Is this a statement of something we could call ‘humanism’? It comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and it is often quoted as a celebration of the qualities that make us human, perhaps also with the suggestion that recognising these qualities can inspire us to use them to the full. If we look further, however, we fi nd that things are not so simple. The context of Hamlet’s words is not a declaration of faith in human life, but an expression of despair. Our quoted passage is preceded by these words:

What looked like an optimistic affi rmation of human potentialities was after all, then, part of a classic expression of how human life can come to seem meaningless. Having enumerated the qualities which make a man ‘the paragon of animals’, Hamlet continues:

Already, then, we are presented with some challenging questions for humanism. Whatever we may say, in the abstract, about the powers of reason and action which human beings possess, is this enough to sustain us in the practical business of making sense of our lives? There is also a serious question lurking in the throwaway phrase ‘no, nor woman neither’. In the play we can recognise an allusion to Hamlet’s already troubled relationship with Ophelia. There is also, however, a deeper question about the ambiguity of ‘man’. It can be used neutrally to refer to human beings in general. It can also be used more narrowly to mark the contrast between the genders ‘man’ and ‘woman’. Hamlet’s half-jesting remark can therefore also be seen as posing a genuine problem: is humanism a philosophy of exclusion? In setting up an ideal of ‘man’, is it giving a privileged status to one part of the human species, and relegating to an inferior status those human beings – women, or perhaps the members of non-European cultures – who are excluded by the favoured model?