“Brevity is the soul of wit” Meaning
The quote “brevity is the soul of wit” describes how intelligent people can use only a few words to express something. Shakespeare uses the word “soul” to imply that the wittiest statements are those that have brevity at their heart. If one drone on and on before finally arriving at their clever idea, it’s likely to have less of an impact than if they’d used fewer words.
Interestingly, Shakespeare uses it ironically in the play. The speaker, Polonius, knows that “brevity is the soul of wit” (and uses the line to sound intelligent), but his actions do not demonstrate an adherence to the principle.
Important Vocabulary To Know
- Brevity: refers to the concise use of words or the quick passage of an event. For example, the “brevity of happiness.”
- Wit: the term “wit” refers to one’s mental sharpness or their intelligence. Someone who is witty is quick with their retorts and may be humorous.
- Soul: the word “soul” is usually used to describe a person’s central being, that which makes them who they are, beyond their physical body. In this case, Shakespeare uses it to mean “center” or “source.” He’s implying that without “brevity” a statement cannot be witty.
Where Does Shakespeare Use “Brevity is the soul of wit?”
Shakespeare uses “brevity is the soul of wit” in Act II Scene II of Hamlet. This well-loved play describes the fallout after Prince Hamlet’s father, the King of Denmark, is murdered by his brother, Hamlet’s uncle. The quote appears in context below:
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.
“Mad” call I it, for, to define true madness,
What is ’t but to be nothing else but mad?
But let that go.
Polonius speaks these lines. He’s talking to the king and Queen, Claudius and Gertrude. (Claudius, who murdered Hamlet’s father, is now the King of Denmark, married to Hamlet’s mother.)
Within the context of the quote, it’s important to note that while Polonius is suggesting that brevity is the soul of wit, he’s not demonstrating that statement. He talks around his main point for a while before finally arriving there. This particular quote shows Polonius’ desire to please the King and Queen. He tries to appease them as best he can, something that will likely earn the irritation of the reader.
In the line that follows, the Queen, who is used to Polonius’ ramblings, tells him:
More matter with less art.
She is effectively telling him to stop talking so much and get to the point. He replies by saying:
Madam, I swear I use no art at all.
That he’s mad, ’tis true; ’tis true ’tis pity,
And pity ’tis ’tis true—a foolish figure,
But farewell it, for I will use no art.
Mad let us grant him then, and now remains
That we find out the cause of this effect,
Once again, he talks around what he’s trying to say, using more words than necessary and no doubt annoying the King and Queen.
Why Did Shakespeare Use “Brevity is the soul of wit?”
Shakespeare chose to use this quote as a way of creating humor as well as wit. By placing the quote in a larger context that demonstrates what happens when one doesn’t use “brevity” when speaking, he’s creating an exciting moment. It is evocative of Shakespeare’s broader use of humor. He is known for his statements that contain two, or three, or more meanings. Despite the darkness of Hamlet, the play does have many humorous moments like this one.
Polonius notes that he “will be brief” since “brevity is the soul of wit.” But he’s already been speaking for a while. He finally gets to his point, that Hamlet is mad. Readers are likely to find themselves easily laughing at Polonius as Shakespeare crafted him as a character who is easy to hate. He shows his hypocritical nature throughout the play and is often teased by Hamlet and other characters in the play.
This quote features in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It is spoken by the character Polonius as he’s talking in circles. He’s attempting to explain Hamlet’s madness to the King and Queen.
He uses the phrase to sound intelligent and pander to the King and Queen the best he can. But, the Queen used to his rambling effectively tells him to “get on with it.”