You are watching: A little more than kin and less than kind.
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Killing Your Kin: the pleasant themes of Hamlet
Hamlet’s first line of the play is “A little more than kin, and less than kind.”(I, ii, line 65). The play calls attention to the word “kin” for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is Hamlet’s first line, so it establishes his character and motivations right then and there. Secondly, it is a pun and, especially in Shakespeare, puns happen for a reason. Lastly, this is basically the beginning of the play, so this scene, this line, this word sets the entire play in motion with the theme of family, and as the play plays out the word takes on the darker meaning of death as the play continues its trajectory to tragedy. The word “kin” means “a group of persons descended from a common ancestor, and so connected by blood relationship; family, stock, clan; in OE. also, people, nation, tribe; = kind (n, OED, 2nd ed., s.v. “kin,” 1a). Hamlet’s uncle was the brother of his father, the former king, and as such was Hamlet’s kin. Now that his father is dead, his uncle is not only the king but his mother’s new husband, and this fact is what makes Claudius introduce Hamlet to the audience as his own son. Hamlet mutters in response, establishing his character as bitter and resentful towards his uncle, who has established himself as “more than kin” – the new father of not only Hamlet but also the country (all their “kinsmen”).
Hamlet thinks this is “less than kind” – unjust and disrespectful, especially considering the recentness of the death of the former king. But also kin = kind, or “gender; sex” (n, OED, 2nd ed., s.v. “kind,” 7a), so while Hamlet admits Claudius is the new authority and there’s not much he can do about it, the pun implies that he thinks his uncle less of a man for doing so, thus opening the door for the real hatred Hamlet feels when he finds out the truth about his uncle. Not only does this line set in motion Hamlet’s thoughts and feelings but it also brings up the theme of family. It calls to question what the obligation of kin is, especially during such disturbing times. Does Hamlet have an obligation to serve Claudius as his new king and father? Is he obligated to forget his former one? The society in which Hamlet lives would deem it so, but Hamlet refuses. It is in this way that Hamlet almost seems dishonorable, condemning his uncle and his mother for doing the proper thing in such a circumstance. But as the plot thickens it is Claudius that is revealed as dishonorable, the foul murderer of kin. This theme of the binds of blood and the blood that breaks them continues as Hamlet truggles with his feelings toward his mother, his father’s friends and Ophelia, his potential kin. The revenge plot against family for the sake of family creates a new meaning for kin – death: “Compounded it with dust, whereto ‘tis kin.” (IV, ii, line 4). In a play where brother kills brother, friend kills friend, and son kills parents, it seems proper to begin it with a play on words about not being very nice to one’s family.