Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde Introduction

"Would you like to know the great drama of my life?" Oscar Wilde once asked. "It's that I've put my genius into my life; I've put only my talent into my works."blank" href="https://www.shmoop.com/picture-dorian-gray/">The Picture of Dorian Gray. His combination of prodigious intelligence, charming flamboyance and biting humor made him one of the great wits of the 20th century. He was often accused of being too flippant, but his flippancy disguised a deeper seriousness. His best plays were comedies that identified society's foibles and hypocrisy as cuttingly as any high-minded editorial.

Wilde's overconfidence in his ability to surmount society's prejudices led to his downfall. When the father of the young man Wilde was romantically involved with left him a note with a homophobic slur, Wilde decided to sue him for libel, a decision that had tragic consequences for the poet. The trial became a referendum on Wilde's personal life. Though he defended himself with characteristic wit and eloquence, Wilde could not overcome the strength of Victorian social prejudices. He was eventually convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to two years hard labor. He lived for only three more years after his release from prison, finally dying disgraced, penniless and exiled in France in 1900 at the age of 46.

Today we enjoy Wilde's works for their enduring humor, but we also admire his commitment to his own ideals of truth and beauty. Thanks to him, it's a little easier for all of us to be ourselves.

Oscar Wilde Trivia

Oscar Wilde had gray eyes.

Wilde visited poet Walt Whitman during his tour of the U.S. in 1882. Afterward Wilde claimed to have made out with the elder poet, boasting that, "The kiss of Walt Whitman is still on my lips."

Wilde became a member of the Freemasons while at Oxford.

Wilde's letters to Lord Alfred Douglas were embarrassingly introduced at court during Queensberry's libel trial. Despite his discomfort, Wilde never lost his trademark wit. After defense lawyer Edward Carson read one such letter, Wilde retorted: "When I wrote it, it was beautiful. You read it very badly."

Rumors have circulated that Wilde actually died of syphilis, most prominently in the Richard Ellmann's respected biography of the poet. However, most doctors conclude that an ear infection and meningitis were the actual causes of his death.

Wilde's tomb at Père Lachaise cemetery is decorated with a sandstone sphinx. Shortly after it was installed in 1912, a visitor took a hammer and hacked away the sphinx's male genitals. In 2000, the artist Leon Johnson staged a performance at the tomb in which a sterling silver prosthetic schlong was reattached to the sculpture. Really.

Oscar Wilde Resources

Books

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890)
You'll never forget the tale of a young man who trades his soul for beauty. This was Wilde's only published novel. He later said that the characters in the novel were reflections of himself - the tortured artist was how he saw himself, the foppish lord was how the world saw him, and Dorian was who he would like to be.

Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895)
This comedy of mistaken identity, hypocrisy and the perils of duplicity turned out to be the last one Wilde ever wrote. Like most of his comedies, it pokes fun at Victorian social mores. Those mores, unfortunately, would have dire consequences for Wilde. On opening night, his lover's father attempted to break in to the theater to hurl vegetables at Wilde. He was unsuccessful, but launched a campaign against the playwright that ended with Wilde's disgrace and imprisonment.

Oscar Wilde, De Profundis (1905)
Wilde composed a 50,000 word letter to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas during his two years of imprisonment at Reading Gaol. He was not allowed to send it, but was able to carry it out with him on his release. A shortened version was published as De Profundis after his death. It is a moving exploration of grief, betrayal and faith. It is also, at heart, a very beautiful love letter.

Oscar Wilde, The Collected Poems of Oscar Wilde
While Oscar Wilde cultivated a flamboyant public persona, his poems provide an intimate look at his inner life. A gifted poet from an early age - he won prizes for his verse at university - Wilde reveals his heartbreak and hope in these poems. Particularly noteworthy is "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," the verse he composed about his imprisonment.

Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde (1988)
This was the final work by Richard Ellmann, a distinguished literary biographer whose biography of James Joyce is considered one of the best examples of the genre. It was published a few months after Ellmann's death and is a triumph. This minutely detailed book is the definitive story of Wilde's flamboyant, original and tragic existence.

Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-David, eds., The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde (2000)
This giant volume published on the 100th anniversary of Wilde's death really is the complete record of his correspondence - seemingly every business note and thank you card he ever penned is in here. But the portrait of Wilde that emerges through his more expansive letters shows his serious, intellectual side, an aspect that is often obscured by the flippant persona he cultivated. Co-editor Merlin Holland is Wilde's grandson.

Music

Company of Thieves, "Oscar Wilde"
We are all our own devil and we make this world our hell! So goes the refrain of "Oscar Wilde," the catchy song by the Chicago-based indie rock band Company of Thieves. "Oscar Wilde" has earned the band a bit of notoriety, winning them the 2007 New York Songwriters Circle award and appearing on soundtracks from Gossip Girl to Dove commercials.

Morrissey
As an awkward teenager, the moody singer Morrissey took solace in the works of Oscar Wilde. Today, the singer counts his copies of Wilde's books among his most treasured possessions. The poet was a major inspiration to Morrissey in his loner teenage years, and continues to be an important influence in his music.

Ernest in Love Soundtrack
Ernest in Love is a musical adaptation of Wilde's play The Importance of Being Earnest. Numbers include "A Handbag Is Not a Proper Mother," "Metaphorically Speaking" and "Muffin Song." An entertaining album, if you prefer your theater sung to you.

Richard Strauss, Salomé
Salomé is the title of Wilde's one-act play, originally in French, about the Biblical character Salomé. Shortly after Wilde's death, German composer Richard Strauss composed an opera based on Wilde's play.

Peter Brotzmann, Nothing to Say: A Suite of Breathless Motion Dedicated to Oscar Wilde
Peter Brotzmann is a German saxophonist, clarinetist and evident Wilde fan. His 1996 tribute to Oscar Wilde is one of more than 100 records Brotzmann has released in his career.

Wilde Oscars
The Wilde Oscars were a five-piece Irish band named after their countryman, Oscar Wilde. They broke up after releasing just one album and one single in the 1990s. We don't know if, like their namesake, they were done in by their own internal demons.

Images

Oscar Wilde
Wilde in a photograph by Napoleon Sarony.

Wilde in Repose
A portrait of Wilde resting on his couch.

Dramatic Wilde
Wilde in a playful pose.

Oscar and Bosie
Wilde with his lover Lord Alfred Douglas.

The Picture of Dorian Gray
An image of a first-edition cover.

Punch cartoon
An 1881 cartoon of Wilde in Punch magazine.

Calling Card
Wilde's legal issues began when Lord Queensberry left this calling card reading, "For Oscar Wilde posing as a Sodomite."

Grave
Wilde's tomb at Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

Movies & TV

Wilde (1997)
British actor Stephen Fry stars in this biopic of the poet and playwright whose greatest downfall was himself. The movie brings Wilde's brilliant mind and tragic decline to life. Vanessa Redgrave stars as Wilde's flamboyant, domineering mother, and Jude Law is his love interest Bosie.

Dorian Gray (2009)
This is a film version of Wilde's haunting novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. The plot is now a classic - a vain, amoral young man sells his soul in exchange for beauty, with chilling consequences. We think Wilde's suspenseful prose can't be beat, but if you really want to watch it onscreen try this film.

An Ideal Husband (1999)
This social satire was one of Wilde's most successful plays. The movie adaptation features a cast of well-known actors (well, at least well-known in 1999) like Cate Blanchett, Minnie Driver and Rupert Everett. Watch if you like pretty costumes, English accents and Victorian-style intrigue.

A Good Woman (2004)
This film is an adaptation of Lady Windermere's Fan, Wilde's first play. Thanks to the success of its 1892 run, Wilde was able to start a legitimate career as a playwright. It is a distinctly Victorian story about secret identity, scandal and the horror of the social faux pas. Scarlet Johansson stars as Meg Windermere.

The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960)
This classic film is about the courtroom drama that led to Wilde's downfall. When Lord Queensberry made a rude comment about Wilde's sexuality, Wilde sued his lover's father for libel. The trial eventually turned around on Wilde, and he was arrested, convicted and imprisoned for "gross indecency." The proceedings are some of the most dramatic scenes to ever take place in a courtroom.

Oscar (1985)
A television miniseries seems the perfect genre for Oscar Wilde's life. Where else could you adequately convey the drama and pathos of Wilde's rise and fall? This BBC miniseries from the 1980s does the job well.

Websites

The Official Website of Oscar Wilde
So obviously Oscar Wilde doesn't update his own website. The company that manages his estate does, however, and it's a good first stop for a basic introduction to the poet's life. We especially like the Fast Facts page, a quick-and-dirty, FBI dossier-like rundown of Wilde's history.

The Oscar Wilde Collection
This page has everything Wilde ever wrote collected in one place and laid out in an attractive, easy-to-read format. Many of the works are available in PDF format - great for printing out on-the-go reading, or if you're interested in staging any of Wilde's plays.

Reading Wilde, Querying Spaces
The New York University Library put together an exhibit commemorating the 100th anniversary of Wilde's trials. It has now been adapted to the Internet. Some of the language is kind of academic, but it contains many interesting primary documents about Wilde and his work.

The Trials of Oscar Wilde
The legal proceedings that ruined Wilde's career and personal reputation were some of the most dramatic cases of their time. This incredible site from the University of Missouri-Kansas City law school has all the information you need on Wilde's legal troubles, including his writings from prison, transcripts of the trial and an explanation of how homosexuality was treated under the law in Wilde's time.

The Oscar Wilde Society
The Oscar Wilde Society described itself as "a literary society devoted to the congenial appreciation of Oscar Wilde."_CITATION28_ They are a group of Wilde enthusiasts based in the UK, but with membership all over the world. They produce regular publications and host Wilde-themed events.

The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde
Wilde was a prolific writer of fairy tales. This site gathers them all together with illustrations by various artists. Rarely is the Internet pretty, but this site certainly is.

Video & Audio

Wilde
The biographical film about Oscar Wilde.

Oscar Wilde Images
A video of Wilde photographs set to music.

The Picture of Dorian Gray
A film version of Wilde's novel.

An Ideal Husband
A production of Wilde's comedy.

The Importance of Being Earnest
A scene from Wilde's play.

Monty Python's Flying Circus
A sketch from the comedy troupe about Wilde and other writers.

Primary Sources

The Picture of Dorian Gray
Wilde's harrowing novel.

The Importance of Being Earnest
Wilde's comedy of manners.

An Ideal Husband
Wilde's comedic play.

De Profundis
Wilde's letter to Lord Alfred Douglas from Reading Gaol.

Poems
A collection of Wilde's poetry.

"The Ballad of Reading Gaol"
The poem Wilde composed after his imprisonment.

London Obituary
Wilde's 1 December 1900 death notice in the Guardian newspaper.

New York Obituary
Wilde's obituary in the New York Times.

Monty Python's Flying Circus
The transcript of their skit "Oscar Wilde."