Saturday, October 22, 2011

A little more than kin and less than kind

I rarely get excited. Which is odd since I work in the film business, wherein everyone seems to exist on a continual diet of excitement. "I'm so excited," is the phrase I hear most often, or, "This is so exciting." But no one means it. You can hear it in their voices, see it in their eyes. Excitement, in the film business, means: "I perceive the prospect of actually getting a film made, and of thereby making money."

Nonetheless, this morning, I felt genuine excitement. Why? Well, it happened like this... (ripple dissolve to:)

I was driving my son to his horseback riding lesson this morning, at the ungodly Saturday morning hour of 8.30. I was thinking about Hamlet, as I often do. It is, as I have said before on this site, my favorite play; perhaps my favorite piece of literature. In particular, I was thinking about Hamlet's first line in the play: A little more than kin and less than kind. I asked my nine-year-old son: What is the first thing Hamlet says in the play? And with his ineffable sense of humor, he replied: Which play? (He is, verbally, a very clever boy.)

Now, the first thing that Hamlet says in the play, after the appearance of the ghost, and after we watch him sitting in somber silence on stage for several minutes while King Claudius goes about his bureaucratic business (for which he appears to have been born, rather like a member of the Senate), he says in response to his uncle/father's prompting, that he regards the king as being: A little more than kin and less than kind.

That is his first line in the play. Now, I have lived with that line since I was sixteen years old. And the sorry truth is that I had never really thought about it until this morning. A little more than kin and less than kind. It is a pun, on the words kin and kind. Everyone understands that. You can read it in any book or essay about the play. I am my uncle/father's kin, since you are married to my mother and you are now both my uncle and my step-father; but you are not kind since you married my mother and (I suspect, and we will soon learn) you killed my father. A little more than kin and less than kind.

Those words kept rolling around in my head as I was motoring up Altadena Drive in search of the stables. And then it hit me: My singular contribution to Hamlet scholarship, after my obsession with the play for over forty years...

A little more than kin and less than kind... Hamlet's first line in the play.

Now, I have been a professional writer for thirty-five years. I have written millions of words. I have examined and experienced virtually every permutation of the English language (which I love) imaginable. I have discovered hidden meanings, obscure implications, impossible contradictions, and unexpected riches. I have defied every rule of grammar and punctuation, and illuminated (at least to my own mind) every deep mine of possibility of syntax and meaning which it not only contains but implies. I have learned to laugh at books of style and usage, and have learned to be in awe of the endless possibilities of expression that English presents. (I am reminded of something I discovered while writing a film about Bobby Fischer, the world chess champion: After the seventh move in a chess game, the number of possible moves exceeds the number of atoms in the universe.) And I know that, when a genius such as Shakespeare introduces a character like Hamlet, he gives him an opening line of considerable significance.

A little more than kin and less than kind... That was when it hit me.

Where was Hamlet before the play begins? At college. And where was he at college? The University of Wittenberg in Germany. And what does that mean? That Hamlet spoke German.

Now, consider his first line: A little more than kin and less than kind.

What, in German, does the word "kind" mean?

Child. It means child, as in kindergarten.

Hamlet is saying that, with regards to the king, he feels him a little more than kin (since his mother has now married his uncle) and less than kind (since, as he suspects, his uncle has killed his father), but also, he feels less than "kind" in German (since he has just come from Germany), meaning he has lost his father, and feels less his uncle's child since he was not his father. Kind is therefore a double pun, when we understand that Hamlet must have spoken German.

And there it is... the thing that has excited me more than anything else in recent days; my unique contribution to Hamlet scholarship. A little more than kin and less than (German) kind.

Use it in your next term paper. I don't care. My life is now complete.