Lecture Notes and Discussion Questions: Oscar Wilde’s “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.”

Wilde published story in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1889, but a definitive version of it did not appear before his death.

The story came up during Wilde’s trials and formed part of the network of legal interest in Wilde’s writings there—Edward Carson, Counsel for the Marquess of Queensberry and a skilled (some would say vicious) questioner, was trying to weave a network of “evidence” via Wilde’s writings, alleging that Wilde’s perversion was evident in his work as well as in his life.  See the following exchange from April 3, 1895, during Wilde’s trials at the Old Bailey courthouse, London:

Carson: I believe you have written an article to show that Shakespeare’s sonnets were suggestive of natural vice?

Wilde:  On the contrary, I have written an article to show that they were not.  I objected to such a perversion being put upon Shakespeare. 

(qtd. from Danson, 81)

Lawrence Danson explains:  “It was one of the most daring paradoxes, the idea of a love between men that is not ‘unnatural,’ not ‘a perversion’: in 1895 it was a contradiction almost beyond the reach of language.  What would you call it?  Words that made sense in the Old Bailey, ‘sodomy’, buggery’, and their cognates, were words of legal condemnation, implying ‘disgust, disgrace, vituperation.’ The prison house of language wasn’t all you had to fear if your love used those words to speak its name.  There were other possibilities.  The word ‘homosexuality, for instance, had been coined by a Swiss doctor in 1869.  But in England in the nineties, ‘homosexuality’ belonged to the discourse of science; it named a medical problem, and its truth was not yours.  ‘Urning’,  ‘inversion’, even Whitman’s term ‘adhesiveness’ were neologisms, ‘suggestive of’ something strange and new.  Was there any language that would not falsify your desire—and Shakespeare’s and Michelangelo’s and Plato’s—in the process of speaking it?”  (Danson, 81)

“Wilde’s story or essay or hoax—one hardly knows what to name it—poses a question about the representation of homosexual desire that is only partly bound to the particular circumstances of Victorian reticence and fear.  […] it is necessary to ask what ‘The Portrait of Mr. W.H. is about because the obvious answer  (it’s about Shakespeare’s love for Mr. W.H., ‘the onlie begetter’ of his sonnets) is radically undercut by the very narration that proposes it.” (Danson, 82)

Jerusha McCormack writes: “What one believes in this story relies on the impact of its performance, forged in the heat of inspiration, and carrying conviction only within the context of its utterance.  Its oral nature dictates the fiction’s contingent and arbitrary nature and offers the premise of its own erasure; here lies a fiction writ in hot water.” (McCormack, 108)

“Locating the impulse of Shakespeare’s own creation in the performance of an actor, Wilde returns the literary text of the Sonnets to their source in his own performance of their interpretation. At every level, that performance subverts the authority of the text, and the ‘forged’ reputation of its author, William Shakespeare.”  (McCormack, 109)

Some questions we’ll consider, among others:

How does the story compare to the other”portrait” fiction by Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray and to the other “forgery” text we’ve read, “Pen, Pencil, and Poison”? (Note that “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.” is more or less contemporaneous with both of these.)  What are some obvious (or not so obvious) overlapping themes and concerns?

What is the role of authorship and the printed versus the oral tradition of storytelling in “The Portrait of Mr. W. H.”?

This story could be described as a palimpsest, or a Chinese box of textuality.  Forgery, oral discourse, written discourse, hearsay, truth, lying, death, survival, tale and teller, physical and intellectual desire, inspiration, intent, and accidental events … what are some effects of this complex textuality and layers of meaning on you as a reader (its attractions and difficulties)?

How does our previous discussion of Wilde’s interest in truth and lying continue and extend with regard to this story?

What role does the notion of  text as performance (which we’ve pointed out is very important for much Decadent writing) play in this story? How does it compare to the other hyper-performative texts we’ve read (such as Huysmans’ A rebours or Flaubert’s La tentation de Saint Antoine?

How is homoeroticism (as allusion, implication, indirect discourse) part of the textual performativity here, especially with regard to the oscillations of meaning because of dazzling multiplicity of textual layers?

What do you know about the status of Shakespeare for middle-class culture in Victorian England, and the contemporary regard for his Sonnets?  Why may it have been especially provocative to attach this particular “theory” to Shakespeare in Wilde’s time?

Works cited

Danson, Lawrence.  “Oscar Wilde, W.H., and the Unspoken Name of Love.” In Oscar Wilde: A Collection of Critical Essays.  Ed. by Jonathan Freedman. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996.  81-98.

McCormack, Jerusha.  “Wilde’s Fictions.”  In The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde.  Ed. by Peter Raby.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.  96-117.

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