In modern times we talk about someone as being witty, and by that we mean a person who uses language to say something funny or amusing. But we also say things like, ‘she has her wits about her,’ which means that she’s pretty bright, and although we are not allowed to say ‘halfwitted’ about anyone, people still use the term. In those senses we get to what the word actually means, which is about how brainy one is and how one uses language as a reflection of that.
‘Brevity’ is the soul of wit’ means that one can say a lot more by using the minimum of language to convey something. In other words, being brief is the essence of intelligence.
In scene 2 Polonius is talking to the king and queen, Claudius and Gertrude, and says:
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 …
We can see that although he is saying that using few words to say something shows intelligence, he is going on and on, round and round, using a lot of words just to declare that in his opinion Hamlet is mad.
In spite of its deeply serious themes Hamlet is quite a funny play. Hamlet is himself amusing as he has a strong sense of humour and often brings out the humour of things. That is often at the expense of inadequate people, and is quite cruel, which amounts almost to bullying.
Polonius is the main target of Hamlet’s cruel humour and, much to the delight of his friend, Horatio, mercilessly goads him. We are on Hamlet’s and Horatio’s side though, and also laugh at Polonius: he is a contemptuous individual. He’s a hypocrite but it’s his sycophantic nature that attracts Hamlet’s attention.
In this scene we see him bowing and scraping to the royal couple. The queen, Gertrude, is used to his garrulous delivery, having been married to the previous king, Hamlet’s father, for decades, with Polonius as their chief minister, and has no difficulty in telling him to get on with it.
Play productions usually make the most of that scene, with Gertrude yawning exaggeratedly, or rolling her eyes, as he speaks. In modern stagings she may look at her watch repeatedly. He’s weaving it, saying that Hamlet has gone crazy and that he thinks he knows why. She interrupts him with, ‘More matter and less art.’ She’s telling him to stop embroidering it and to get to the point.
So Shakespeare uses the line ‘brevity is the soul of wit’ ironically, in that it comes from the most long-winded character in all of his plays. It is also ironic – unintentionally on Shakespeare’s part – in that it has become one of the greatest bits of wisdom among English idioms although it comes from one of Shakespeare’s fools.