Origin and meaning
Where does the phrase "quintessence of dust" come from and what does it mean? It appears most famously in a speech by Hamlet in Shakespeare's play of the same name. Here is an extract from that speech:
What piece of work is a 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? Man delights not me – nor Woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.”
(Hamlet, Act II Scene ii)
Hamlet is a role that can seal an up-and-coming actor’s reputation like no other. Particularly because, unlike any other Shakespeare play, its protagonist is endowed with a brilliant, quicksilver mind, gifted with some of the Bard’s finest writing.
The existential questioning of the troubled young central character strikes a very modern note. The frailty of human existence haunts Hamlet throughout the play.
Indeed, in Hamlet the thought of death is found at every turn. From its most celebrated soliloquy, “To be or not to be”, contemplating suicide, to the famous scene in Act V where Hamlet comes across the gravediggers, who have disinterred the bones of Yorick. “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him, Horatio”, remarks Hamlet as he holds the dead man’s skull in his hands.
Approaching this title role presents an exciting prospect to any actor, and a slightly daunting one at times as well. How to approach such great lines.
Not least the speech in Act 2 Scene 2, quoted at the top.
What about that fine phrase “quintessence of dust”?
We lost the original meaning of the word “quintessence” centuries ago. Delve into its etymology and one finds that, back in the late 16th century, it referred to something quite specific.
“Quintessence” has its roots in classical times. It was literally the “fifth essence”, distinguished from the four elements composing matter but held to be extractable from them (according to the editors of the Arden Shakespeare edition of Hamlet).
“Quintessence of dust” suggests the highest form of dust – dust at its most refined – and dust in its most essential character. One of those Shakespearean paradoxes. We are the highest, the quintessence of dust, and yet this is all we are, simply dust – ephemeral, blown on the wind.
And this base material is what we will return to, like the court jester Yorick.
As the words of the English Burial Service have it: “We therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change our vile body, that it may be like unto his glorious body”
Those words derive from the King James (1611) translation of Genesis: “for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
The thought of returning to dust is of no comfort to Hamlet. One struggles to find Christian comfort in this play. God feels singularly absent in Shakespeare’s tragedies. Take this from the graveyard scene:
“Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth into dust, the dust is earth, of earth we make loam, and why of that loam whereto he was converted might they not stop at a beer-barrel?”
Not much consolation there.
This “quintessence of dust” will probably be barely remembered, most likely forgotten entirely. Hamlet reflects in the graveyard: “That skull had a tongue in it and could sing once.”
But back to “What piece of work is a man”. For an unlikely, and surprisingly moving, recital of this “Quintessence of Dust” speech, look no further than Bruce Robinson's film Withnail & I (1987), in whose final scene the lead character Withnail recites the monologue to an audience of wolves in London Zoo.
Quintessence of despair
The way Shakespeare uses the word “quintessence” is tantamount to flinging mud at the Ancients, and, by extension, at anyone peddling a theology. It is worth recalling that the famous fifth essence was the ether believed to fill the region of the universe occupied by the gods. As described by Aristotle it was distinctive in being incapable of decay or change (although it was said to move with the perfect circular motion of the heavens). It was in complete contrast to the four earthly elements (air, fire, water and earth), which were all transient.
Shakepeare’s phrase “quintessence of dust” is a despairing dismissal of that tradition – looking for the heavens and seeing only the feeblest of the earthly elements.
Travis on July 31, 2015:
I've often thought that Shakespeare was being quite literal when referring to man as the "quintessence of dust". Genesis 2:7 - I paraphrase - says God formed the first man from the "dust of the ground" and breathed life into him through his nostrils. In other words, man is literally dust imbued with quintessence in the original sense of the word used by early alchemists.