Wilde, Oscar

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Wilde, Oscar

Oscar Wilde. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
Oscar Wilde.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Oscar Wilde was a nineteenth-century Irish poet, novelist, and playwright who mocked social conventions and outraged English society with his unconventional ideas and behavior. Wilde's relevance to the law is based on his 1895 criminal trial, in which he was convicted of committing homosexual acts and was sentenced to two years in prison. Historians of law and sexuality regard the trial as a pivotal event, as it demonstrated that the legal system could be used to punish gays and lesbians.

"All authority is quite degrading."
—Oscar Wilde

Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland, probably on October 16, 1854, although some sources say October 15 or 1856. He was a talented writer who achieved prominence—despite mixed literary criticism—with his first effort, Poems, in 1881. Many of his subsequent works are considered classics, including the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), and the plays Lady Windermere's Fan (first produced, 1892) and The Importance of Being Earnest (first produced, 1895).

As one of England's most flamboyant and sought-after socialites, Wilde nevertheless led an ordinary life in many respects. He married Constance Lloyd in 1884 and fathered two sons. In 1895, however, rumors of Wilde's homosexuality began to circulate, culminating in a scandalous libel trial.

The Marquess of Queensberry, whose name is associated with the accepted standards of boxing regulations, started the controversy by publicizing Wilde's sexual preferences. The marquess had discovered that his son, Alfred Douglas, had a relationship with Wilde, and he was determined to sever the ties. In February 1895, the marquess publicly accused Wilde of being a homosexual. English Law made homosexual relations a criminal offense.

Wilde professed innocence and took the marquess to court for criminal libel. At trial, the marquess's lawyer produced letters written by Wilde to Alfred Douglas, and their affectionate terminology was damaging to Wilde's case. As witnesses revealed Wilde's affiliations with male prostitutes and other men, Wilde considered retracting his accusation. The jury found the marquess not guilty, thus lending some credibility to his accusation against Wilde.

Soon after the conclusion of the trial, Wilde was arrested with a young man, accused of homosexual activities, and put on trial. At the trial, more information about his sexual activities emerged. The prosecution also introduced a poem by Alfred Douglas and questioned Wilde about several loving references to him.

Wilde's lawyers denounced the witnesses as characters of ill repute and pointed out conflicting facts in their testimonies. The trial ended in a hung jury, but Wilde was retried in May 1895. That time, Wilde was found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison. He was released from Reading Gaol (pronounced "JAIL") in May 1897 and moved to Europe, where he assumed the name Sebastian Melmoth. During his exile, he wrote "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," a long poem decrying the cruelty of British prison conditions, especially affecting child inmates. He also wrote letters to English newspapers to sway public opinion during consideration of new legislation. Most notably, on a personal and literary level, Wilde composed a letter to Douglas that was filled with recriminations against the younger man, which was published posthumously in edited form as De Profundis in 1905. Wilde died on November 30, 1900, in Paris.

In 2001, the transcript of Wilde's 1895 libel trial—which was thought not to exist—was donated anonymously to the British Library. Two-and-a-half years later, the library hosted a live reading with prominent British actors. The original documents, in stenographic shorthand, contain the entirety of the trial's proceedings, a marked improvement over the abbreviated, personal, and unofficial accounts.

Further readings

Foldy, Michael S. 1997. The Trials of Oscar Wilde: Deviance, Morality, and Late-Victorian Society. New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press.

Great Britain. Public Record Office. 1998. Oscar Wilde: Trial and Punishment, 1895–1897. Kew, Richmond, Surrey, England: Public Record Office.

"Great Trials: Oscar Wilde." 1996. Quill and Quire 62 (April).

Holland, Merlin. 2003. The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde. New York: Fourth Estate.

Cross-references

Gay and Lesbian Rights.

References in periodicals archive ?
Oscar Wilde, 'A Chinese Sage,' in The Artist as Critic: Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde, ed.
Seven of the "views" are poems: two by Lionel Johnson, one by John Betjeman ("The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel"), two by Alfred Douglas, and one each by Brendan Behan and Hart Crane.
On the wall was a portrait of Oscar Wilde with an inscription "Je peux resister tout, sauf la tentation"--"I can resist everything but temptation.
The movie takes the premise of the book, without the cleverness of Oscar Wilde.
She wouldn't have done it were it not for the fact that far away from England in those days, in Switzerland, a Swiss hotelkeeper said, "You're obviously the wife of the infamous Oscar Wilde.
Pacino presented an Oscar Wilde award to Belfast-born Van Morrison during an evening that honored Irish writing in film and featured the wee Oronoco "Wilde" mojito.
The arrival in the mail of the April publication of The Oscar Wilde Society, titled Intentions, in 2005 proved to be a serendipitous moment in my doctoral research.
Included are the distinctive wardrobes of Lillian Russell, Amelia Bloomer, Baby Doe Tabor, Bat Masterson, Annie Oakley, Oscar Wilde, Wild Bill Hickok, George and Elizabeth Custer, Andrew Johnson, and Adah Menken.
The convicted paedophile compared himself to Elvis - who fell for a 14-year-old - and Oscar Wilde, who was jailed for his homosexuality.
Together these images articulate a sort of pigeon's-eye view of the city, alternately, as Oscar Wilde would have it, down in the gutter and gazing at the stars.
Exiliado y oculto en Paris, despues de haber gozado de gran fama y aclamado por una sociedad hipocrita que posteriormente lo vapulea y condena a la carcel por su preferencia sexual, Oscar Wilde pasa los ultimos dias de su vida en un decadente del Barrio Latino bajo el seudonimo de Sebastian Melmoth, abandonado por todos.
When the Marquis of Queensbury in early 1895 slipped an accusatory note about the writer Oscar Wilde to a waiter at his club, he set in motion a series of events that would eventually result in Wilde going to jail, artists squirming under the threat of censorship and Moises Kaufman writing a provocative play dealing with all of that.