Into a nutshell

Into a nutshell

In Brief

Joyce makes sly comedy out of the longwinded letter, which takes its dilatory, desultory time to get to the point. "I have put the matter into a nutshell," Deasy says, but Stephen has to wade through a paragraph or two of unrelated concerns before reading, "To come to the point at issue." After such an opening, Deasy's pride in his epistolary economy is quite funny: "— I don't mince words, do I? Mr Deasy asked as Stephen read on." The word "nutshell" makes it tempting to hear an allusion to Shakespeare's Polonius in this passage.

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In Hamlet 2.2 the prince says, "O God, I could be bounded in a nut shell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams." Earlier in the same scene, Shakespeare makes comedy much like Joyce's out of the desire of Claudius and Gertrude to learn what Polonius has discovered, a desire frustrated by the old man's euphuistic wordsmithing: ""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 . . . Your noble son is mad: / Mad call I it, for to define true madness, / What is't but to be nothing else but mad? . . . That he's mad, 'tis true, 'tis true 'tis pity, / And pity 'tis tis true . . ." (2.2.86-98). In the midst of all this verbiage, Gertrude mutters, "More matter with less art." Polonius objects, "Madam, I swear I use no art at all," and then proceeds to use still more. In this context his often-quoted line, "Brevity is the soul of wit" (2.2.90), has the same effect as Deasy's "I don't mince words, do I?"

After his earlier quotation of Shakespeare, it is tempting to view old Deasy here as a reincarnation of Polonius, the old counselor who thinks he has discovered the cause of Hamlet's madness but requires two hundred words to "come to the point at issue."

JH 2012
Oliver Ford Davies playing Polonius. Source: