Oscar Wilde

Whether you like it or not, stereotypes are useful. You can whine about prejudice, but they exist for a reason. Oscar Wilde is famous for his flamboyance, fashion, and affairs with men. With that in mind, you should easily win a game of...

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Just The Facts

  1. Full name: Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde. Try to say that five times fast. Try to say that one time fast.
  2. A prominent Victorian author, poet, playwright, and critic.
  3. Also famous for scandal; many Victorians didn't appreciate his insulting their morality and society in his plays, or his affairs with other men.
  4. One of the most quoted (and misquoted) men in history.

Early Life

Wilde was born and raised in Dublin, where he eventually attended Trinity College. He then transferred to Oxford, where he became an aesthete. Aestheticism states that we should strive for beauty, and that if we do, goodness will follow - a theory still widely used by philosophy students to sleep around. Like many with similar views, Wilde was also a dandy: a man who placed emphasis on excellent appearance, wit, and cultural knowledge, all achieved with minimal apparent effort - essentially a 19th century hipster.

"Does this sepiatone app make me look poetic?"

After graduating, Wilde toured North America, lecturing on topics from aestheticism to interior design. When he arrived in New York City, Wilde was asked if he had anything to declare, and apparently replied with "Only my genius." Comments like this gained him a reputation for showiness, and he was widely parodied, such as in Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta Patience. Think about this: he was considered overly flamboyant by the standards of a musical. During his tour of the States, many worried that he would decrease the moral fibre of the Americans who attended his lectures, and this cartoon appeared in the San Francisco Wasp:

We're not sure what it means, but we're pretty sure it's insulting.

Literary Legacy

Wilde worked for a number of magazines and journals, wrote numerous essays and short stories, and published a book of children's stories for his hilariously named sons, Cyril and Vyvyan. However, Wilde's most important piece of prose fiction is The Picture of Dorian Gray. A portrait is made of Dorian, and he is able to stay young and beautiful while the painting becomes aged and grotesque because of Dorian's long life of sin and debauchery.

Sort of like this

Dorian's sins begin in opium dens, and culminate in murder, although many of his other sins are left nameless. The novel is considered a classic in gothic horror literature for its use of doubles, and its exploration of sin's effect on the soul makes it as relevant now as it was when it was first published.

Theatrical Legacy

Wilde's most popular works today are probably his plays. His first was Salome, the story of a young woman who seduces her step father by doing a sexy dance, then requests and receives a man's head on a platter.

Unsurprisingly for a play with all of these elements, it was not given a license to be performed - for portraying Biblical figures, which was apparently illegal.

After Salome, Wilde wrote a number of comedies critizing hypocrisies in Victorian society. The most enduringly popular of these is The Importance of Being Earnest. Subtitled "A Trivial Comedy for Serious People," the play looks at upper class Victorians and their treatment of everything - from death and marriage to etiquette and cucumber sandwiches - with the same air of triviality and indifference. The play, full of witty repartee, is still frequently put on today. However, it is lacking reference to boobs, farts, or drugs, so it mainly plays for theatres of old people.

Scandal and Downfall

Shortly after the opening of The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde entered into a public battle with the Marquess of Queensbury over Wilde's relationship with the latter's son, Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas. Wilde and Bosie had been very close for some time, and family and friends on both sides had encouraged them to see less of each other. They were spending an inordinate amount of time together, which was made worse by their 20+ year age difference. Eventually fed up with the stir this was causing, Queensbury publicly accused Wilde of sodomy. Wilde attempted to sue him for libel, but lost when a number of young men testified to his homosexual behaviour. Throughout his trials, Wilde was an even match for lawyers, and the transcripts read like a courtroom dramedy.

Wilde's aestheticism and belief in separation of art and morality were used against him in his libel suit. Letters written to friends, as well as several of his works, including The Picture of Dorian Gray, were used as evidence of his "posing as a sodomite." After Wilde stated that work can only be beautiful and not morally "good," his opposition asked him if a particuarly damning statement in a letter written to Bosie could be read as a mere "beautiful phrase." Wilde responded: "Not as you read it, Mr Carson. You read it very badly." Apparently no situation was above witty, mocking banter for Wilde.

In the end, Wilde lost his libel case because of his beliefs about art and lifestyle, as well as evidence stacked against him. A criminal trial followed, where Wilde was convicted of "indecent acts with men," and sentenced to two years in prison with hard labour. In prison, he wrote a 20 page letter to Bosie, damning himself for his ability to be swayed to an "unethical" lifestyle by the vain and extravagant youth. After he got out, Wilde exiled himself to Paris, where he anonymously published The Ballad of Reading Gaol. He died there three years later, impoverished and in disgrace at age 46. Sorry, that got dark fast. Uh... here is a picture of a baby tapir.

Aww look at him! He's so cute, and not at all depressing!

Legacy

Wilde is probably second only to Shakespeare as most quotable man in the English language. So many quotes are attributed to him (accurately or not) that his Wikiquote page has a special warning to potential editors:

Note: A great many misquotations are attributed to Wilde. Please seek to verify the provenance of any quotations you believe should be ascribed to him.

He was so witty that if you hear something clever, and can't remember who said it, you can safely bet it was Wilde. Friends of his said that his conversations seemed rehearsed, since he could come up with witty comments instantaneously. His writings are full of clever witticisms, many of which you have probably heard at some point in your life. Here are some examples:

"Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes."

"My own business always bores me to death. I prefer other people's."

"In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

"I love talking about nothing, father. It is the only thing I know anything about."

"Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination."

Nine years after his death, Wilde's remains were moved to Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, where you can also find Moliere, Marcel Proust, Edith Piaf, Jim Morrison, and countless others. Wilde's former lover, Robert Ross, commissioned sculptor Jacob Epstein to design the tomb, and Wilde's own words from his Ballad of Reading Gaol now serve as his epigraph:

And alien tears will fill for him
Pity's long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.

In the 1990's, graffiti began to appear on Wilde's tomb. Shortly after its removal, fans started a tradition of bestowing his grave with red-lipsticked kisses. In November 2011, Wilde's grave was cleaned once again and a glass barrier was erected to inhibit further defacement, as it was causing damage to the stone. The response to the barrier was mixed, but everyone can agree that Wilde would have loved the stir the controversy created. The enclosure hasn't completely stopped Wilde's fans, who still leave kisses, messages, and flowers for Wilde on the glass.

All in all, Wilde is as significant a figure today as he ever was. His plays are being performed all over the world, The Picture of Dorian Gray was adapted into film for the 15th time in 2009, and scholars are still studying his theories on art and criticism. Yes, he was famous for being gayer than a handbag full of rainbows, and we're not telling you to stop making jokes about it - just remember that there was more to him.