by: William Shakespeare


See you now,
Your bait of falsehood take this carp of truth,
And thus do we of wisdom and of reach,
With windlasses and with assays of bias,
By indirections find directions out.

Polonius advises his servant, Reynaldo, to spy on his son, Laertes, who has just departed for Paris. Polonius explains that Reynaldo should approach his task with subtlety. Reynaldo must use falsehoods to find out the truth, not unlike how a fisherman uses a small piece of “bait” to reel in a big “carp.” Polonius’s instructions relate to the motif of spying and the use of deceptive stratagems that runs throughout the play, in which certain characters direct other characters to try to discover something through deception and indirection. Polonius’s words thus foreshadow significant events in the play, such as Hamlet’s attempt to use the performance of a fictional play to determine whether or not Claudius is truly guilty.

Though this be madness, yet there is method in ’t.

Polonius utters these words as an aside after Hamlet, feigning madness, delivers a short, near-nonsense speech in which he discusses the horrors of the aging body. Earlier in the scene Polonius attempts to convince Claudius and Gertrude that Hamlet has lost his mind. Here, however, he recognizes something artful about Hamlet’s apparent madness. In other words, Polonius concludes that Hamlet must be putting on a show, and that his performance must serve some purpose. Although he cannot discern Hamlet’s “method,” the audience can see that Hamlet is actually making fun of the aging Polonius. Hamlet’s jest may also serve as a form of retaliation against Polonius, who instructed his daughter Ophelia to cut off contact with Hamlet.

Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief.

Polonius has a tendency to make pompous, aphoristic pronouncements, and his claim that “brevity is the soul of wit” ranks among his most famous. Like his other pithy proclamations, this statement both conveys Polonius’s sense of self-importance as well as revealing how inaccurate his perception of himself actually is. Polonius frequently makes long-winded, tedious speeches and proves himself incapable of following his own advice about being succinct. Furthermore, Polonius’s notion that “brevity is the soul of wit” could be read as an ironic comment on the play itself. Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play, and Hamlet speaks more lines than any other Shakespearean character. As Hamlet himself memorably puts it: “Words, words, words” (II.ii.).