Cruel to be Kind

My review of Maureen Dowd's book has been slightly delayed by a few other literary distractions. I'm tutoring someone who is studying Hamlet at the moment, so I've had to dive deep into Shakespearean language and culture to be an effective help. But I don't want to leave you with nothing, so I thought I might give a mini history lesson on a popular phrase whose origin is attributed to Shakespeare.

"Brevity Is the Soul of Wit"
Polonius: 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 II, scene 2, 86-92

The explanation, from Brush Up on Your Shakespeare: A Delightfully Entertaining Guide to the Most Famous and Quotable Expressions from the Bard, by Michael Macrone:

Polonius, right-hand man of Hamlet's stepfather [and uncle], King Claudius, has been employed to spy on the prince and report on his very odd behavior. As Polonius begins to deliver to the king and queen the results of his investigation, he embarks on this windy preface. Besides being nonsensical, his speech is self-contradictory: he wastes plenty of time denouncing the time wasted by rhetorical speechifying.

"Brevity is the soul of wit" has become a standard English proverb; in the process, its context has been somewhat neglected. Polonius, though he has high opinions indeed of his "wit" (that is, acumen), is the least brief and one of the least "witty" characters in the play. Freud aptly referred to Polonius as "the old chatterbox" in Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious.

There you have it, folks. Your Shakespeare for the day.

Posted by Portia at January 18, 2006 09:30 AM | TrackBack

Another case where if ignorance is bliss 'tis nobler to be wise.

Posted by: Larry at January 18, 2006 03:06 PM

Why, Polonius (and MoDo for that matter) sound positively fustian.

Posted by: Night Writer at January 19, 2006 11:45 AM