Word of the day: Quintessence

March 23, 2010 in Uncategorized

…as found in the quintessentially Shakespearean ‘What a piece of work is man!’ speech from Hamlet. ‘Quintessence of dust’ marks the speech’s turning point: the former word is the last gasp of Hamlet’s ironic praise for mankind, the latter is the first explicit admittance of his estrangement from others:

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.

The OED cites this speech as a reference for its third definition of quintessence: ‘the most perfect embodiment of a certain type of person or thing’. But, for an early seventeenth-century audience, the word had a metaphorical quality which it has since lost: ‘quintessence’ was the mysterious ‘fifth element’ that was responsible for combining the other four and giving a particular substance its character; one of the key projects of alchemy was to expose this quintessence. So, for Hamlet, ‘man’ is something simultaneously fundamental and slightly pathetic – and, whatever it is, it always lies just out of his reach…

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