Among the numerous female characters in Oscar Wilde’s play, Mrs. Cheveley and Lady Chiltern are the most important. Mrs. Cheveley emerges as the play’s villain, but she actually serves several key functions in the plot. Not only does she have a strong, power-hungry personality but both in the past and the present she has had relationships with several male characters. Lady Chiltern initially seems to offer a contrast as she is involved in progressive causes and good works.
Mrs. Cheveley’s insatiable desire for power has been fueled through immoral and illegal actions. She will stop at nothing to enrich herself and her associates. Her threats to blackmail Lord Chiltern and others’ efforts to thwart her make up much of the plot. Mrs. Cheveley operates outside the bounds of respectability both in gendered and class terms.
Lady Chiltern is appalled by Mrs. Cheveley’s manipulative behavior in part because of her belief that women should set positive examples for others. She is shown as politically progressive, however, through her involvement in well-intentioned causes such as women’s rights. The complexity of her character depends on the contrast between her social activism and her apparently docile dependency on her husband, whom she admires for his virtue. Faced with evidence of his bad behavior, she must come to terms with hypocrisy.
Through other conventional, shallow characters, the author provides much of the play’s humor. He depends on the audience recognizing these types, including the clichés and platitudes in which they speak. Lady Basildon and Mrs. Marchmont are concerned only with superficial matters, and their emphasis on appearances helps Wilde offer a broad-based critique of English upper-class society of his day, not just of gender roles.