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What Does "All That Glitters Is Not Gold" Mean?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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The common idiomatic expression, "all that glitters is not gold," means that some things that are "glittery" — things often considered attractive or desirable — aren’t necessarily good. In contrast, things that are not as appealing may actually have great value. This idea is held in numerous cultures, but the saying itself is often attributed to Shakespeare. Well-known allusions to the bard or the meaning of his words come from Thomas Gray, J.R.R. Tolkien, and some unexpected cultural sources.

Like many of the famous Shakespeare lines, "all that glitters is not gold" is an inaccurate quote. As it appears in The Merchant of Venice, the line is "all that glisters is not gold," and it is written in a locket contained in a gold casket. The prince of Morocco, who has been attempting to win Portia’s hand, finds and chooses it. Going for the gold casket is an obvious choice, and it represents a failure on the prince’s part to recognize that value isn’t only found in the most expensive packages.

Thomas Gray, the 17th century poet, echoes Shakespeare's sentiments in his poem, On a Favorite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes. As the title suggests, a beloved cat fails to understand that what looks desirable may not be, and drowns while trying to catch fish. The poem’s final three lines are: "Not all that tempts your wand’ring eyes/And heedless hearts is lawful prize;/Nor all that glisters gold." Like the Moroccan prince, the cat’s tendency to be captivated by the attractive object — the fish — overtakes its ability to choose more wisely.

Another famous use of this idiom occurs in Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring. When the hobbits arrive in Bree, they get a note from Gandalf containing a poetic quote that begins, "All that is gold does not glitter." The poem was written by Bilbo and refers to Aragorn, who at first appears to be a dangerous and disreputable companion.

Tolkien, like Shakespeare, refers to the hidden value in things that can often be overlooked, and Aragorn’s journey through The Lord of the Rings certainly proves his value repeatedly. This theme is repeated when Frodo concludes of Aragorn: "I think a servant of the enemy would look fairer and feel fouler." The author seems to caution readers to see and judge by better measures than what is apparent to the eye.

Sometimes phrases, like all that glitters is not gold, become so imbedded in a culture that they find expression in unusual places. The SpongeBob SquarePants® episode, All that Glitters provides an interesting example. The title character’s spatula breaks and he replaces it with a new shiny one, a choice he begins to regret almost immediately. Fortunately, a few days' stay in an infirmary heals SpongeBob's original spatula, and he is very glad to get it back. Even in a cartoon world, things that are glittering and new aren’t always as good as possessions that are old and beloved.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By literally45 — On Dec 13, 2013

@Greatedia-- Shakespeare was the first to use this idiom in literature but I think it was used even before him. It might not have been the same word for word, but I don't think we can say that Shakespeare came up with the idea. He came up with the phrase.

By burcinc — On Dec 13, 2013

There is a similar phrase in my culture. In English, it's something along the lines of "every good has an evil and every evil has a good." Its meaning is close to the "all that glitters is not gold" meaning.

It basically means that things are not as they appear to be. Something might appear to be good at first, but bad things can come out of it. Or it could be the opposite, something may seem like it's bad, but end up being beneficial. I think that "all that glitters is not gold" also implies that things that don't glitter could be gold.

These idioms also remind me of another idiom -- "don't judge a book by its cover." But that has a slightly different meaning I think.

By SarahGen — On Dec 12, 2013

I hear this idiom used for women often. For example, if a woman has an attractive outer appearance but an unattractive personality, one could use the "all that glitters is not gold" quote to explain it.

I think that we human beings tend to be influenced by outer appearance at first. But what truly matters is not outer appearance. If we are talking about people, personality is more important.

By RoyalSpyder — On Dec 09, 2013
I’m quite surprised the article brings up the Spongebob episode, "All That Glitters." In fact, the episode was the first thing I thought of when I saw the title.

On another note, not only do I agree with the article when it says that some phrases find meaning in strange places, but I also think some words and phrases have become so routine in our culture, that we fail to realize the meaning or significance behind what we speak.

In some ways, this may even cause what we say to lose its significance. Either that, or the meaning changes over time. As a brief example, let’s look at the word Google. Though the original term refers to the search engine, people now use it when referring to searching for info on the web.

In other words, people say, “Google it.” It isn’t always a downside if the meaning of a word changes, but how are we expected to keep up with a society that's constantly shifting?

By Greatedia — On Dec 09, 2013
Shakespeare is well known for coining a number of words and phrases, including courtship, luggage and laughable! He was truly a master of the English language.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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