What a piece of work is Miss Lucille

The 4/25 One Big Happy features Miss Lucille:


Ah, a piece of work.

From the Grammarist site (“cooperatively written and edited by a group of [anonymous] U.S.-based writers”):

A piece of work is a phrase that dates back to Shakespeare’s time, however, it has taken on an idiomatic meaning in addition to its literal meaning.

… The literal meaning of the term a piece of work is a work is the product produced through someone’s efforts. However, a piece of work is also used as an idiom to describe someone who is unpleasant, dishonest, hard to deal with, of low character. When used in this fashion, a piece of work is a derogatory phrase. The term is found in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties…” In this case, the term is used literally. Around the turn of the twentieth century, the term was used in Britain to describe someone hard to deal with or of low character in the phrase a nasty piece of work. The term migrated to the United States, where by the 1970s it was used without the modifier nasty, and simply evolved into the idiom a piece of work or sometimes, a real piece of work.


“To me what’s important in a piece of work, whether it’s leatherwork or painting, is that it operates on more than one level,” Jackson said. (The Sheridan Press)

While Ellis makes the reserved Pumpkin the most endearing character, and Abercrumbie is all slinky moves and smoky voice as Silver, McGhee’s Blue — albeit frighteningly intense — is such a self-centered, nasty piece of work that I found it impossible to care about him or what happens to him. (The Hyde Park Herald)

“He’s a piece of work sometimes, but he’s a good dog,” he said. (The Daily Tar Heel)

There are many performances of Hamlet’s speech available on-line, but I prefer the version set to music in the Broadway show Hair (A Rock Musical):

(#2) “What a Piece of Work is Man” / “Walking in Space” (reprise) from the Broadway cast album (1968)

And for a nasty piece of work, this passage from Jasper Fforde’s Lost in a Good Book (2002), about Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902), with the crucial bit boldfaced:


Well, by allowing his children to sleep so vulnerably in the open air Benjamin clearly shows minimal parenting skills, yet he has enough preservation to cover his own face. It was Flopsy who had to come and look for him as this sort of thing has obviously happened before — it is clear that Benjamin can’t be trusted with the children. Once again the mother has to show restraint and wisdom.’

‘Maybe so,’ replied Gran, ‘but there wasn’t a great deal of wisdom in creeping into the garden and watching from the window while Mr and Mrs McGregor discovered they had been duped with the rotten vegetables, now, was there?’

She had a point.

‘A narrative necessity,’ I replied. ‘I think there is more high drama if you follow the outcome of the rabbit’s subterfuge, don’t you? I think Flopsy, had she been making all the decisions, would have just returned to the burrow but was, on this occasion, overruled by Beatrix Potter.’

‘It’s an interesting theory,’ commented Gran, stretching her toes out on the counterpane and wiggling them to keep the circulation going. ‘Mr McGregor’s a nasty piece of work, isn’t he? Quite the Darth Vader of children’s literature.’

‘Misunderstood,’ I told her ‘I see Mrs McGregor as the villain of the piece. A sort of Lady Macbeth. His laboured counting and inane chuckling might indicate a certain degree of dementia that allows him to be easily dominated by Mrs McGregor’s more aggressive personality. I think their marriage is in trouble, too. She describes him as a “silly old man” and “a doddering old fool” and claims the rotten vegetables in the sack are just a pointless prank to annoy her.’

(Nice deployment of the The X is the Y of Z snowclone in “Mr McGregor’s … quite the Darth Vader of children’s literature”,)

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