The saying all that glitters is not gold means that simply because something may appear priceless, pleasing or pretty, it's no sign that without a doubt it will be worth having once its true nature has been discovered. In other words don't rely on the superficial. The proverb has been around a long time in a mixture of forms; akin to the Latin: Non omne quod nitet aurum est or ‘Not all that shines is gold.’
Some experts think that it was Aesop and his fables written around 600 BCE that probablly inspired this idea with his two moral tales, The Hen and the Golden Eggs and The Miser. There is one version close to the current wording that appeared around 1175. The 12th century French theologian Alain de Lisle penned the proverbial phrase from Parabolae, a book of poems sometime around 1280 CE with"Non teneas aurum totum quod splendet ut aurum" meaning, “Do not hold everything as gold which shines like gold.” Since then it has been around in a variety of forms. Around 1300 Freire Cordelier wrote "Que tout n’est pas or c’on voit luire" or “Everything is not gold that one sees shining.” Near the end of the century Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales translated the saying into English:
"But all thing which that schyneth as the gold
Ne is no gold, as I have herd it told."
"Hyt is not al golde that glareth."
John Lydgate circa 1430 wrote, "All is not golde that outward shewith bright" and by 1589 Edmund Spenser noted, "Gold all is not that doth golden seem." Both Barnabe Googe in 1563 and Shakespeare in 1596 used "All that glisters is not gold" in their verse and even though the original expression uses glisters is not gold," today many writers replace the archaic verb with the more readily understandable glitter since both allude to the same thing.
It was clearly Shakespeare who adapted the idea best about a showy article that is not necessarily valuable in play The Merchant of Venice. He cleverly incorporates the moral of the expression in the comedy/drama with Antonio the wealthy merchant and his lovelorn daughter Portia. The beautiful and wealthy young woman complains about the poor qualities of prospective husbands so a lottery is established to choose one for her. Antonio will pick her husband-to-be by way of three caskets, one gold, one silver and one lead. Any gentlemen callers are required to select one of the three caskets. The choice of casket determines his value to Portia; clearly this set up makes certain that only the right man for Portia will marry his daughter. The one who picks the casket with Portia’s picture wins her hand in marriage. One of the suitors is the Prince of Morocco who is brought into a room to undergo the three casket challenge, reading the inscriptions on all of them:
Gold reads: "Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire" (2.7.5).
The silver casket has, "Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves." (2.7.7).
Finally, the dull lead casket bears the inscription, "Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath." (2.7.9).
Portia informs the Prince that the right casket, or the one that will allow him to marry her, holds a small picture of her likeness. Reading over the inscriptions a second time, the Prince makes up his mind that lead is too menacing and not worth a risk of any kind. He also rejects the silver, which he feels is too simple a metal to hold such a striking woman as Portia. In the end the Prince chooses gold. Portia passes him the key, and he opens the casket to expose a golden skull that holds a scroll with a verse written on it:
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 inscroll'd:
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.
( The Merchant of Venice, Act II, Scene VII)
The verse points out that he made his choice based on self-gratification; he has lost. The Prince leaves after a brief farewell. Portia watches him go, and comments,
"A gentle riddance. Draw the curtains, go.
Let all of his complexion choose me so" (2.7.78-79
Later that same century Nathaniel Bacon was telling everyone that "All is not gold that glisters," and it was Miguel de Cervantes who put pen to paper and believed:
"'Tis an old saying, the Devil lurks behind the cross. All is not gold that glitters. From the tail of the plough, Bamba was made King of Spain; and from his silks and riches was Rodrigo cast to be devoured by the snakes."
--Don Quixote (1615)
The following year Thomas Middleton
wrote in his quarto A Fair Quarrel
. "All is not gold that glisteneth." It’s reputation continued to grow with a variation from George Herbert
’s "All is not gold that glisters,” composed around 1630; a few decades later in The Hind and the Panther
(1687) John Dryden
declared, "All, as they say, that glitters is not gold."
Hobbits and wizards and Sauron--oh, my! All that is gold does not glitter, said J.R.R. Tolkien about how some things that are attractive are not always what they seem to be with numerous novel references in his Bilbo Baggins’ song:
Synonymous phrases are: Don't judge a book by its cover
and appearances are deceptive
. Some other bullion bearing phrases; good as gold
; heart of gold
; and worth one's weight in gold
. Finally, did you know Led Zeppelin's untitled fourth album, generally known by a number of names, including Zoso
and Led Zeppelin IV
, was completed soon after J.R.R. Tolkien released his hobbit-filled trilogy? One notable referent to this expression about gilded illusions in Stairway to Heaven
is, ‘'There's a lady who's sure all that glitters is gold”. Many say this lyric among others were inspired by Tolkien's story.
Ammer, Christine,The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms, 1997.
Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, 1997 edition, Facts on File Inc
Merchant of Venice:
The Phrase Finder:
An acknowledgment and a note of thanks to viterbiSearcher's who quotes were incorporated to keep the etymological time line congruent.