‘All that glitters is not gold’ has become a very well-known proverb. However, in the original version, which occurs in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the word used is not ‘glitters’ but ‘glisters’.
In this story, which takes place in Belmont near Venice, there lives a beautiful and virtuous young lady by the name of Portia. When her rich father dies, she inherits his fortune. During his last days, Portia’s father was perfectly aware that, when he would be no more, his daughter would attract a whole lot of wooers who would feign love for her just to lay hands on her fortune. Accordingly, he devised a test of character through which the right man would be chosen to become Portia’s life-partner.
This is the test: the suitor is to be shown three caskets of gold, silver and lead, on which certain statements are written. Only one of the caskets holds a picture of Portia. The person who makes the correct choice of casket—the one with Portia’s picture in it—will win the right to marry her.
The first suitor to arrive in Belmont is the Prince of Morocco. He is duly led to the room containing the three caskets. He considers them all and opts for the golden casket. When he opens it, he discovers a scroll within carrying the following message:
All that glisters is not gold;
Often have you heard that told:
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold.
There are other things of a similar nature written as well, but the gist of the lesson is that one should not go by external appearances. ‘All that glisters’ stands for anything that looks impressive from outside, but is hollow inside; and ‘gold’ can imply far more than the precious metal. Paradoxically, in the deepest figurative sense of the word, the quote eulogises a set of values and a kind of mentality that would give little worth to worldly possessions.
There are other popular sayings that convey the same idea, for instance. ‘Do not judge a book by its cover’ and ‘Appearances are deceptive.’
If we see the winning of Portia’s hand as a symbol of success, I think most of mankind would find themselves in the Prince of Morocco’s shoes. There is many a golden casket in life which we presume contains a picture of happiness, but which, when we open it, has nothing to show. Numerous people have spent their entire lives pursuing fame, but once they have attained it, have seen its pitfalls and become disillusioned.
Many have climbed to power after a Herculean struggle but have fallen a victim, psychologically and physically, to its many pressures. Some view wealth as the panacea for all kinds of ills, but often it has crushed morality, reduced contentment and generated even greater desire.
On the other hand, there have been times when people leading a simple, active and honest life have lived a happy and fulfilling existence.
Maybe this is the reason why people born to wealth, like the Buddha and Chandragupta Maurya, gave up a life of luxury to go in search of a higher truth.