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What a Difference a Word Makes

If Hamlet's first words in the play, “A little more than kin and less than kind,” are an aside, as most editors indicate by prefacing the line with the stage direction, “aside,” then this line would be Hamlet's first and shortest soliloquy. At the very least, it would be the first time any character in the play spoke directly to the audience, or if a soliloquy, spoke his thoughts out loud that only the audience could hear. This moment would be Shakespeare's means of introducing the main character as a man of thought. Shakespeare would also be signaling that much of the ensuing conflict of the play will occur in Hamlet's mind (his six great soliloquies). However, that stage direction “aside” does not appear before Hamlet's first line in the First Folio nor in the good quarto that was printed during Shakespeare's lifetime. Future editors inserted it.

Absent the “aside,” Hamlet would be speaking directly to Claudius, interrupting, with an impertinent wisecrack, Claudius's line, “But now, my cousin Hamlet and my son—” This could explain why, after Hamlet's wisecrack, Claudius then continues by shifting to a question, which he could express with some irritation, perhaps after a pause, “How is it that the clouds still hang on you?” To which, Hamlet responds with yet another wisecrack, “Not so, my lord; I am too much in the sun.” This second snarky remark prompts Gertrude to intercede between her son and her new husband with the plea, “Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted color off, / And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.”

Hamlet's two slightly acid “jokes” foreshadow his later admission to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth.” This follows the contrived camaraderie between Hamlet and his two former university friends in which they exchange off-color jokes about Fortune's waist, favors, privates and secret parts. Hamlet's first two lines also prepare the audience for his later use of sarcasm, which grows more cruel, especially in his brutal treatment of Ophelia. Hamlet's mirth, which he seems to suggest was once lighter, grows more sardonic as the play progresses. Without the “aside“, this is all foreshadowed in his opening exchange with Claudius.

But how Hamlet's first words are delivered and what they foreshadow depend entirely on whether an editor, a director or an actor decides that a one-word stage direction is to be or not to be.

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But now, my cousin Hamlet and my son

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I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth

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My excellent good friends! How dost thou

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