In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle explores the meaning of Hamlet’s famous quotation ‘A little more than kin …’
‘A little more than kin, and less than kind’ is a famous quotation from William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. But as ‘a little more than kin, and less than kind’ is a famous and memorable line in a play that is packed with famous and memorable lines – as the old quip has it, there are too many quotations in it – it might be worth spending some time analysing the cleverness of this particular one, since this line comprises the very first words Hamlet speaks to his uncle, Claudius.
Take thy fair hour, Laertes; time be thine,
And thy best graces spend it at thy will!
But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son –
[Aside] A little more than kin, and less than kind.
How is it that the clouds still hang on you?
Not so, my lord; I am too much i’ the sun.
‘A little more than kin, and less than kind’ is the very first line spoken by Hamlet in the whole play. He’ll say many more words after these nine – the role of Hamlet is, famously, one the most demanding in all of Shakespeare because of the sheer number of lines the actor has to speak – but it is characteristic of him to begin as he means to go on, revelling in the punning possibilities of words.
Wordplay, as the final line quoted above demonstrates, abounds in this scene in the play – and, we might say, in Hamlet as a whole. Hamlet is ‘too much i’ the sun’ because he does not want, and has not requested, this attention from his uncle, but he is also, of course, playing on Claudius’ address to him a few lines earlier: ‘But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son’. ‘Cousin’ was used at the time to denote any number of family members. Hamlet is Claudius’ ‘son’ only by virtue of the latter’s marriage to Hamlet’s mother, and he is really his stepson.
But the most important piece of word play in this scene is undoubtedly Hamlet’s line, spoken as an aside so neither Claudius nor Gertrude can hear it: ‘A little more than kin, and less than kind.’ (I should say usually spoken as an aside, because it hasn’t always been: as Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor point out in their informative notes in Hamlet: Revised Edition (The Arden Shakespeare Third Series), a 1925 production of Hamlet, the first in which the actors wore modern dress, had Hamlet play the line as a direct confrontation to Claudius, a rude comment that was meant to be heard.)
But even if we grant that the words as usually taken to be an aside, the question is: what does Hamlet mean here?
We might summarise the meaning of his private comment, a little secret shared with us as the audience alone as so many of Hamlet’s greatest lines are, as follows: ‘I am a little more than your mere blood relation now, because whereas previously you were just my uncle, now – because you’ve married by widowed mother – you’ve also become my “father”. But you are not of the same “kind”, or in the same league, as either my late father, or – I might add – as me.’
Hamlet’s version, I confess, is snappier and cleverer.
Thompson and Taylor point out that ‘the nearer in kin, the less in kindness’ was a proverb in circulation at the time, while John Lyly’s Mother Bombie, from 1591, gives us: ‘the greater the kindred is, the less the kindness must be.’
But in Hamlet’s line, there’s wordplay on not just ‘kin’ and ‘kind’, but on ‘kind’ itself, we might add. ‘Kind’ means both ‘generous’ and ‘type’: Hamlet is muttering under his breath that his uncle is not kind (i.e., generous) in addressing Hamlet as his son (because it reminds the prince that his real father is dead), as well as suggesting that his uncle is not of the same ‘kind’ or class as him.
The word ‘kind’ will return in both these senses throughout the play, in Hamlet’s description of Claudius as a ‘kindless [i.e. matchless] villain’ (when Hamlet learns from the Ghost that Claudius appears to have murdered Hamlet’s father) to Hamlet’s famous words to his mother, which gave us another now-common expression: ‘I must be cruel only to be kind.’ And then there are Ophelia’s words to Hamlet: ‘Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.’
There are quite a few ‘a kind of’ formulations in Hamlet, too, reminding us of the other meaning of the word. Hamlet, when trying to persuade his mother to abstain from sharing a bed with Claudius that night, assures her that refraining tonight ‘shall lend a kind of easiness / To the next abstinence’. When Rosencrantz reports back to Gertrude about Hamlet’s behaviour, he tells her that when he told Hamlet about the players or actors approaching the castle, ‘there did seem in him a kind of joy / To hear of it’.
There are other examples of ‘kind’ in the sense of ‘type’ or ‘sort’, so Hamlet’s ‘a little more than kind, and less than kind’ sets the word going, letting its echoes sound down the ensuing acts of the play, its double meaning always in our minds (and certainly in the minds of the humblest theatregoer in Shakespeare’s time: as scholars have shown, before widespread literacy, people were possessed of a remarkable auditory memory which meant they could readily recall words or phrases heard much earlier in a performance). ‘Kind’, we might say, possesses a kind of resonance all through Hamlet.
But I think there is another piece of wordplay going on here, and the key to it is located in a word more central to Hamlet than either ‘kin’ or ‘kind’, though it is very close to both. ‘King’ recurs again and again in the play. It is a word that denotes both Claudius himself and, of course, the departed Old Hamlet, who is often referred to as not only ‘Ghost’ or ‘Old Hamlet’ but ‘King Hamlet’, in memory of his title and office before he was killed.
‘King’, of course, is ‘a little more than kin’: it’s only one letter more than it. But it is ‘less than kind’, in Claudius’ case, because he is ‘less than’ his equivalent, or ‘kind’: namely, his predecessor as king, King Hamlet.
The role of Hamlet is one of the most intellectually and emotionally demanding for an actor: as Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor mention in their detailed introduction to Hamlet: Revised Edition (The Arden Shakespeare Third Series), the Oscar-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis even withdrew from the role in 1989, mid-run, after he allegedly began ‘seeing’ the ghost of his father, the former Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, who had died in 1972.
But despite – or, perhaps, because of – this emotional intensity and complexity, actors down the ages have been keen to put their own stamp on the role, including David Garrick (who had a special wig that made Hamlet’s hair stand on end when the ghost of his father appeared), Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Mel Gibson, Sarah Bernhardt (one of many women to portray the Prince of Denmark: see the image below), Ethan Hawke, Keanu Reeves, Kenneth Branagh, Maxine Peake, and even John Wilkes Booth, the man who assassinated Abraham Lincoln.
Hamlet is often characterised as ‘a man who cannot make up his mind’. Indeed, the publicity for Laurence Olivier’s celebrated 1948 film of Hamlet made much of this description of Hamlet’s character. The words that tend to come up when people try to analyse the character or personality of Hamlet are indecisive, delaying, and uncertain, with ‘inaction’ being the key defining feature of what Hamlet actually does during the play. Certainly, the poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge thought Hamlet’s main fault was his indecision: he detected ‘an almost enormous intellectual activity and a proportionate aversion to real action consequent upon it’ – i.e., Hamlet is better at thinking about doing things than actually doing them.
And yet we might argue that Hamlet doesn’t exactly delay, or at least, he does not delay because he is indecisive, but for sound, practical reasons. Hamlet cannot be sure that the Ghost really is the spirit of his dead father, and not some fiend that’s been sent to cause mischief and goad him to murder. So he needs to find out whether Claudius really is guilty of murdering Hamlet Senior, and thus whether the Ghost can be trusted.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books, and The Tesserae, a long poem about the events of 2020.