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When Polonius says, “brevity is the soul of wit,” why is it ironic?

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Polonius is the character of the play Hamlet whose words and speeches cannot be called short. He is almost always verbose and overly detailed, repeating his words. Consequently, his phrase “brevity is the soul of wit” contradicts his actions.

Detailed answer:

The phrase brevity is the soul of wit has a clear definition. For speech to be convincing and of value, it must be concise and understandable. The phrase meaning is that people should express their intelligence in as few words as possible. Brevity is the soul of wit implies that it will be more useful and comprehensible if a person uses the minimum language to express his or her thoughts, ideas, or beliefs. In other words, through being brief and avoiding long explanations, people can show their intelligence. And other people around them will not be weary of a long conversation.

In the play Hamlet, Polonius is an example of vanity, foolishness, and hypocrisy. In scene 2, he talks to Claudius and Gertrude, the king and queen:

“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 …”

He claims to be brief using a few words to say something meaningful. Yet he keeps on talking, going round and round to announce the possible madness of Hamlet.

He faithfully serves King Claudius but does not forget about his self-interest. Polonius teaches his son – Laertes how to behave in society. The father advises his son to keep a low profile, talk less, and listen more. He recommends not to rush into actions and to think straight. This advice was given for one purpose – to make an advantage without putting himself in danger. Polonius neglects people’s interests. His worldview is the individualist philosophy, which means the appearance is far more important than being honest in reality.

For Polonius, spying is the usual method to get information. He uses it towards Prince Hamlet at the behest of Claudius. When the king started worrying about why Hamlet was acting strange, Polonius considered it profitable to determine the reasons being the first who would inform the king. Polonius appreciates the power of information, desiring to know everything. He is always in a hurry to tell all the news to the king. Thus, he runs to announce to him that the reason for Hamlet’s insanity is one-way love. Polonius decided to eavesdrop on the conversation of Gertrude and Hamlet. He hid in a secluded place. Hamlet heard a noise and, without hesitation, pierced the hidden listener with the sword. When Hamlet realized that he had made a mistake, he still did not repent of his deeds because Polonius descended to a mean trick.

Through the phrase brevity is the soul of wit, Shakespeare shows his mastery of irony. In this context, it is not just a phrase. It is equally the contradiction between the characterization and the sense of his words. Prince Hamlet is contemptuous of Polonius, and the older man seems foolish more than once. Yet it is a sage counsel. This wisdom might be the words of Shakespeare himself. For example, Shakespeare twice warns young people to stay conscious.

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IvyPanda. "When Polonius says, "brevity is the soul of wit,” why is it ironic?" November 25, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/q/when-polonius-says-brevity-is-the-soul-of-wit-why-is-it-ironic/.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "When Polonius says, "brevity is the soul of wit,” why is it ironic?" November 25, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/q/when-polonius-says-brevity-is-the-soul-of-wit-why-is-it-ironic/.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'When Polonius says, "brevity is the soul of wit,” why is it ironic'. 25 November.

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