Going on Trial as an Act of Defiance 

Our last class made me think about the idea of the courtroom as the theater and Wilde’s demeanor while on trial.

The courtroom has many times been referred to as a theatrical setting, with the aspects of storytelling and drama playing into the workings of a trial. This particularly applies to highly publicized trials, such as Wilde’s. His was the “trial of the century,” and a condemnation of Wilde in the sense of his sexuality and his work. It was a serious matter for his reputation, and more importantly his life. But, as we saw from Gross Indecency by Moises Kaufman, Wilde was not so serious while testifying. He still used his wit to poke fun or when giving answers to the judge/prosecutor. We knew Wilde had an affinity for using this wit based on the characters he wrote in his stories, but why would Wilde not take a more somber tone for his own trial for gross indecency?

And added to this question, as we have discussed before, in some ways Wilde has written his own demise into existence through his stories, particularly with The Importance of Being Earnest. He seems to predict his fate, which prompts interesting ideas about predestination, but also makes me think that Wilde knew that, because his feelings were criminalized, that his sexual actions were unignorable and could lead to his downfall. But, even if he knows this, and then it comes to semi-fruition with the trial, what made him choose to go to the trial rather than leave the country?

I think that Wilde stayed in England based on a series of unfortunate events but had a witty demeanor during the trial because he had a lot to prove to Bosie’s dad and to the people of high society. His status as an outsider, whether through his Irishness or his sexuality, made it so he had to work to fit in. And, I think he was determined to stand up for himself against Bosie’s father, who tried to shame him into exile. Wilde worked hard to build a successful career and good reputation for himself, and given his status as an outsider, it was important to keep that. Part of that reputation was his wit and cleverness, two things that were maintained during the trials. If Wilde were serious in demeanor, I think the people who were trying to criminalize him for his actions would have won in a different sense.

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.