What Does Brevity Is the Soul of Wit Mean?

Like many other proverbs and idioms used in modern English, the phrase brevity is the soul of wit is actually a William Shakespeare quote. Keep reading to discover the play in which it is used and its meanings.

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What Does Brevity Is the Soul of Wit Mean?

This expression can be used in two different ways. To uncover its meanings, let’s first look to the definitions of the words brevity, soul, and wit

Brevity means short in duration. It’s another way of saying brief or concise, and it’s very often used, as it is here, to indicate succinct expression. 

Soul here is defined as an active or essential part of something; its quality, or essence.

Wit has several meanings, including the two shared below, and it’s from these that the expression brevity is the soul of wit gets its multiple definitions:

  • Clever humor; the ability to use words and ideas to amuse and entertain
  • Keen intelligence; having mental sharpness and wisdom, or good sense

Knowing these definitions and taking the words of the phrase altogether, we can see that the expression brevity is the soul of wit can mean 1) that the funniest, cleverest statements are those that are short and that get right to the point, and 2) more broadly, that the best or smartest speech and writing contains few words; that it is precise and concise.

Here are some example sentences using the expression brevity is the soul of wit:

  • The mayor’s speech just went on and on and on. Doesn’t he know that brevity is the soul of wit?!
  • I kept waiting for the comedienne to get to the punch line of the joke; she clearly never learned that brevity is the soul of wit.
  • When I tried to get out of trouble as a kid, I’d just start rambling, hoping to distract my mom so that she’d forget what I had done. She’d quietly wait until I was finished then remind me that brevity is the soul of wit. 
  • Before I asked my very busy boss for a promotion and raise, he simply said, “Brevity is the soul of wit.”
  • The student’s essay employed the notion that brevity is the soul of wit: Although it wasn’t long, it hit every important point and summed up their argument well. 

The Playful Source of the Phrase

Although it’s possible the expression was used before 1600, it appears to have been first recorded by, and is credited to, William Shakespeare in his tragic play Hamlet, which tells the story of Prince Hamlet and his revenge against his uncle, Claudius, who murdered Hamlet’s father, the late King of Denmark, in order to marry Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, and become king himself.

The saying can be found in act ii, scene ii. It’s spoken by Polonius, who has been hired by the new King Claudius to spy on Prince Hamlet and report back about his odd behavior (which is really just an act by Hamlet to make everyone believe he’s gone mad as part of his plan to avenge his father’s death).

In reporting to Claudius, Polonius says:

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.

Notice something? That Polonius is anything but short and to the point when relaying the information that Hamlet is mad to the king? He speaks nonsense and rambles before delivering the message. Here, Shakespeare used the phrase brevity is the soul of wit ironically; irony is the use of words to express something different, usually the exact opposite, than their literal meaning (it’s often humorous). As demonstrated by his speech in this act, Polonius is a long-winded character; in fact, he’s one of the most long-winded characters in all of Shakespeare’s plays. Indeed, he plays a fool who thinks himself witty when he’s not.

Because the phrase is not meant ironically when used today, it’s often overlooked that sarcasm was Shakespeare’s intention. 

What Are Idioms and Proverbs?

An idiom is an expression with an intended meaning that typically can’t fully be understood just by looking at the words that comprise it. Even if you’ve never heard the term idiom, you have most likely heard many idiomatic expressions. Here are just a few of the most common idioms used today:

You’re in hot water.
His boss gave him the ax.
It’s time to face the music.
You’ve hit the nail on the head.

If you took the first example literally, you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done.

Brevity is the soul of wit differs from other idioms in that one can understand its meanings by examining the definitions of the individual words it contains. However, it is used figuratively, and is considered an idiomatic expression.

A proverb is a short, common phrase or saying that imparts wisdom and advice or shares a universal truth. Synonyms of the term proverb include adage, aphorism, and maxim. Here are some additional examples of well-known proverbs:

Actions speak louder than words.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
A picture is worth a thousand words.
Don’t judge a book by its cover.

Other Shakespearean Sayings

William Shakespeare’s influence on the English language is undeniable. As mentioned at the start of this article, many idioms and proverbs used in modern English today come from the mind and work of Shakespeare. Here are just a few other sayings to his credit:

  • Kill with kindness
  • Wild-goose chase
  • Green-eyed monster
  • Apple of my eye
  • Break the ice
  • Pure as the driven snow
  • It’s (all) Greek to me
  • Alas, poor Yorick
  • Love is blind
  • Mortal coil
  • All the world’s a stage
  • Heart of gold
  • All that glitters is not gold
  • Et tu, Brute?
  • Too much of a good thing
  • All’s well that ends well
  • End all be all
  • And the list could go on and on and on and on… but, brevity is the soul of wit!


For the figurative meanings of these idioms, consult an idioms dictionary.

Summary

Brevity is the soul of wit is an expression that comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It means that speech and writing sound their best—either their funniest and wittiest, or their wisest and most intelligent—when short and concise. It’s a reminder to choose your words wisely and to get right to the point when possible; to use another common saying: to keep it short and sweet. In Hamlet, the expression is actually used ironically, in a long-winded speech by one of the play’s important characters.