Dissecting Shapeless: Poly

In this article, I would like to analyse the architecture of Shapeless' polymorphic functions and their inner workings.

If you are new to Shapeless, you may want to read the first article of the series: Learning Shapeless: HLists.

This article does not aim to introduce polymorphic functions or provide a motivation for their usage. Its focus is to understand how the machinery behind them works. If you are new to the concept of polymorphic functions, I recommend reading the following excellent articles by Miles Sabin before proceeding with this article:

The article describes the architecture of Shapeless 2.3.2, which is the latest version in the moment. The architecture may be different in subsequent or previous versions, so check the version you are working with.

Core principles

To better see the core ideas behind Shapeless' Polys, let us try to implement them ad hoc, without any imports from Shapeless.

trait Case[F, In] {
  type Out
  def apply(x: In): Out

trait Poly {
  def apply[T](x: T)(implicit cse: Case[this.type, T]): cse.Out = cse(x)

object f extends Poly {
  implicit val intCase = new Case[f.type, Int] {
    type Out = String
    def apply(x: Int) = "It works! " * x

  implicit val stringCase = new Case[f.type, String] {
    type Out = Int
    def apply(x: String) = x.length


A polymorphic function has the ability to be called with arguments of different types, possibly also returning values of different types.

Shapeless' Poly treats a computation on an argument from a particular domain In as a behaviour on that domain: On every value v: In, it is possible to run a computation that yields a result of type Out. This means that it can be encapsulated into a type class, Case[In]. Then, to call a function on some arbitrary type T, one needs to implicitly look up the type class Case[T] and delegate the work (including determining the result type of the computation) to it — this is how the apply method of Poly works.

To separate implicit Case instances of one Poly from those of others, Cases are further parameterised by the singleton type of the Poly they belong to: Case[F, In]. The Poly trait's apply method requires an implicit Case of the singleton type of that very Poly. This way, it is not possible to use a Case[f.type, _] to call any other function but f, because only f accepts a Case parameterised by f.type. For example:

object g extends Poly

This will produce a compile-time error:

[error]  found   : shapelesspoly.AdHocPoly.Case[shapelesspoly.AdHocPoly.f.type,Int]{type Out = String}
[error]  required: shapelesspoly.AdHocPoly.Case[shapelesspoly.AdHocPoly.g.type,Int]
[error]   println(g(3)(f.intCase))

If you replace g with f in this call, however, it will work fine. You can think of F in Case[F, In] as a mark of ownership, tagging a Case as a property of a certain Poly.

Parameterising Cases with the type of the Poly they belong to has one more benefit: It is not even needed to import implicit Cases before calling a Poly that requires them. This is due to the fact that the compiler looks for the implicits in the companion objects of the types of the implicit arguments, as well as the companions of their type parameters. That is, they are a part of the implicit scope (For further reading on the implicit scope, see the export-hook readme.). For example, implicitly[Foo[A, B]] will look for an implicit of this type in the companions of Foo, A and B. Hence, Case[f.type, In] will look into the companions of Case, f.type (which is simply f) and In. So, if the Cases are defined in the bodies of the Polys they belong to, they will always be found by the implicit search when we call these Polys.


Now let us see how the ideas described above are implemented in Shapeless.

File structure

Let us first understand which sources define polymorphic functions. We will be looking at two root directories:

  • core/src/main/scala/shapeless/ - core - The human-written sources, available online here.
  • core/jvm/target/scala-2.11/src_managed/main/shapeless - synthetic - The machine-generated sources that are produced during compilation. To gain access to them, clone the repository of Shapeless and compile it via sbt compile. The motivation to have synthetic is that it contains code for entities of different arities, which is largely boilerplate. Just open a few files from synthetic and look through them. You will quickly notice a pattern where each of the files contain many similar entities that vary only in the number of their arguments. It is not very efficient to define these by hand, so they are generated automatically by sbt before the compilation starts.

Now let us look at the files that are of interest to us, referring for simplicity to the roots above as core and synthetic, respectively:

  • core/poly.scala - Most of the definitions related to the polymorphic functions.
  • synthetic/polyapply.scala - PolyApply trait.
  • synthetic/polyntraits.scala - traits of the form PolyN, where N is a number between 1 and 22.
  • build.sbt and project/Boilerplate.scala - These two define how the synthetic sources are generated. Boilerplate.scala defines the templates and the generation logic, and build.sbt references this file. Although they are not directly relevant to the polymorphic functions in Shapeless, they are required for mechanics behind the synthetic source generation.



Poly. The base class for all the polymorphic functions is Poly, located in core/poly.scala. Together with the synthetic PolyApply (see the diagram above), its main job is to provide a bunch of apply methods for calls of different number of arguments. The methods expect the actual logic of the calls to be defined in the form of Case type classes that should be available implicitly. Note how each Poly has apply methods of all possible arities, enabling to define one Poly to be called with different number of arguments.

One can also think of this as polymorphism not only on the types, but on the Cartesian products of the types, expressed in the form of HLists. For example, one can argue that a Cartesian product of A and B can be represented with a HList A :: B :: HNil. In Scala's standard library, products are represented as tuples, so a product of A and B is (A, B).

Case. Case is a trait defined in core/poly.scala. Its highlight is a function val value: L => Result. It represents the logic of a Poly call on certain arguments L that returns a value of type Result. Note how L <: HList. This is done so that cases of different arity can be represented with the same trait. For example, a function of one argument can be represented as A :: HNil => Result (instead of A => Result), of two arguments - A :: B :: HNil => Result (instead of (A, B) => Result) and so on.

PolyN. It may not be convenient to define Cases by hand using anonymous classes. Most of the time you want them to be derived from a function. Traits Poly1 through Poly22 exist for this reason. Located at synthetic/polyntraits.scala, they represent polymorphic functions of a certain arity. Their highlights are the CaseBuilder nested class which specialises on Case generation, and an at method to quickly get access to it. CaseBuilder has an apply method to produce Cases from a function, so in practice it looks like this:

implicit val caseInt: poly.Case[this.type, Int] = at[Int] { x: Int => x * 2 }

Much more concise than, say, this:

implicit val caseInt = new poly.Case[f.type, Int] {
  type Out = Int
  def apply(x: Int) = x * 2

Natural transformations ~>. Finally, one more trait worth attention is ~>, which is located in core/poly.scala. It exists to support natural transformations and its highlight is an abstract def apply[T](f : F[T]) : G[T]. Note how in order to define a ~> you do not need to provide implicit Cases, but only to implement that apply method. An implicit Case, caseUniv is provided by the trait and delegates the work to the implemented apply method.


Let us see how our ad hoc example from the "Core Principles" paragraph will look like in Shapeless:

import shapeless._
import poly._

object f extends Poly1 {
  implicit val intCase    = at[Int   ] { x => "It Works! " * x}
  implicit val stringCase = at[String] { x => x.length        }


Since we want a function defined on one argument, we extend Poly1 to bring into the scope the convenience method at to build the corresponding Cases. The two Cases are for Int and String input arguments. When we call at[T], we create a CaseBuilder[T]. When we call apply(T => Result) on it, a Case[this.type, T] is produced.

In the main method, we call f twice. Each time, we invoke this method in PolyApply:

def apply[A](a:A)(implicit cse : Case[this.type, A::HNil]): cse.Result = cse(a::HNil)

This method requires an implicit Case in the scope. Among other things, the compiler looks for it in the companion of this.type, since this is a type parameter of the type of the implicit argument in question. The companion of this.type is this, which is object f. This object contains the required implicit Cases for each call. After the Case is found, the call is delegated to this type class.


The idea behind the Poly implementation in Shapeless is to encapsulate the execution logic in type classes for every case of input types. Hence, a concrete polymorphic function is most often implemented as an object that extends Poly and contains all the type classes for all the types this function is defined on.

The base framework of polymorphic functions is represented by the Poly trait, which represents the function, and the Case type class, which knows how to proceed with the call execution.

Besides these basic traits, Shapeless provides a set of conveniences. These include PolyN traits to simplify implementation of n-ary polymorphic functions and ~> trait for natural transformations.