In the play King John by Shakespeare the following line is used:

To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,

What did Shakespeare mean by "gild refined gold"? Did he literally mean "put a coating of gold on gold", or was there some other meaning?

  • 6
    It might help if you included the end of the sentence. "To gild refined gold, to paint the lily, ... is wasteful and ridiculous excess." – Peter Shor Aug 16 '15 at 16:51
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    There is a suggestion (a mere suggestion) that Salisbury was cleverly also remarking his sense of King John's excessive taxation of his subjects. If so, 'to gild' would be used in the sense of 'to tax'. This sentiment is also hinted at by Salisbury's "ridiculous excess" at the end of the speech, where "excess" may refer, in addition to the usual sense, to usury, but note that the OED does not document uses of 'to gild' in the sense of 'to tax' until, at the earliest, 1610, while the play was probably (best guess) composed in 1596. – JEL Aug 16 '15 at 18:17
  • I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because the grammatical meaning is clear. Subtext and metaphor questions do not fit here: you could try Writers.SE – Tim Lymington Aug 21 '15 at 11:16

Yes, it's in a parallel with the rest of the examples. You don't gild something that's already gold, you don't paint something that's already brightly-colored, and you don't put perfume on something that already smells sweet. Look at the surrounding context: "To be possess'd with double pomp [...] is wasteful and ridiculous excess." The idea is that it's futile and wasteful to try to improve on what's already naturally great.

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    You also don't tug on Superman's cape or spit into the wind... – Mazura Aug 16 '15 at 20:24
  • @Mazura -- you beat me to it. – ewormuth Aug 16 '15 at 20:41
  • I've seen other questions about meaning in poetry closed as off-topic. How is this different? Is there an exception for Shakespeare, or what? – bof Aug 17 '15 at 12:04
  • @bof This is not exactly a poem: It is a metaphor in theatrical dialogue attempting at least somewhat to emulate a possible conversation in a broader context which makes the gist of this question unambiguous. Poems and Song Lyrics often have vague intentions making them primarily opinion-based and also conform to arcane rules that do not apply to plain English, such as allowing an initial nor instead of neither in the neither/nor construction for meter. The number of yea votess on this answer demonstrate a relatively high degree of consensus. – Tonepoet Aug 17 '15 at 15:30
  • @Tonepoet. Thanks. I was wondering when it's OK to ask about word usage in a poem. It seems like lyric poetry is out, dramatic verse is in. – bof Aug 18 '15 at 0:46

Since you ask about the literal meaning, yes he means gold plating gold with gold.

gild verb cover thinly with gold.

I don't see another meaning. He is simply generalizing an idea with more examples.

Painting a lily is similarly redundant. A mashup of these examples is what gives us the idiom: gild the lily


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