Brevity is the Soul of Wit

Origin of Brevity is the Soul of Wit

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, doubt about the creation of this phrase lurks among literary circles. Some critics argue that, by using this proverb in his play, Shakespeare made it popular, though the phrase was already in use. On the other hand, some doubt the veracity of this argument.

Meaning of Brevity is the Soul of Wit

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 a word-by-word level, its meanings are quite interesting. The use of the word “wit” also is debatable, which here refers to knowledge, wisdom, intelligence and humor, as it was used for wisdom and intelligence during the Shakespearean era. Hence, this phrase has won proverbial approval, which means that knowledge and intelligence need be expressed in as few words as possible.

Usage of Brevity is the Soul of Wit

The phrase is used in several rhetorical situations and contexts in 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 audiences glued to them lest they may leave, feeling boredom 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.

Literary Source of Brevity is the Soul of Wit

This phrase is used in Act-2, Scene-2, lines 86-92 of 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, lines 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 and 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. Throughout the course of time, this phrase has become a standard English proverb, though the context of its use has mostly witnessed neglect.

Literary Analysis of Brevity is the Soul of Wit

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 meaning. In this 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.”

Literary Devices

  • Personification: “Wit” is personified as 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.”