It is one of the countless phrases coined by William Shakespeare. It appears in his play, Hamlet, in the second act where Polonius says, “Since brevity is the soul of wit / And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief…” However, the doubt about the creation of this phrase lurks among the literary circles. Some critics argue that by using this proverb in his play, Shakespeare made it popular, though the phrase was already present. On the other hand, some doubt the veracity of this argument.
This phrase has multiplicity of meanings. In one sense, it means that a good piece of writing, or a good speech should be brief and concise. However, in another sense, it implies that funny speech should be short; otherwise, it tends to lose its flavor. On the other hand, if explored on word level, it meanings are quite interesting. The use of word “wit” also is debatable, which here refers to ‘knowledge’, ‘wisdom’, ‘intelligence’ and ‘humor’, as it was used for ‘wisdom’ and ‘intelligence’ during Shakespearean era. Hence, this phrase has won proverbial approval, which means that knowledge and intelligence need be expressed in as fewer words as possible.
The phrase is used in several rhetorical situations and contexts in the modern English. It is mostly used as a sarcastic remark in response to long nonsense chattering. Modern writers use this phrase as their motto in copywriting, speeches, essays and fictions. Politicians use it to keep their audience glued to them lest they may leave, feeling bored and tedium over long political speeches. Statesmen may use this to bring home their audience. Debates and common speakers can also use this phrase to demonstrate that they are about to end their speech or argument.
This phrase is used in Act-2, Scene-2, lines 86-92 in the famous play, Hamlet. It is spoken by one of its characters, Polonius. It goes thus;
My liege, and madam, to expostulate
What majesty should be, what duty is,
What day is day, night night, and time is time,
Were nothing but to waste night, day, and time;
Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief. Your noble son is mad. . . .
(Hamlet Act-2, Scene-2, 86–92)
In its real context, the phrase was meant to be an ironical statement, as one can see how brief Polonius is in telling the King as well as the Queen that their son is mad. Polonius thinks himself the wittiest person on the planet, though his actions put him on the opposite side throughout the play. With the course of time, this phrase has become a Standard English proverb, though the context of its use has mostly witnessed neglect.
Shakespeare is the true master of crafting characters with exquisite subtleties. In Hamlet, Polonius is an incarnation of vanity and foolishness. He wastes a large amount of rhetoric in asserting his brevity. Shakespeare, through this phrase, manifests his grip on using irony and making epigrammatic statements pregnant with meanings. In the context, it is not just the phrase but equally noteworthy is the character, who speaks it. In Jokes and Their Relation to Unconscious, Sigmund Freud aptly personifies Polonius as “the old chatterbox” who is always least “brief” and least “witty.”
Following are the literary devices present in the phrase.
- Personification: “Wit” is personified of having a “soul”.
- Metaphor: The phrase presents “wit” as a living element having a soul.
- Irony: In its context in the play, it is a perfect piece of “irony”.