Oscar Wilde Wilde, Oscar - Essay


(Drama Criticism)

Oscar Wilde 1854-1900

(Born Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde, also wrote under pseudonyms C. 3. 3. and Sebastian Melmoth) Irish playwright, novelist, essayist, critic, poet, and short story writer.

Wilde is recognized as one of the foremost figures of late nineteenth-century literature Aesthetic or “art for art's sake” movement, which defied convention, subordinating ethical instruction to aesthetic value. This credo of aestheticism, however, indicates only one facet of a man notorious for resisting any public institution—artistic, social, political, or moral—that attempted to subjugate individual will and imagination. Wilde is best known for his critical essays and popular plays, which are humorous comedies of manners that focus on upper-class English society.

Biographical Information

Wilde was born and raised in Dublin, Ireland. He began his advanced education at Dublin's Trinity College and concluded it with an outstanding academic career at Oxford. In college Wilde was influenced by the writings of Walter Pater, who in his Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873) urged indulgence of the senses, a search for sustained intensity of experience, and stylistic perfectionism in art. Wilde adopted such aestheticism as a way of life, cultivating an extravagant persona that was burlesqued in the popular press and music-hall entertainments, copied by other youthful iconoclasts, and indulged by the avant-garde literary and artistic circles of London wherein Wilde was renowned for intelligence, wit, and charm. Wilde published his first volume of poetry in 1881. A few years later he married, and embarked on successful lecture tours of the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. In the 1880s, Wilde and his family settled in London, where he continued to crusade for aestheticism as a book reviewer and as the editor of the periodical Lady's World, whose name he immediately changed to Woman's World.

During this period of creativity, Wilde met and became infatuated with Lord Alfred Douglas, son of the Marquess of Queensbury. His relationship with Douglas, the Marquess's violent disapproval of this relationship, and his own ill-advised legal action against the Marquess scandalized London. The Importance of Being Earnest was in production at the time of Wilde's 1895 trial on charges of “gross indecency between male persons.” His conviction and subsequent imprisonment led to ignominy for Wilde and obscurity for his works. He continued to write during his two years in prison. Upon his release, however, Wilde was generally either derided or ignored by literary and social circles. At the time of his death in 1900, the scandal associated with Wilde led most commentators to discuss him diffidently, if at all. While critical response no longer focuses so persistently on questions of morality, Wilde's life and personality still incite fascination. Biographical studies and biographically oriented criticism continue to dominate Wilde scholarship.

Major Works

Wilde arrived at his greatest success through the production of four plays in the 1890s. The first three—Lady Windermere's Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893) and An Ideal Husband (1895)—are well-made comedies of manners revolving around social codes of the English upper classes. They are distinctively Wildean for the epigrams and witticisms delivered at frequent intervals (a show of rhetoric which often brings the action of the drama to a standstill). A fourth play, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), marked the height of Wilde's popularity and is considered his best and most characteristic drama. Bypassing the more realistic characters and situations of its predecessors, The Importance of Being Earnest forms the apogee of Victorian drawing-room farce. Its stylish characters, stylized dialogue, and elegant artificiality are for many readers and critics the ultimate revelation of Wilde's identity as both man and author.

Critical Reception

Wilde's plays have been popular with both audiences and critics, who praise his humorous and biting satire of English manners at the turn of the twentieth century. Analysis of sexuality in his work have been a rich area for critical discussion, as commentators investigate the role of androgyny and homosexuality in his comedies. Possible influences on and sources for his work has been another subject for critical study. Commentators on Wilde have also come to stress the intellectual and humanist basis of his plays. Traditionally, critical evaluation of Wilde's work has been complicated, primarily because his works have to compete for attention with his sensational life. Wilde himself regarded this complication as unnecessary, advising that “a critic should be taught to criticise a work of art without making reference to the personality of the author. This, in fact, is the beginning of criticism.”

Principal Works

(Drama Criticism)

Verna, or the Nihilists 1883

Guido Ferranti: A Tragedu of the XVI Century 1891

Lady Windermere's Fan 1892

A Woman of No Importance 1893

An Ideal Husband 1895

The Importance of Being Earnest 1895

Salomé 1896

A Florentine Tragedy [opening scene by T. Sturge Moore] 1906

The Picture of Dorian Gray 1913

Poems (poetry) 1881

The Soul of Man under Socialism (nonfiction) 1890

The Happy Prince, and Other Tales (short stories) 1891

A House of Pomegranates (short stories) 1891

Intentions (essays) 1891

Lord Arthur Savile's Crime, and Other Stories (short stories) 1891

The Picture of Dorian Gray (novel) 1891

The Ballad of Reading Gaol, and Other Poems (poetry) 1898

*De Profundis (letter) 1905

Collected Works. 14 vols. (poetry, essays, short stories, novel, plays, and criticism) 1908

The Letters of Oscar Wilde (letters) 1962

*This work was not published in its entirety until 1949.

Joseph Bristow (essay date spring 1994)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Bristow, Joseph. “Dowdies and Dandies: Oscar Wilde's Refashioning of Society Comedy.” Modern Drama 37, no. 1 (spring 1994): 53-70.

[In the following essay, Bristow discusses the defining characteristics of Wilde's plays.]


“London Society,” according to Mrs Cheveley in An Ideal Husband (1895), is “entirely made up of dowdies and dandies.”1 Reported by Mrs Marchmont to Lord Goring, Mrs Cheveley's words have a far greater function than simply making her the centre of attention among this group of gossipy aristocrats and their various hangers-on. Her acute observations of London Society disclose that this...

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Alan Sinfield (essay date spring 1994)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Sinfield, Alan. “‘Effeminacy’ and ‘Femininity’: Sexual Politics in Wilde's Comedies.” Modern Drama 37, no. 1 (spring 1994): 34-52.

[In the following essay, Sinfield explores Wilde's utilization of effeminacy and femininity in his plays.]

Lytton Strachey saw A Woman of No Importance revived by Beerbohm Tree in 1907:

Mr Tree is a wicked Lord, staying in a country house, who has made up his mind to bugger one of the other guests—a handsome young man of twenty. The handsome young man is delighted; when his mother enters, sees his Lordship and recognises him as having copulated with her twenty years before,...

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John Stokes (essay date spring 1994)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Stokes, John. “Wilde Interpretation.” Modern Drama 37, no. 1 (spring 1994): 156-74.

[In the following essay, Stokes surveys the critical reaction to three productions of Wilde's plays in the 1990s, finding insight into the theatrical scene of the 1890s.]

We live in an age of interpretation, a fact that is constantly mentioned in the theatrical journals. Some think that it has always been this way, that there never has been representation without mediation; others, like the director Jonathan Miller, that the power of interpretation is a recent phenomenon with complex origins. “[H]istorical change has accelerated so much in the last fifty years that the...

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Criticism: Guido Ferranti

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of Guido Ferranti. Critic 15, no. 371 (7 February 1891): 73.

[In the following review of Guido Ferranti, the unnamed critic finds inconsistencies in the dialogue and acting.]

The degree of popular favor that has attended the performances of Oscar Wilde's five-act tragedy Guido Ferranti at the Broadway Theatre must be attributed to the effective theatrical quality of certain scenes, rather than to the poetic charm or power or dramatic interest of the work as a whole. Apart from the fact that it is written in smooth blank-verse, and contains isolated passages of indisputable imagination and vigor, it is nothing but an old-fashioned...

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Spectator (review date 26 November 1892)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “Oscar Wilde's Comedy.” Spectator 69 (26 November 1892): 767.

[In the following positive assessment of Lady Windermere's Fan, the reviewer asserts that “we are grateful to Mr. Wilde for a straightforward comedy which professes no purpose but comedy's best and truest—to entertain.”]

We shall not be suspected of any great sympathy with the methods and the feats of Mr. Oscar Wilde. In this journal we have always disclaimed respect for the forms of charlatanism in which it has pleased him to indulge, and which he would, we suspect, be about the first himself to admit. But a charlatan may be a man of conspicuous ability; and on the withdrawal from...

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Critic (review date 11 February 1893)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of Lady Windermere's Fan. Critic 19, no. 573 (11 February 1893): 84.

[In the following mixed review of Lady Windermere's Fan, the critic discusses Wilde's dialogue as well written, but chides the production values.]

The faults and merits of Mr. Oscar Wilde's four-act comedy, Lady Windermere's Fan, just produced in Palmer's Theatre after successful careers in London and Boston, may be summed up briefly in the statement that the piece is smartly written and constantly amusing, but very badly made. Not only is the construction extraordinarily clumsy, when Mr. Wilde's long experience in theatrical matters is taken into account, but the...

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Christopher S. Nassaar (essay date fall 1995)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Nassaar, Christopher S. “Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray and Lady Windermere's Fan.Explicator 54, no. 1 (fall 1995): 20-24.

[In the following essay, Nassaar views the four male characters in Lady Windermere's Fan as versions of the protagonist of The Picture of Dorian Gray.]

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian develops from childlike innocence to a state of serious depravity in four states. The first stage is when he is still twenty and posing for Basil Hallward. Here he is the innocent young man who has not yet come in contact with evil. The second is when he is in love with Sibyl Vane. At this state evil has entered his...

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Criticism: An Ideal Husband

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Mikhail, E. H. “Self-Revelation in An Ideal Husband.Modern Drama 11 (1968): 180-86.

[In the following essay, Mikhail perceives An Ideal Husband as a reflection of Wilde's personal torment and a foreshadowing of the scandal that would ruin his career.]

Despite its apparent objectivity, An Ideal Husband is self-revelatory. In a letter to his friend Reginald Turner, written in 1899, Wilde said:

I read a great deal, and correct the proofs of An Ideal Husband, shortly to appear. It reads rather well, and some of its passages seem prophetic of tragedy to come.1


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Athenaeum (review date 12 January 1895)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of An Ideal Husband. Athenaeum 105 (12 January 1895): 57.

[In the following excerpted review, the anonymous critic offers a favorable assessment of An Ideal Husband.]

One of the constituent elements in wit is the perception of analogies in things apparently disparate and incongruous. Accepting this as a canon and testing by it the pretensions of Mr. Oscar Wilde in his latest play, that writer might be pronounced the greatest of wits, inasmuch as he perceives analogies in things absolutely antagonistic. His presumable end is gained, since a chorus of laughter attends his propositions or paradoxes. It requires, however, gifts of a kind not usually...

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Critic (review date 27 April 1895)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of The Importance of Being Earnest. Critic 23, no. 688 (27 April 1895): 316.

[In the following review of The Importance of Being Earnest, the critic praises the play as lighthearted.]

This three-act farce, one of the latest productions of Oscar Wilde, which has been running successfully for a number of weeks in London, was presented at the Empire Theatre on Monday evening, and met with a most favorable and often very merry reception. The piece is of the lightest possible texture, and never was intended to be subjected to the test of serious consideration or analysis. Its story is a whim, and its personages are mere vehicles for the...

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David Parker (essay date June 1974)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Parker, David. “Oscar Wilde's Great Farce: The Importance of Being Earnest.Modern Literature Quarterly 35, no. 2 (June 1974): 173-86.

[In the following essay, Parker offers a thematic and stylistic examination of The Importance of Being Earnest and places it within the context of nineteenth- and twentieth-century farces.]

It is generally agreed that The Importance of Being Earnest is Oscar Wilde's masterpiece, but there is little agreement on why it should be thought so or on how it works as a play. Though we can sense a solid substance beneath the frothy surface, the nature of that substance remains an enigma. Surprisingly little...

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Geoffrey Stone (essay date January 1976)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Stone, Geoffrey. “Serious Bunburyism: The Logic of The Importance of Being Earnest.Essays in Criticism 26, no. 1 (January 1976): 28-41.

[In the following essay, Stone examines the metalinguistic aspects of Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest.]

A meta-language is a language you use to deal with given statements and their relations with actual facts. ‘In order to speak about the correspondence between a statement S and a fact F, we need a language (a metalanguage) in which we can speak about the statement S and state the fact F’ (Popper, Objective Knowledge, p. 316). Analogically the concept of meta-language can be...

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Camille Paglia (essay date winter 1985)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Paglia, Camille. “Wilde and the English Epicene.” Raritan (winter 1985): 85-109.

[In the following essay, Paglia explores what she calls the “Androgyne of Manners” in Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest.]

Oscar Wilde is the premiere documenter of a sexual persona which I call the Androgyne of Manners, embodied in Lord Henry Wotton of The Picture of Dorian Gray and in the four young lovers of The Importance of Being Earnest. The Androgyne of Manners inhabits the world of the drawing room and creates that world wherever it goes, through manner and mode of speech. The salon is an abstract circle in which male and female, like...

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Neil Sammells (essay date September 1986)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Sammells, Neil. “Earning Liberties: Travesties and The Importance of Being Earnest.Modern Drama 29, no. 3 (September 1986): 376-87.

[In the following essay, Sammells links Tom Stoppard's play Travesties with Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest.]

David Rod has argued in Modern Drama that critics of Stoppard's Travesties have paid insufficient attention to the views on art and politics of Henry Carr, the minor consular official who regales us with his version of life as it most certainly was not in Zürich during the Great War.1 Carr, Rod insists, rejects the various idealisms of Tristan Tzara, James Joyce...

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Peter Raby (essay date summer-winter 1995)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Raby, Peter. ‘“The Persons of the Play’”: Some Reflections on Wilde's Choice of Names in The Importance of Being Earnest.Nineteenth Century Theatre 23, nos. 1-2 (summer-winter 1995): 67-75.

[In the following essay, Raby explores the sources and context of some of the character names in The Importance of Being Earnest.]

On 14 February 1995, part of The Importance of Being Earnest was performed in Westminster Abbey, during the service of dedication of a memorial window to Oscar Wilde in Poets' Corner. This constituted a significant moment in the reacceptance of Wilde by the English establishment, a kind of re-christening. The...

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W. Craven Mackie (essay date summer 1998)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Mackie, W. Craven. “Bunbury Pure and Simple.” Modern Drama 41, no. 2 (summer 1998): 327-30.

[In the following essay, Mackie proposes the obituaries as a source for the name Bunbury, a character in Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest.]

Sometime in late July 1894 Oscar Wilde wrote to George Alexander requesting an advance of £150 so that he might go away to write a comedy. In that letter he outlines a scenario of the play that within a month and a half would become a rough draft of The Importance of Being Earnest. In this early untitled version the names of Jack Worthing, Algernon, Cecily, Gwendolen and Lady Bracknell have yet to be invented....

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Critic (review date 12 May 1894)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of Salomé. Critic 21, no. 638 (12 May 1894): 331.

[In the following negative review of Salomé, the critic discusses Wilde's usage of dialogue and theme from various other literary sources.]

The downward course of a certain current in English literature and art has probably not reached an end in Oscar Wilde's Salomé. Some one will, doubtless, arise who shall be as incoherent as Blake, as hysterical as Rossetti, as incapable of decent reserve as Swinburne, and as great a humbug as Wilde. But it is doubtful whether the latter's cleverness in patching up sham monsters can go much farther. A large part of his material he gets from the...

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Edward E. Hale Jr. (essay date 1 July 1894)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Hale, Edward E., Jr. “Signs of Life in Literature.” Dial 17 (1 July 1894): 11-13.

[In the following essay, Hale contrasts Hamlin Garland's Crumbling Idols and Wilde's Salomé, providing a mixed review of Wilde's play.]

There are in Paris during the Spring of the year a good many exhibitions of pictures which trouble the soul of the conscientious lover of the arts. Not only at the two great Salons are there generally certain alarming manifestations, but there are also smaller collections gathered together by Independents, Rosicrucians, or other such persons, in which the wildest gymnastics in the name of art are not only allowed but encouraged....

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William Saunders (essay date September 1922)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Saunders, William. “Oscar Wilde's Salomé.Drama Magazine 12, no. 10 (September 1922): 335.

[In the following essay, Saunders considers Salomé as “essentially Greek in character” and “one of the greatest tragedies of recent times.”]

About twenty years ago, after having completed the usual three years' course in French grammar and syntax, I devoted a year to reading practically nothing except modern novels and plays in the French language. The purpose I had in view in following out this self-imposed curriculum was the acquisition of as extensive a vocabulary as possible, and of such conversational fluency as an adequate study of...

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Richard Ellmann (essay date spring 1969)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Ellmann, Richard. “Overtures to Wilde's Salomé.TriQuarterly 15 (spring 1969): 45-64.

[In the following essay, Ellmann traces the influence of Wilde's friendships with John Ruskin and Walter Pater on his Salomé.]

Salomé, after having danced before the imaginations of European painters and sculptors for a thousand years, in the nineteenth century turned her beguilements to literature. Heine, Flaubert, Mallarmé, Huysmans, Laforgue and Wilde became her suitors. Jaded by exaltations of nature and of humanism, they inspected with something like relief a Biblical image of the unnatural. Mario Praz, bluff, and skeptical of Salomé's allurements,...

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Jason P. Mitchell (essay date spring 1996)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Mitchell, Jason P. “A Source Victorian or Biblical?: The Integration of Biblical Diction and Symbolism in Oscar Wilde's Salomé.Victorian Newsletter 89 (spring 1996): 14-18.

[In the following essay, Mitchell asserts that Wilde's diction in Salomé was borrowed from the Old Testament as well as the Belgian author Maurice Maeterlinck.]

The Salomé legend has its beginnings in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark (Matthew 14: 3-11, Mark 6: 17-28), which relate the beheading of John the Baptist at the instigation of Herodias, wife of Herod, who was angered by John's characterization of her marriage as incestuous. In both accounts, Herodias uses her...

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Christopher S. Nassaar (essay date winter 1999)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Nassaar, Christopher S. “Wilde's Salomé.Explicator 57, no. 2 (winter 1999): 89-90.

[In the following essay, Nassaar considers the symbolic significance of the fan in Wilde's Salomé.]

Lady Windermere's Fan was Oscar Wilde's first mature play, and it established him overnight as a successful playwright. It also created in the minds of playgoers an association between Wilde and the fan. Soon afterward, Wilde wrote a second play, Salomé, and he included in it eight references to a fan. The references constitute Wilde's signature—his constant reminder to reader and audience that he is the author of this new play. But the fan in...

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David Wayne Thomas (essay date March 2000)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Thomas, David Wayne. “The ‘Strange Music’ of Salomé: Oscar Wilde's Rhetoric of Verbal Musicality.” Mosaic (March 2000): 15-38.

[In the following essay, Thomas investigates the function of verbal musicality in Wilde's Salomé.]

Thy voice was a censer that scattered strange perfumes, and when I looked on thee I heard a strange music.

—Oscar Wilde, Salomé

In the closing moments of Oscar Wilde's drama Salomé (1893, 1894), the matter of verbal music finds its nearest approach to explicit mention. Having performed her dance of seven veils before the lecherous Herod, Salomé...

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Christopher S. Nassaar and Nataly Shaheen (essay date spring 2001)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Nassaar, Christopher S., and Nataly Shaheen. “Wilde's Salomé.Explicator 59, no. 3 (spring 2001): 132-34.

[In the following essay, Nassaar and Shaheen discuss stylistic and thematic aspects of Salomé.]

Wilde's Salomé has a tripartite structure. The moon-goddess Cybele, Salomé, and Herodias, for instance, represent the same principle in a descending order and are opposed respectively by Jesus, Jokanaan, and the Nazarenes. Jokanaan is associated with three colors—white, black, and red; Salomé in wooing him approaches him three times. The language often repeats basic words and phrases in groups of three. One of the significant tripartite...

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Further Reading

(Drama Criticism)


Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988, 680 p.

Highly acclaimed biographical study.

Winwar, Frances. Oscar Wilde and the Yellow 'Nineties. Garden City, NY: Blue Ribbon Books, 1940, 381 p.

Popular biography of Wilde.


Chamberlin, J. E. Ripe Was the Drowsy Hour: The Age of Oscar Wilde. New York: The Seabury Press, 1977, 222 p.

Examines Wilde in the social and artistic contexts of his time.

Ellmann, Richard, ed. Oscar Wilde: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood...

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