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In Act 1, Scene 2, Line 65, Hamlet

[Aside] "A little more than kin, and less than kind"

does less than mean not? If so, what semantic notions underlie less than and not? How did less than semantically shift to mean not?

I completely understand why Hamlet must use litotes if he's chiding Claudius in front of a human being, let alone if he's saying this to Claudius's face. But why would Hamlet use litotes when he's speaking aside = "speaking so no one else can hear"? Why wouldn't Hamlet just speak to himself plainly and directly, by simply saying "not kind" or "unkind"?

I know this is double entendre. Shakespeare was punning bilingually with English and German that first, Hamlet is not Claudius's biological son. And Hamlet scorns Claudius too much to want to be familial or familiar (pun intended) with Claudius. Second, Claudius is unkind.

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  • I think you're asking about a phrase that's very common today. If someone says that you were "less than generous" in the way you acted, he means that you were not generous, and that this is a failing. Are you asking why Hamlet understates, or why "less than" is an understatement?
    – Chaim
    Nov 11 at 21:25
  • @Claim I'm asking "why "less than" is an understatement?". This I don't understand at all! English ISN'T my first language. Here's an obvious example. I'd say Adolf Hitler is UNkind to Jews. I'd never say Donald Trump is LESS THAN kind to Jews.
    – venue
    Nov 13 at 2:09
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Meiosis

It's a figure of speech, a form of understatement. Hamlet is describing a total lack as if it were a mere diminishment.

This also lets him frame it as an antithesis.

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  • Thank you. I added a rebuttal to my post. Can you pls address it right in your answer? No need to write comments. And can you pls simplify your post? I don't understand it. English ISN'T my first language. Why would Hamlet describe "a total lack as if it were a mere diminishment"? Why do you mean by "frame it as an antithesis"?
    – venue
    Nov 9 at 3:30
  • 3
    Please do not change questions to invalidate answers. If you have a new question, ask a new question. Or, if you have a simple clarification, a comment is the right venue.
    – bobble
    Nov 9 at 3:42
  • @bobble I'm not changing questions to invalidate answers. Mary's answer is too short, and I was expounding why I didn't understand it completely.
    – venue
    Nov 13 at 2:07
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According to A Shakespeare Glossary, the adjective "kind" had several meanings:

  1. natural, appropriate, proper (…)
  2. favourable, gracious (…)
  3. affectionate, loving, fond (…)

Based on this, the relationship between Hamlet and Claudius is described as a little more than just kinship (Claudius is not just his uncle but now also his stepfather) but less than affectionate. Hamlet is more than just a "cousin" now; "cousin" could mean "nephew" but could also refer to "any kinsman more distant than a brother" (Jenkins).

What is also interesting about this word choice (i.e. "kind") is that in Act II, scene 2, Hamlet describes Claudius as a "kindless villain", i.e. an unnatural villain, someone "lacking in feeling for one's own kind" (Harold Jenkins's gloss).

G. R. Hibbard points out that Hamlet here speaks his own version of the proverb "The nearer in kin, the less in kindness" (cited in M. P. Tilley's A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries). This would imply that by becoming closer in their relationship (stepfather instead of just uncle), the dislike has increased. From this point of view, "less than" would refer to a reduction rather than total absence of any affection.

Note also that the line "A little more than kin, and less than kind" fits the usual metre of Shakespeare's verse, namely the iambic pentameter. Replacing "less than" with "not" would result in only nine syllables instead of the usual ten. If the intended meaning is "not", Hamlet is using understatement or, as Mary's answer pointed out, meiosis. None of the Hamlet editions I consulted seem to find this worth mentioning.

The question says, "I completely understand why Hamlet must use litotes if he's chiding Claudius (...)". There is no evidence that Hamlet's words are actually about Claudius. T. J. B. Spencer points out that "we see no action of the King towards Hamlet which is not, at least on the surface, affectionate" (p. 220). G. R. Hibbard's gloss implicitly assumes that Hamlet's comment is about himself. Bernard Lott's gloss makes this more explicit than the other ones: "closer to you than a mere relative (because you are now in a sense my father), but not very kindly disposed to you".

Bernard Lott's edition is the only one that points out that "kin" and "kind" is a play on words, since both words derive from the same Old English word. None of the editions mention that Hamlet might be making a bilingual pun.

References

  • Onions, Charles Talbut; Eagleson, Robert D.: A Shakespeare Glossary. [1986] Enlarged and Revised Throughout by Robert D. Eagleson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993 [1988].
  • Hamlet. Edited by T. J. B. Spencer. Introduced by Anne Barton. The New Penguin Shakespeare. London: Penguin, 1980.
  • Hamlet. Edited by Bernard Lott. New Swan Shakespeare: Advanced Series. Harlow, Essex: Longman, 1990 [1968].
  • Hamlet. Edited by G. R. Hibbard. The Oxford Shakespeare. [1987] Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
  • Hamlet. Edited by Cyrus Hoy. Norton Critical Editions. [W. W. Norton & Company, 1963] Second Edition. New York; London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1992.
  • Hamlet. Edited by Harold Jenkins. The Arden Shakespeare. [Methuen, 1982] London: Routledge, 1993.

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