‘What a Creature is Man’: The Melancholia, Literary Ambition and Manly Fortitude of Robert Burns

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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?1 Hamlet’s speech to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern paints a picture of humanity’s infinite potential only to conclude that all ambitions and achievements are ultimately insignificant and worthless. As Allan Ingram and Stuart Sim have already noted, Hamlet is an exploration of how ‘Man, with all his advantages, is crippled –by time, by flesh, by motivation, by death and by uncertainty […]. [T]he human mind would be capable of anything were it not for thinking’.2 Hamlet’s words highlight the point where the ability and desire of ‘man’ as an individual, in order to elevate himself above the species, intersects with the self-consciousness of mortality. His speech is the articulation of a moment of melancholic introspection that serves to confirm the central place of death even in the midst of a desire for revenge and is, therefore, also an articulation of complete paralysis. Familiar with Shakespeare since childhood, Robert Burns quotes, or rather misquotes, from Hamlet throughout his correspondence and this speech clearly resonates with him as he paraphrases Hamlet’s exclamation on several occasions.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationVoice and Context in Eighteenth-Century Verse
Place of PublicationBasingstoke
ISBN (Print)978-1-349-58029-3
Publication statusPublished - 2015


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