joy in his life or in interaction with humanity.
He wonders what man is - in reality just 'dust', that is, 'stuff'. What elevates man above mere inanimate objects?
What's the origin of the phrase 'What a piece of work is man'?
From Shakespeare's Hamlet, 1602:
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.
More recently, in the 20th century, the phrase 'a nasty piece of work', or more recently just 'a piece of work', has been coined to mean 'a really bad person, lacking morality and scruples'. This goes further than Shakespeare's usage which, while appearing to glorify man, is ironic in suggesting that man is very far from a masterpiece.