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In Hamlet, what does Polonius mean when he says "brevity is the soul of wit"?

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x-xcanucksx-x | Student, Undergraduate | eNotes Newbie

Posted November 28, 2009 at 1:58 AM via web

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In Hamlet, what does Polonius mean when he says "brevity is the soul of wit"?

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archteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Adjunct Educator

Posted November 28, 2009 at 3:01 AM (Answer #1)

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"Brevity" is a word that indicates briefness or shortness.  "Wit" can mean intelligence in general or can be used to signify verbal skill in conversation.  For example, a witty person would always have a comeback if someone was teasing him/her, and would never be at a loss for words in conversation.  So the question is, why does Polonius connect the idea of shortness in expression (expressing oneself in few words) to the idea of intelligence?  Why would a person who doesn't talk much be smart?  Conversely, why would someone who talks a lot not be smart?    Can you think of characters in the play that fit either description? Is Polonius talking about anyone in specific?  Is he giving Hamlet advice with these lines?

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jseligmann | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Associate Educator

Posted November 28, 2009 at 6:38 AM (Answer #2)

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What he's saying, is that, when giving advice or talking intelligently, don't talk too much. In other words, when one attempts to impart knowledge or wisdom, do so in as few words as possible; be brief. Or, to be as pithy as possible: less is more.

Of course, when this precept comes from Polonius, it may be well said, but it's an ironic joke, for Polonius is never ever brief. He presents an excellent adage, which is the complete opposite of what he himself practices. There are few lines spoken by Polonius in the entire play that could not be shortened by at least a half.

The line itself comes from this speech in Act 2, scene 2:

POLONIUS:

This business is well ended.

My liege, and madam, to expostulate

What majesty should be, what duty is,

Why 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.

QUEEN:

More matter, with less art.

Hey, Polonius, the Queen is saying, get to the point already!

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lit24 | College Teacher | Valedictorian

Posted November 28, 2009 at 10:59 PM (Answer #3)

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In Shakespeare's time "wit" referred to "intelligence." In Act II Scene ii, Polonius  reveals to Claudius and Gertrude that the real reason for Hamlet's strange behavior is that he is mad. He tells them both that he is not accustomed to wasting time by beating around the bush and that he will straightaway tell what is wrong with Hamlet. He tells them that the fact of the matter is that Hamlet is mad:

My liege, and madam, to expostulate
What majesty should be, what duty is,
Why 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:"

The proverb "brevity is the soul of wit" was thus popularized by Shakespeare by his using it in his play Hamlet.

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