By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Brevity is the soul of wit’ has become a pithy saying, a proverb almost, whose origins we may well assume to have been lost in the mists of time. So many proverbs which have entered common usage tend to be ascribed to that prolific author, ‘Anon.’ Is it the case with ‘brevity is the soul of wit’, too?
Not a bit of it. But before we come to the origins of this phrase, let’s take a closer look at its meaning – and why that meaning is tinged with irony when we trace the saying back to its original use.
‘Brevity is the soul of wit’: phrase meaning
To be (appropriately) brief, ‘brevity is the soul of wit’ means that clever people can express what they wish to say using few words. Or, to put it another, being long-winded and verbose is therefore the enemy of intellect.
We need to understand what ‘wit’ means in this context. When the phrase originated (of which more in a moment), ‘wit’ had a much wider meaning than it has come to have. Although we now use ‘wit’ to mean ‘keen intelligence’, which is usually employed to create humour (as in ‘Oscar Wilde was a very witty man’), ‘wit’ used to be synonymous with ‘wisdom’.
Indeed, both ‘wit’ and ‘wisdom’ share a root, and are both from a Germanic word meaning ‘to know’.
‘Brevity is the soul of wit’: phrase origin
Now we’ve (briefly) defined the meaning of the phrase, we can delve into its curious history and origins. And in the case of this saying, we have to go back to the early seventeenth century, and to William Shakespeare. And specifically, to his play, Hamlet.
There’s an old quip that Hamlet is a great play, but it ‘has too many quotations in it’. And certainly, Shakespeare’s great tragedy, believed to have been written in around 1600 or 1601, is chock-full of lines, sayings, and turns of phrase which have since become familiar to people who have never read or seen the play: ‘hoist with one’s own petard’, ‘more honoured in the breach than in the observance’, ‘to the manner born’, ‘methinks the lady doth protest too much’, ‘cruel to be kind’, and many, many more.
And ‘brevity is the soul of wit’ is another such phrase which owes its origins to Shakespeare and to Hamlet. But the character who utters this line renders it ironic in the context of the play.
Polonius, the father of Ophelia, who is romantically involved with the title character, is an important figure at the court of King Claudius (Hamlet’s uncle, and – in a twist! – the murderer of Hamlet’s father) and Queen Gertrude (the widow of Hamlet’s father). But Polonius is also something of a windbag, who will use ten words where three will suffice.
Critics have disagreed over the reasons for Polonius’ verbosity. It’s generally played for laughs (I saw a very funny performance of the play as a sixth-former, where the actor playing Polonius successfully elicited raucous laughter from the audience on numerous occasions), although it’s possible that one reason for Polonius’ circumlocutory way of talking is that he is nervous around Hamlet, whose madness (or pretend ‘madness’) may make him feel uneasy.
Sure enough (spoiler alert!), Polonius later dies at the hands of Hamlet, who stabs him when Polonius is hiding behind an arras in Gertrude’s chamber, eavesdropping on a conversation between the Queen and her ‘mad’ son.
Anyway, in Act 2 Scene 2, Polonius is speaking with the King and Queen, and is preparing to tell them what he (thinks he) has discovered: that Hamlet, the prince, is mad.
We as audience members and readers know that Hamlet is probably just pretending (although one of the great questions about Hamlet is whether, despite his own belief that he is merely pretending, he has actually gone mad, after his father’s death and the subsequent revelation that he was murdered by Hamlet’s own uncle), but Polonius believes Hamlet really has lost his mind:
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.
You can probably see where this is going. Polonius likes to circle around what he has to say before he actually says it. He goes on, ironically:
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.
In this context, ‘brevity is the soul of wit’ is not meant to be taken as a wise proverb (although that’s not to suggest that it isn’t wise, and true) but as the ramblings of an absent-minded man who clearly isn’t all that witty, since he is incapable of being concise with his words.
And this makes ‘brevity is the soul of wit’ similar to a couple of other well-known phrases which Polonius speaks in the play, phrases which have since been repeated as insightful axioms, but which begin in the mouth of an old fool: ‘to thine own self be true’ and ‘neither a borrower nor a lender be’.