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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."
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.
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.