In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle explores the meaning – and literary origins – of a well-known phrase
‘All that glitters is not gold’. Who gave us that famous expression? William Shakespeare? Thomas Gray? That prolific but elusive author, ‘Anon’?
Many people attribute the phrase to Shakespeare – although, if we’re being pedantic, Shakespeare never said ‘all that glitters is not gold’. Nor (unless you think I’m being deliberately sly) did any of his characters.
However, a virtually identical expression does appear in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. There are two main plot strands to The Merchant of Venice, both closely intertwined. The first involves Portia, the wealthy heiress of Belmont, who decides that she will marry whichever suitor picks the right casket when faced with a choice of three (made of gold, silver, and lead). A series of suitors present themselves to Portia and attempt to guess the correct casket.
I won’t offer too many spoilers here, but the Prince of Morocco, upon choosing the appealing gold casket, is greeted with failure – and some verse:
O hell, what have we here?
A carrion death, within whose empty eye
There is a written scroll. I’ll read the writing.
‘All that glisters is not gold—
Often have you heard that told.
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold.
Gilded tombs do worms enfold.
Had you been as wise as bold,
Young in limbs, in judgment old,
Your answer had not been inscrolled.
Fare you well. Your suit is cold—
Cold, indeed, and labour lost.’
Then, farewell, heat, and welcome, frost!
Portia, adieu. I have too grieved a heart
To take a tedious leave. Thus losers part.
‘All that glisters is not gold’, then: not quite ‘glitters’, although ‘glister’ has the same meaning as ‘glitters’. The meaning of the phrase in Shakespeare’s play, of course, is that not everything is as good as it looks: the gold casket looks as though it promises riches of all kinds in the form of Portia’s dowry, but anyone choosing the gold casket is after her hand in marriage, not out of love for her, but for more mercenary reasons. (I’ve always thought that this scene must have influenced the writers of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, in which the villain, Donavan, is attracted to the gold, bejewelled vessel which he believes must be the Holy Grail; but he’s been tricked and outvillained by Elsa, his accomplice. The real Grail is a much simpler cup, such as would have been made by a carpenter’s son. It’s curious that one of the screenwriters on that film was Tom Stoppard, one of the leading playwrights of his generation, and someone who knows his Shakespeare inside out.)
But Shakespeare’s use of ‘all that glitters is not gold’ (sorry, glisters) – to mean that something which appears to be brilliant may not be all it’s cracked up to be – wasn’t the first use of the phrase. The proverb, it turns out, was centuries old even when Shakespeare used it. Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice in the 1590s. But we have to go back not to earlier in the sixteenth century, nor to the fifteenth century, nor even to the fourteenth, to find the earliest instance of ‘all that glitters is not gold’ (or a proverb with similar wording).
Hali Meidenhad was written in the West Midlands in around 1220. (It’s difficult for scholars to pin it down to a precise date, but they’ve narrowed it down to between 1190 and 1225.) Hali Meidenhad (i.e. ‘Holy Maidenhood’) is a prose tract: specifically, a religious homily whose main purposes was to encourage young women to enter religious life. The poem is not just pro-church, but anti-marriage – at least where women are concerned. Don’t get married, the anonymous author commands them, but enter into a life of religious service: ‘get thee to a nunnery’, if you like.
And in Hali Meidenhad, we find these lines: ‘Nis hit nower neh gold al þat ter ſchineð’. Or, to render that semi-alien (but also semi-recognisable) Middle English into slightly more modern language: ‘nor is it not all gold that shineth’ (they had a thing about double and triple negatives in the Middle Ages: rather than two negatives cancelling each other out, they saw one as reinforcing another).
But in fact, the proverb was common currency in the Middle Ages. Later, in the fourteenth century, we find Geoffrey Chaucer writing in The House of Fame (c. 1380): ‘Hit is not al gold, that glareth’ (no need to translate that one). Indeed, Chaucer seems to have liked the phrase, for he used it again in his Canterbury Tales, in the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale:
But al thyng which that shineth as the gold
Nis nat gold, as that I have herd it told.
And in around 1440 we find Chaucer’s successor, John Lydgate, writing in his House of Princes: ‘Al is not gold that shyneth briht’.
So, in conclusion, as is made clear by the line which follows Shakespeare’s use (the most famous and oft-quoted of all instances of the phrase) of ‘all that glisters is not gold’: ‘Often have you heard that told’. Shakespeare often gets the credit for ‘coining’ words which were in existence before he was even born, but we tend to be more confident that the phrases and sayings he used were new when he used them. But certainly not in this case.
After Shakespeare, other writers picked up the proverb which had become something of a cliché already by then. Perhaps the most celebrated of these was Thomas Gray (1716-71), who concluded his ‘Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes’ with the proverb, with Gray, like Shakespeare, opting for the more poetic ‘glisters’:
From hence, ye beauties, undeceived,
Know, one false step is ne’er retrieved,
And be with caution bold.
Not all that tempts your wandering eyes
And heedless hearts, is lawful prize;
Nor all that glisters, gold.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books, and The Tesserae, a long poem about the events of 2020.