The Love that Dare Not Speak Its Name

What I found most interesting about “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.” was the references to Plato’s Symposium. It’s a collection of speeches about the nature of Eros, the god of love and desire, and a lot of it focuses on pederasty—the relationship between an older man and a young man. The older man was meant to act as a mentor for the young man and help him develop as a person, but there was also a sexual aspect to this relationship. It was fairly common practice among the elite of Ancient Greece. 

In my copy of the Symposium, it mentions that when the Symposium was studied in the past, the sexual aspect of the relationship was ignored, and it was just interpreted as a mentor and mentee relationship between men. When I read the first part “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.,” I thought that the relationship between Shakespeare and Willie Hughes was meant to be seen as romantic. However, on pages 324 and 325 Wilde references the Symposium and says that the Platonic conception of love is “nothing if not spiritual” and is removed from “gross bodily appetite.” This leads me to believe that Wilde included the references to the Symposium as somewhat of a defense against critics who might interpret the relationship between Shakespeare and Willie Hughes as indecent. Wilde might be using the references to say that it’s perfectly natural for Shakespeare to admire Willie Hughes’ beauty because that’s what the Greeks did, and it’s actually one of the higher forms of affection. 

Wilde even alludes to the Symposium at his trial. When questioned about the line, “the love that dare not speak its name” from one of Bosie’s poems, Wilde replied that, “There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an elder and a younger man, when the elder has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope, and glamour of life before him.” This defense had mixed results at the trial, but it’s interesting to see the ideas of the Symposium get referenced in multiple works of Wilde’s.