Gilding the Bard

Q: I’m an old curmudgeon and it gets under my skin whenever I hear someone say Shakespeare coined the phrase “gilding the lily.” The actual quote is “Painting the lily or gilding pure gold.”

A: You’re right in thinking that Shakespeare never suggested gilding a lily. Here’s the quotation, from King John (probably written in the late 1590s):

“To gild refined gold, to paint the lily, / To throw a perfume on the violet, / To smooth the ice, or add another hue / Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light / To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish, / Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.”

That quotation, though, strikes us as a perfect example of gilding the lily. The Oxford English Dictionary has this definition: “to paint (or to gild) the lily: to embellish excessively, to add ornament where none is needed.”

While the original Shakespearean phrase was “paint the lily,” the misquotation “gild the lily” is far and away the more popular version.

In fact, there’s not much of a comparison. A Google search turns up 4.6 million hits for “gild the lily,” but only 108,000 for “paint the lily”—and many of those are attempts to correct the misquotation.

Like it or not, the misquotation has become an English idiom. Why did it become so instilled in the popular imagination?

Possibly because of the assonance of the vowels and the alliteration of the “l” in “gild” and “lily.” That’s just our guess. Or perhaps because the idea of gilding a lily—that is, covering it in gold—is even more outrageous than painting it.

But if it’s any consolation—and it probably won’t be, to an admitted curmudgeon like you—many other Shakespearean phrases have been embellished a bit in the 400 years since they were written.

For example, in King Henry IV, Part I, Shakespeare wrote, “The better part of valour is discretion,” not “Discretion is the better part of valour.”

In Macbeth, he wrote, “Lay on, Macduff,” not “Lead on, Macduff.” Macbeth was encouraging Macduff to fight, not precede him.

In the same play, Shakespeare wrote, “Double, double toil and trouble,” not “Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble.” The witches’ intent was to multiply the mischief.

In Hamlet, he wrote, “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio,” not “Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him well.”

We’ve written before on our blog about another misquotation from Hamlet. Shakespeare wrote “to the manner born,” not “to the manor born.”

But Shakespeare was a realist who worked hard for a living. He would have though it better to be misquoted than not to be quoted at all.

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