What Separates Man from Beast?

           It is evident in Shakespeare’s Hamlet that what separates man from beast is the capability of, and capacity for, reason. If we take a look at Hamlet’s soliloquy in act IV scene iv, this distinction is made: “What is a man/ If his chief good and market of his time/ Be but to sleep and feed?—a beast, no more./ Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,/ Looking before and after, gave us not/ That capacity and god-like reason/ To fust in us unused” ( A marginal note tells us that the word “fust” translates to “to grow moldy.” What Hamlet is saying is that if we do not use our divine gift, the ability of rational judgment, we are no greater than any other animal.
          This speech is brought on by Hamlet’s sighting of Fortinbras’s army. Fortinbras is a young man who has lost a father, like Hamlet; but they differ in that Fortinbras takes action in his indignation, while, up to this point in the play, Hamlet has only ruminated about his plot for revenge but has done nothing. So, we can say Hamlet represents thought/reason, whereas Fortinbras represents action. Hamlet begins to question whether human’s capability of judgment is a gift or a curse; he contemplates, “Whether it be/ Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple/ Of thinking too precisely on th’event—/ A thought which, quartered, hath but one part wisdon/ And ever three parts coward—I do not know/ Why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do’” ( The answer to the question of which is more valuable—thought or action—is that it is simply circumstantial. In Hamlet’s situation, though, action is the wiser option. So far, thought has brought him nothing but more torment—torment which increases in intensity the longer he procrastinates.
          Hamlet envies Fortinbras’s courage to take action. He states, “Examples gross as earth exhort me,/ Witness this army of such mass and charge,/ Led by a delicate and tender prince,/ Whose spirit with divine ambition puffed/ Makes mouths at the invisible event,/ Exposing what is mortal and unsure/ To all that fortune, death and danger dare” ( In the face of death, the unknown, Fortinbras bravely sets forth, because he is so aptly motivated; it would be worse to leave his objective unfinished—or moreover to not even try to accomplish it—than to die. He will gain honor for at least trying to fulfill his goal, whereas if he remains idle, all that is left to gain is shame. Thus, Fortinbras’s example motivates Hamlet to take action and finally seek revenge on Claudius: “O, from this time forth/ My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth!” (


One thought on “What Separates Man from Beast?

  1. Marcella

    This is a great point to make. Literature and Philosophy has always wondered the same question: is it rationality that separates man from the beast. But in regards to the play, where is Hamlet on this scale? Is he a man? A beast? Or in between somewhere? Maybe his motives are to play the fool in order to destroy Claudius. But I think the choices that he’s made have been, well, kind of irrational. Has grief turned him into the animal that lies inside of him? Or his irrational behavior something that actually makes him quite human? I think Shakespeare, perhaps, wants us to dig a little deeper about our idea of rationality in regards to humanity. And how far a person will go to defy their rationality in order to reach some goal.


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