Open Access version via Utrecht University Repository

Shakespeare in Oscar Wilde:
An Analysis of Homo Eroticism in The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Portrait
of Mr. W.H.
BA Thesis English Language and Culture,
Utrecht University
Wendelien Verver
Student no. 3114287
First Reader: Dr. Paul Franssen
Second Reader: Dr. Bert Schouten
April 2010
Table of Content
Chapter 1: Introduction
Page 3
Chapter 2: The Picture of Dorian Gray
Page 6
Chapter 3: The Portrait of Mr. W.H.
Page 16
Chapter 4: The Trials and Shakespeare
Page 22
Chapter 5: Conclusion
Page 27
Page 30
Chapter 1: Introduction
In his age, Oscar Wilde was known as a flamboyant, extravagant and decadent personality.
Many considered his eloquence and wit to be unsurpassed. He was famous for the extravagant
way he dressed and lived as well as for the people he surrounded himself with. One of these
people was the young Alfred Douglas, nicknamed Bosie, with whom Wilde was known to
have an intimate relationship.
Wilde was praised as a playwright, a poet and a writer, up until the moment in 1895
that the father of Bosie, the Marquess of Queensberry, gave Wilde a card on which he had
scribbled “To Oscar Wilde posing sodomite.” Later on, during the trials, Queensberry altered
this ambiguous phrase and claimed he was accusing Wilde of “posing as a sodomite.” Clearly,
there is a big difference in the implication of the accusation when it concerns “posing as a
sodomite” rather than “posing sodomite.” In any case, Wilde prosecuted Queensberry for
libel as a result of the accusation. However, it soon looked as though Wilde was not going to
win the case and the charges against Queensberry were dropped. Two criminal trials followed
in which Wilde was charged with ‘gross indecency.’ They ended up with Wilde being
sentenced to two years of hard labor in Reading Gaol. During the trials, Wilde defended
himself against the accusations by mentioning Shakespeare as one of his great examples; an
earlier author who had been involved in the “love that dare not speak its name.”
Douglas O. Linder says in his account of the trials:
Old Bailey, the main courthouse in London, had never presented a show quite like the
trials that captivated England and much of the literary world in the spring of 1895.
Celebrity, sex, witty dialogue, political intrigue, surprising twists, and important issues
of art and morality--is it any surprise that the trials of Oscar Wilde continue to
fascinate one hundred years after the death of one of the world's greatest authors and
In this thesis, I will take a closer look at two of Wilde’s works in which homosexual
elements seem to be hinted at most strongly and connected with the figure of William
Shakespeare as well: the novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was published for the first
time in 1890 and a second time in a revised version in 1891, and the short story The Portrait
of Mr. W.H. which had first appeared in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1889. As a way
to connect these two I will focus on the appearance of Shakespeare in both stories and attempt
to compare and contrast the use of references to Shakespeare, who to Oscar Wilde,
symbolizes a kind of ‘refined’ and intellectual homosexuality.
This claim can be supported when looking at The Picture of Dorian Gray as well as
The Portrait of Mr. W.H. In both stories, Shakespeare is used by Wilde in quite different ways
but I will argue that in both cases, Shakespeare can be linked to the atmosphere of homoerotic
feeling. Furthermore, the fact that Shakespeare is a symbol of refined homosexuality also
shows from Wilde’s defense during his criminal trials when he mentions Shakespeare, along
with other great names such as Plato and Michelangelo, to defend the “love that dare not
speak its name.” Wilde was asked by the prosecutor to explain this phrase, which comes from
a poem called “Two Loves,” written by Alfred Douglas. Therefore, in this thesis I shall deal
with the atmosphere of homosexuality that can be found in both The Picture of Dorian Gray
and in The Portrait of Mr. W.H. and will draw attention to the role that Wilde assigns to
Shakespeare in this.
First I will focus on The Picture of Dorian Gray. It will be explained in what way
Shakespeare is significant in the novel and how the use of Shakespeare contributes to the
suggestion of homosexual relationships in the story.
In the next chapter, I will discuss The Portrait of Mr. W.H., which deals much more
directly with Shakespeare and the Sonnets in particular. Moreover, The Portrait gives an
interesting insight into the presumed relationship between Shakespeare and a young boy-actor
named Willie Hughes.
All this comes together when Wilde personally was charged with “gross indecency”
and was put up to the stand. He made a most memorable point when the prosecutor asked him
about what Wilde’s most intimate friend and poet Alfred “Bosie” Douglas referred to as “the
love that dare not speak its name” in his poem “Two Loves”. Wilde explains this “love” by,
again, referring to Shakespeare and thereby to the assumption that the playwright was
involved in same-sex relationships.
Before I continue, I would like to point out that I realize that this topic does not stand on
itself. On the contrary, the amount of scholarly writings, research papers, literature and films
about Wilde and his homosexual relationships is quite considerable. For example, he has been
turned into a kind of hero by the gay- and lesbian community, which is, for instance,
expressed in the article “Oscar Wilde's Influence on Gay Identity”, in which Wilde is
portrayed as a kind of “icon of gay history.”1 He is also mentioned in relation to
homosexuality in scholarly articles such as Ari Adut’s “A Theory of Scandal: Victorians,
Homosexuality, and the Fall of Oscar Wilde”. In this particular article, Wilde’s public scandal
is looked at from a broader point of view, as “The study of scandal reveals the effects of
publicity on norm enforcement and throws into full relief the dramaturgical
nature of the public sphere and norm work in society.” 2
It is therefore the intention of this paper to simply add a contribution to this discourse
by trying to connect Wilde’s homosexuality with the way he views Shakespeare by looking at
a selection of his work and the criminal trials.
Long, Kat. “Oscar Wilde's Influence on Gay Identity”,, (16th November 2008) < > 19th April 2010
Adut, Ari. “A Theory of Scandal: Victorians, Homosexuality, and the Fall of Oscar Wilde”, American Journal
of Sociology (July 2005) 111.1, <
> April 2010, 213-248
Chapter 2: The Picture of Dorian Gray
Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, first appeared in Lippincott’s Magazine in
the year 1890. It instantly caused quite some commotion. Only four days after it was
published, the St. James Gazette printed a rather negative review by an anonymous author
with the title “A Study in Puppydom”. The result of all this criticism was the publication of a
revised version of Dorian Gray in April 1891, which contained six additional chapters as well
as a whole new preface.
The controversial story is about the handsome young Dorian Gray, who finds himself
under the influence of Lord Henry Wotton and his philosophies on aestheticism. Their mutual
friend Basil Hallward has painted a picture of the beautiful Dorian. Because according to Lord
Henry youth is the only thing worth having, Dorian wishes that the painting would grow old
instead of him. Somehow his wish is granted, so that his actions and aging process are visible
on the painted version and not on the real Dorian. After numerous adventures of dubious
moral nature including the murder of Basil Hallward, Dorian wants to rid himself of the
painting by stabbing it. The story ends with his servants finding Dorian on the floor with the
knife in his heart. The painting has changed back from the hideous reflection of Dorian’s soul
to the beautiful innocent young man he was at the beginning of the story, while the real
Dorian has turned into a hideous old man.
In his essay “The Soul of Man under Socialism,” Wilde claims that “all work of art is
the unique result of a unique temperament. Its beauty comes from the fact that the author is
what he is. It has nothing to do with the fact that other people want that they want.” (The
Artist as Critic, 270). This quote is very interesting when we relate it to Dorian Gray. Some
may claim that Wilde related himself to his protagonist Dorian, but I believe it is more
accurate to argue that not just Dorian, but all three main characters contain parts of Wilde’s
personality. Furthermore, I will point out how Wilde created the underlying homoerotic
atmosphere in Dorian Gray and draw attention to Shakespeare in the novel and how he relates
to this atmosphere.
The three main characters in Dorian Gray seem very different from each other at first.
Basil is an artist with an eye for beauty and he is a person who values morals. When he hears
rumors about Dorian, he goes to him to ask how much of this is true, and to warn Dorian
against the bad stories circulating about him. In response, Dorian shows Basil the deformed
painting, the sight of which shakes Basil to the core and he urges Dorian to come to his senses
and repent:
‘Good God Dorian, what a lesson! What an awful lesson!’(…) ‘Pray, Dorian, pray,’ he
murmured. ‘What is it that one was taught to say in one’s boyhood? ‘Lead us not in
temptation. Forgive us our sins. Wash away our iniquities.’ Let us say that together.
The prayer of your pride has been answered. The prayer of your repentance will be
answered also. I worshipped you too much. I am punished for it. You worshipped
yourself too much. We are both punished.’(Dorian Gray, 115)
Conversely, Lord Henry Wotton is not a religious man at all. Even though he has a
great influence on young Dorian and therefore on the story, he is the only one of the three
protagonists that does not change throughout the story and he is therefore the only flat
character. Lord Henry represents a philosophy of aestheticism which he seems to express
mostly through epigrammatic utterances, such as: “I make a great difference between people.
I choose my friends for their good looks, my acquaintances for their good characters, and my
enemies for their good intellects” (Dorian Gray, 6).
Finally, there is the complex character of Dorian Gray himself. Wilde was influenced
by the English writer Walter Pater (1839-1894) and his ideas on aestheticism. “Both authors
[Wilde and Pater] define the influence of beauty and love in terms of Plato’s Phaedrus – that
is, according to the innate inclinations of the beholder, not art’s intrinsic morality as such. (G.
Monsman, “The Platonic Eros of Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde”, 26)”
In his article “Aestheticism, Homoeroticism, and Christian Guilt in The Picture of Dorian
Gray”, Joseph Carroll argues that “Dorian’s life turns out to be something like an
experimental test case for the validity of Pater’s aestheticist philosophy” (4). Encouraged by
Lord Henry, Dorian lives a life aimed at pleasure, he is in a constant search for new sensations
and experiences. He pays a high price for this life on the dark side however, namely his own
soul, which eventually leads to his death. As Carroll puts it: “The experiment falsifies the
philosophy. Dorian lives badly and ends badly, but the retributional structure does not simply
eliminate the Paterian component from Wilde’s sensibility. That component is inextricably
linked with Wilde’s temperament and his sexual identity” (Carroll, 4).
Furthermore, it is interesting to point out how Dorian’s character contains aspects of
Wilde’s own personality, just like Lord Henry and Basil Hallward do. Carroll explains:
Dorian is not all of Wilde, but he is part of him, and the qualities exemplified in
Dorian’s career have two main sources in Wilde’s own experience, one an intellectual
source, and the other a personal, sexual source. The chief intellectual source is the
philosophy of aestheticism propounded by Walter Pater. The personal, sexual source is
the homoerotic sensibility that places maximal value on youth, beauty and transient
sensual pleasure. Pater himself was homosexual, though possibly celibate, and in
Wilde’s own mind aestheticism and homoeroticism converge into a distinct complex
of feeling and value. (Carroll, 4)
Dorian’s character as well as Henry’s and Basil’s all “embody aspects of Wilde’s own
identity, and that identity is fundamentally divided against itself” (Carroll, 3). Wilde wrote in
a letter that Dorian Gray “contains much of me in it. Basil Hallward is what I think I am:
Lord Henry, what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be – in other ages
perhaps” (Wilde, Letters, 352). The last part, “in other ages perhaps,” was most likely added
to ward off in advance any criticism on Wilde himself, if he identified with Dorian. The three
protagonists portray the division within Wilde’s own identity. Carroll puts it as follows: “Lord
Henry often sounds like Wilde, but unlike Wilde, Lord Henry himself is not an artist. (…)
Basil is a moralist, not a wit, but he is also a true artist” (7).
Chief amongst the objections of Wilde’s contemporaries was the homoerotic
atmosphere in the novel. Nowhere in the story is homosexuality or homoeroticism mentioned
explicitly since this would be have been considered terribly inappropriate. However, all
through the story a “homoerotic feeling” is strongly present. Firstly, we see Wilde connecting
aestheticism and homoeroticism in the very first chapter, when we are introduced to Lord
From the corner of the divan of Persian saddlebags on which he was lying, smoking,
as was his custom, innumerable cigarettes, Lord Henry Wotton could just catch the
gleam of the honey-sweet and honey-colored blossoms of a laburnum, whose
tremulous branches seemed hardly able to bear the burden of a beauty so flame-like as
theirs, and now and then the fantastic shadows of birds in flight flitted across the long
tussore-silk curtains that were stretched in front of the huge window, producing a kind
of momentary Japanese effect… (Dorian Gray, 1)
This style of writing is what Carroll refers to as “delicate and luxurious sensualism [with an]
emphasis on art-like effects” (6). According to Carroll, “it registers a distinct sensibility, and
one defining aspect of that sensibility is an overwhelming pre-occupation with male beauty”
(6). This preoccupation with male beauty is one of the most obvious originators of the
homoerotic atmosphere in Dorian Gray.
In the centre of the room, clamped to an upright easel, stood the full-length portrait of
a young man of extraordinary personal beauty (…). As the painter looked at the
gracious and comely form he had so skillfully mirrored in his art, a smile of pleasure
passed across his face, and seemed to linger about there” (Dorian Gray, 1).
(…) this young Adonis, who looks as if he was made out of ivory and rose-leaves.
(Dorian Gray, 2).
Lord Henry looked at him. Yes, he was certainly wonderfully handsome, with his
finely-curved scarlet lips, his frank blue eyes, his crisp gold hair. There was something
in his face that made one trust him at once. All the candor of youth was there, as well
as all youth’s passionate purity. One felt he had kept himself unspotted from the
world. No wonder Basil Hallward worshipped him.” (Dorian Gray, 11-12)
Not only Dorian is described with the outmost precision. Lord Henry himself is characterized
in the greatest detail:
[Dorian] could not help but liking the tall, graceful young man who was standing by
him. His romantic olive-colored face and worn expression interested him. There was
something in his low, languid voice that was absolutely fascinating. His cool, white,
flower-like hands, even, had a curious charm. They moved, as he spoke, like music,
and seemed to have a language of their own. (Dorian Gray, 15)
Another interesting moment in terms of veiled references to homoeroticism takes place
when Basil has just finished painting Dorian. Lord Henry has been talking to Dorian about
how youth and beauty, according to him the only things worth having in life, after which
Dorian starts to despair. “ ‘Oh, if it were only the other way! If the picture could change, and I
could always be what I am now! Why did you paint it? It will mock me some day – mock me
horribly!’ The hot tears welled into his eyes; he tore his hand away, and, flinging himself on
the divan, he buried his face in the cushions” (Dorian Gray, 20). In this scene, the distinction
between masculinity and femininity suddenly becomes quite unclear by the way Dorian
throws himself on the couch. Not only is he crying, but the reason for his tears is his fear of
losing his good looks and youth. As Carroll points out: ‘he displays a passionate
preoccupation with his own personal appearance, and he indulges in histrionic emotional
expressiveness” (6).
The homoerotic atmosphere in Dorian Gray seems to be caused by a combination of
factors. These factors are the “delicate and luxurious sensualism,” the preoccupation with
male beauty and the occasional feminine demeanor of the characters. Separately, these factors
might have had no particular impact on the story, but combined they bring about a distinct
sense of homoeroticism, without making it explicit at any moment.
In addition to this “sensualism” which adds to the homoerotic load, there is one
paragraph that simply cannot be ignored. When Dorian and Lord Henry are walking in Basil’s
garden in Chapter II, the following happens.
Dorian Gray listened, open-eyed and wondering. The spray of lilac fell from his hand
upon the gravel. A furry bee came and buzzed round it for a moment. Then it began to
scramble all over the oval stellated globe of the tiny blossoms. He watched it with that
strange interest in trivial things what we try to develop when things of high import
make us afraid, or when we are stirred by some new emotion for which we cannot find
expression, or when some thought that terrifies us lays sudden siege to the brain and
calls on us to yield. After a time the bee flew away. He saw it creeping into the stained
trumpet of a Tyrian convolvulus. The flower seemed to quiver, and then swayed gently
to and fro. (Dorian Gray, 17)
It will be hardly a challenge for a somewhat experienced reader to discover the erotic
elements in this text. The image of the bee going into the flower, the quivering flower, are all
rather obvious references to eroticism and the growing consciousness in Dorian’s head of his
Carroll brings forth a fourth factor in his article: “a drumbeat of denigrating comments
of heterosexual bonding” (6). Already in the very first chapter, Lord Henry says to Basil:
“Not at all, my dear Basil. You seem to forget that I am married, and the one charm of
marriage is that it makes a life of deception absolutely necessary for both parties. I never
know where my wife is, and my wife never knows what I am doing” (Dorian Gray, 3). When
Basil passionately states that Dorian’s personality will dominate him for as long as he lives,
Henry answers: “those who are faithful know only the trivial side of love: it is the faithless
who know love’s tragedies.” (Dorian Gray, 10) Later on, when Henry tells Dorian the news
of Sibyl’s death, Dorian says that he was planning to marry her despite her horrible acting the
previous night. Henry responds:
“My dear Dorian (…), the only way a woman can ever reform a man is by boring him
so completely that he loses all possible interest in life. If you had married this girl you
would have been wretched. Of course you would have treated her kindly. One can
always be kind to people about whom one cares nothing. But she would have soon
found out that you were absolutely indifferent to her. And when a woman finds that
out about her husband, she either becomes dreadfully dowdy, or wears very smart
bonnets that some other woman’s husband has to pay for.” (Dorian Gray, 73)
Despite the fact that Henry is married himself, he never resists to express his denigrating
opinion on marriage and sexual fidelity in general just like he does in the quoted excerpts.
This, in combination with the previously mentioned factors, contributes to the homosexually
charged atmosphere in the novel.
What also has a profound impact on the story and in particular the homosexual aspect
of it is the use of references to William Shakespeare. First of all, it might be interesting to
point out that there are passages in the book that deal with Shakespeare that are simply adding
to the beauty of the story and do not have any obvious connections to homosexuality. In this
respect I would like to refer to the moment that Lord Henry asks Dorian about the
whereabouts of the painting, some time after Dorian has killed Basil. Dorian answers: “ ‘The
memory of the thing is hateful to me. Why do you talk of it? It used to remind me of those
curious lines in some play – Hamlet, I think- how do they run? – “like the painting of a
sorrow, a face without a heart.” Yes, that is what it was like.’ Lord Henry laughed. ‘If a man
treats life artistically, his brain is his heart,’ he answered” (Dorian Gray, 158). These lines are
from Act IV, scene VII of Hamlet and they convey Dorian’s feelings towards the painting
perfectly. In this case, a quote from Shakespeare very effectively adds to the aesthetic aspect
of the story.
There is a different case however, where the appearance of Shakespeare is less
straightforward and can in fact be related to the homoerotic atmosphere in the novel.
Interestingly enough, it is found in what seems to be Dorian’s very first infatuation. He falls
in love with an actress called Sibyl Vane. He tells Henry: “Why should I not love her? Harry,
I do love her. She is everything to me in life. Night after night I go see her play. One evening
she is Rosalind, and the next evening she is Imogen. (…) She is all the great heroines of the
world in one. She is more than an individual. (…) I love her, and I must make her love me”
(Dorian Gray, 37, 40). At first sight Dorian’s feelings might strike us as a kind of puppy love,
and he seems endearingly innocent in his excitement over the girl. The interesting moment
comes when Henry asks Dorian when he first spoke to Miss Sibyl Vane, to which Dorian
“The third night. She had been playing Rosalind. I could not help going round. I had
thrown her some flowers, and she had looked at me; at least I fancied that she had. The
old Jew was persistent. He seemed determined to take me behind, so I consented. It
was curious my not wanting to know her, wasn’t it?” “No; I don’t think so.” “My dear
Harry, why?” “I will tell you some other time. Now I want to know about the girl.”
(Dorian Gray, 39)
The fact that Henry does not explain why he does not think it strange that Dorian seems
reluctant to meet Sibyl, might seem rather strange to the reader. However, it can be explained
rather easily. The key to understand this quote is in fact Shakespeare. The first night that
Dorian visits the shabby theater and sees Sibyl for the first time, she plays the role of Juliet.
However, it is only this third night, after she had been playing the role of Rosalind that he first
spoke to her. In Shakespeare’s play As You Like It, Rosalind is banished from the court of
Duke Frederick. She and her cousin Celia flee into the Forest of Arden, dressed up as young
men. In the forest they find the exiled Orlando and his servant Adam. Rosalind, still disguised
as a boy called Ganymede, promises to “cure” Orlando from his love for Rosalind by offering
to take her place so Orlando can act out their relationship.
In the Elizabethan age it would have been common for young boys to play the female
parts in a play, so in As You Like It, the girl Rosalind would have been played by a boy, who
then during the play “dresses up” again as a boy. On top of that, the name that Rosalind uses
when she is dressed as a boy is Ganymede, the name of a Trojan prince from Greek
mythology, who was considered the most attractive of all mortals. Because of this, Zeus
brought him to mount Olympus to serve as a cup-bearer and his “eromenos”. The (sexual)
relationship between older and young men in ancient Greece is referred to as pederasty, in
which the older man, the erastes, is a kind of mentor in return receiving sexual favors from the
young man, the eromenos.3 There is hardly a coincidence in the fact that Dorian Gray speaks
to Sibyl Vane the night she had been playing the part of Rosalind in view of this aspect of
cross-dressing – a boy dresses up as a girl who dresses up to play a boy - and the homoerotic
“Pederasty in Ancient Greece”, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 14 April 2010.
Web. 15 April 2010 < >
implication of Rosalind’s boy-name deriving from Greek mythology. The reason why Dorian
would have felt slightly reluctant to meet Sibyl can also be explained by this. He is so
impressed and taken away by this character on stage –Rosalind, disguised as a boy - that he
would be scared that the object of his admiration might turn out to be too much of a woman
once he meets her backstage, and then immediately lose her charm. Lord Henry seems to
understand the whole situation perfectly well.
In the quotation mentioned before, in which Dorian tells Henry about his new found
love, the two names that he mentions are Rosalind and Imogen. At this point it may hardly be
a surprise that Imogen is just like Rosalind, a female character from a Shakespearian play who
disguises as a man. She does so to be able to escape from her husband who is planning to kill
her after he thinks she has slept with someone else. The fact that Sibyl Vane plays Imogen is
enough reason for Dorian to cancel dinner with Lord Henry, as shows from the following
quotation. Henry asks:
“You can dine with me to-night, Dorian, can’t you?” He shook his head. “To-night she
is Imogen,” he answered, “and tomorrow night she will be Juliet.” “When is she Sibyl
Vane?” “Never.” “I congratulate you!” (…) “It must be, if you say it. And now I am
off. Imogen is waiting for me. Don’t forget about tomorrow. Good-bye.” (Dorian
Gray, 40, 41)
By now there will most likely be very few objections to the statement that these
Shakespearian characters are far from accidental in this context. Moreover, the fascinating
and complex connection between Shakespeare, the subtly suggested homoerotic ménage à
trios between the three protagonists and Wilde’s personal experience becomes more and more
It is important to note that Shakespeare in this context is not simply a plain reference
to a homosexual, but rather to a very refined one of that kind. The connection between the
focus on aesthetics and the appearance of Shakespeare is a relevant one, because it gives an
insight in Wilde’s view of Shakespeare. From the following chapters it will become clearer
what I mean by this. Next, I will look at another one of Wilde’s writings, The Portrait of Mr.
W.H. in which Shakespeare and homosexuality are also closely connected.
Chapter 3: The Portrait of Mr. W.H.
In 1889, the short story called The Portrait of Mr. W.H. was published for the first time. It is
an interesting story about Shakespeare’s Sonnets and the mysterious person that the Sonnets
are dedicated to. It was originally based on a real theory posed by an eighteenth-century
scholar called Thomas Tyrwhitt.4 The story starts with a conversation between the nameless
narrator and a character called Erskine. The latter tells the former an anecdote about a small
painting, supposedly a portrait of Mr. W.H., the “onlie begetter” of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.
The theory comes from Erskine’s college friend called Cyril Graham; it argues that the initials
“W.H.” stand for Willie Hughes, supposedly a boy-actor in Shakespeare’s company. The
narrator is highly impressed with the theory and decides to continue the research where
Graham left off; he attempts to find historical evidence for the existence of Willie Hughes.
When he expounds his own theory to Erskine, he suddenly loses his belief in the project;
while on the other hand, Erskine’s belief in the existence of Willie Hughes is completely
renewed. The story ends when Erskine has gone off to Paris and dies there. The narrator is led
to believe that Erskine has committed suicide, but it soon turns out that he died of a chronic
illness. Therefore, this suicide is just as much a forgery as is the portrait that Graham had
made to prove his theory. Both Graham and Erskine wanted to proof their theory about Willie
Hughes with their own death, to show that it is a theory they were willing to die for and
therefore show their commitment to it. However, Erskine’s death turns out to be by batural
cause, so this creates an element of forgery. This forgery is very significant in The Portrait,
also in relation to Shakespeare.
“Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation,
Inc. 14 April 2010. <
The Portrait of Mr. W.H. is an interesting work of Wilde to look at in line with The
Picture of Dorian Gray because no matter how different the storylines, they have several
important things in common. Just like in Dorian Gray, there is a constant feeling of
homoeroticism, even though nowhere is referred to homosexuality in so many words. What
we also see in both works is the suggestion of a ‘Hellenic’ ideal, which connects the adoration
of (male) beauty and intimate relationships between an older and a young man to the
characters in both works.
Moreover, I will also take a moment to speculate about how Wilde in the sense
of the before mentioned admiration of Shakespeare might have been projecting aspects of his
own life and identity on The Portrait of Mr. W.H.. In this respect, it might be possible to
connect the homoerotic suggestions in The Portrait to Wilde’s relationships with younger
boys, for which he was later tried and sentenced.
Let us for now return to the source of all speculation: the story of The Portrait. In File
on Wilde, Margery Morgan tells us the following about it:
The study of ancient Greek culture in the spirit of romantic idealism suffused the
nineteenth-century idea of the university. In his life as art, Wilde acted out devotion to
the beauty of the young male in the person of Lord Alfred Douglas. In The Portrait of
Mr. W.H., he eroticized the relation between writer and muse, playwright and
interpreter, in arguing for the identity of the ‘onlie begetter’ of Shakespeare’s sonnets
with a boy-player of female roles, for whom and in whose image the androgynous
heroines of the plays were created. (File on Wilde, 57)
Morgan touches here upon a very essential aspect of The Portrait. The story deals with
different gentlemen and their interpersonal relationships. Firstly, there is the relation between
the narrator and Erskine and secondly that between Erskine and Cyril Graham. Obviously
there is the relationship between Shakespeare and young Willie Hughes, and we might even
want to consider Wilde’s own relationship with Alfred Douglas in this line.
Erskine talks very highly of his “great friend Cyril Graham” (The Portrait, 153).
When he begins his story to the narrator, he describes Graham as follows:
He and I were at the same house at Eton. I was a year or two older than he was, but we
were immense friends, and did all our work and play together. There was, of course, a
good deal more play than work, but I cannot say I am sorry for that. (The Portrait,
Now even though the boys might still be boys in their time at Eton and it is unlikely that
anything sexual actually took place, this remark undeniably sets an interesting tone. Erskine
goes on talking a little about Graham’s family, and then he explains a bit more about the lad:
He was effeminate, I suppose, in some things, though he was a capital rider and a
capital fencer. In fact he got the foils before he left Eton. But he was very languid in
his manner, and not a little vain of his good looks, and had a strong objection to
football, which he used to say was a game only suitable for the sons of the middle
classes. (The Portrait, 155)
The description that is given here in itself might not portray anything striking in particular,
but in combination with the previous comment about “work and play” it might start to become
clear to the careful reader that there is a little bit more going on than meets the eye. It
becomes even more conspicuous when Erskine elaborates:
The two things that really gave him pleasure were poetry and acting. At Eton he was
always dressing up and reciting Shakespeare. (…) I remember I was always very
jealous of his acting. (The Portrait,155)
So from an early age on, Graham occupies himself with Shakespeare and dressing up, which
might also be considered an interesting way to pass the time for a young boy. It becomes
really interesting when Erskine talks about Graham’s performance at Trinity College.
Well, of course Cyril was always cast for the girls’ parts, and when ‘As You Like It’
was produced he played Rosalind. It was a marvelous performance. You will laugh at
me, but I assure you that Cyril Graham was the only perfect Rosalind I have ever seen.
It would be impossible to describe to you the beauty, the delicacy, the refinement of
the whole thing. (The Portrait, 156)
All this together paints a typical picture of the character of Cyril Graham: effeminate and
beautiful, fond of acting and cross-dressing, and at his best when he is playing the part of a
woman dressing up as a boy. Even though it is never said explicitly, the image that is created
of Graham is undisputedly one with clear homosexual aspects.
A similar pattern can be discovered in the way that Shakespeare and his supposed
muse, Willie Hughes, are discussed. When explaining his theory to Erskine, Graham clears
the way first by ruling out the other options for Mr. W.H.’s identity. Then Erskine recalls that
Graham “felt, as indeed I think we all must feel, that the Sonnets are addressed to an
individual,- to a particular young man whose personality for some reason seems to have filled
the soul of Shakespeare with terrible joy and no less terrible despair” (The Portrait, 159).
When it seems that this fact is undisputed, Graham introduces his theory with the following
Who was that young man of Shakespeare’s day who, without being of noble birth or
even of noble nature, was addressed by him in terms of such passionate adoration that
we can but wonder about the strange worship, and are almost afraid to turn the key that
unlocks the mystery of the poet’s heart? Who was he whose physical beauty was such
that it became the very corner-stone of Shakespeare’s art; the very source of
Shakespeare’s inspiration; the very incarnation of Shakespeare’s dreams? (160)
Inevitably, Graham’s theory is the answer to this question: “he … was surely no other than the
boy-actor for whom he created Viola and Imogen, Juliet and Rosalind, Portia and Desmona,
and Cleopatra herself” (160). The combination of these puzzle pieces again express an image
of an artist entirely devoted to his young male muse. “Strange worship”, “passionate
adoration” and “physical beauty” are all phrases that seem to point at a homosexual
relationship, because the interest in the looks of a young man will hardly be something that a
heterosexual man will focus on so clearly.
It will be hardly a coincidence that the narrator, to whom Erskine is telling all this, is
absolutely enchanted by Graham’s theory. He gets incredibly excited and claims that it is his
“duty to give this theory to the world” (166). Erskine’s response to the narrator’s ecstasy
gives us an insight in the relationship between the two men:
Then Erskine got up, and looking at me with half closed eyes, said: “Ah! How you
remind me of Cyril! He used to say just that sort of thing to me.” (168)
Erskine says that the narrator reminds him of Graham, and if we remember the image that was
presented to us of Graham, this remark might also be an indication of the kind of relationship
that the narrator and Erskine have.
The theme of the “Hellenic ideal” in the sense that it focuses on (male) physical beauty
also returns in The Portrait of Mr. W.H.. We see it in Erskine’s description of Cyril Graham:
I was absurdly devoted to him… He set an absurdly high value on personal
appearance, and once read a paper before our Debating Society to probe that it was
better to be good-looking than to be good. He certainly was wonderfully handsome.
People who did not like him, philistines and college tutors, and young men reading for
the Church, used to say that he was merely pretty; but there was a great deal more in
his face than merely pretty. (155)
Also on the very second page of the story, the description of the actual portrait of Mr. W.H. is
a similar sign on the wall:
It was a full-length portrait of a young man in late sixteenth-century costume, standing
by a table, with his right hand resting on an open book. He seemed about seventeen
years of age, and was of quite extraordinary personal beauty, though evidently
somewhat effeminate. Indeed, had it not been for the dress and the closely cropped
hair, one would have said that the face, with its dreamy, wistful eyes and its delicate
scarlet lips, was the face of a girl.
Relate this to Greek pederasty and some interesting possible “erastes-eromenos-like”
relationships can be found in The Portrait. Erskine, even though he is slightly older than
Graham, clearly points out that he looked up to Graham and does very little to hide his
admiration: “He fascinated everybody who was worth fascinating, and a great many people
who were not” (156). So in that way, it is Graham who takes the role of a mentor to Erskine.
Another example is the relationship between the narrator and Erskine. In this case, it is stated
that Erskine is in fact ‘”a good deal older” than the narrator, and that he “had been listening to
me with the amused deference of a man of forty” (152). In this case, Erskine could be
considered the erastes-figure in their relationship while the narrator takes up the role of the
eromenos. When looking at the bond between Shakespeare and Willie Hughes as depicted by
Graham, we could say that in this case it is rather obvious that Shakespeare is the older, wiser
mentor to the young boy-actor. Moreover, in the story, Shakespeare is portrayed almost as a
soft character, who is willing to put up with Willie Hughes’ fickleness. This shows from the
passage in which the narrator is concerned with Hughes’ abandonment of Shakespeare’s
How bitter now seemed the whole tragedy of his desertion and his shame! – shame
that he made sweet and lovely by the mere magic of his personality, but that was none
the less shame. Yet as Shakespeare forgave him, should not we forgive him also? (The
Portrait, 177)
After the trials in 1895, it was hardly a secret anymore that Wilde was involved in
more or less intimate relationships with young men, Lord Alfred Douglas being one of them.
From The Portrait as well as Dorian Gray, the conclusion can be drawn that Wilde seemed to
have a very high esteem for Shakespeare as an artist who also happened to maintain these
kinds of same-sex relationships. When we connect the story of The Portrait to Wilde himself,
we can find similarities between the two that may or may not have been accidental. First there
is obviously the relation between the artist and his muse, as well as the carefully veiled
suggestion of homoeroticism in Wilde’s personal life as well as in his work. It might be
mentioned that Wilde’s personal life showed several similarities to that of the characters in
the works discussed here. Interestingly enough, Wilde seemed to want his life to imitate his
art, rather than making his art about his life. An example of this is the relationship between
Wilde and Douglas, which reminds us not only of the narrator and Erskine in The Portrait,
but even more of the relationship between Shakespeare and Mr. W.H., Shakespeare being the
older dramatist who shows endless patience to his fickle protégée.. In Dorian Gray, we may
recall that Wilde believed that the world saw him as similar to Lord Henry’s character, even
though he would prefer to be like Dorian. During his two criminal trials, Wilde is made to
defend himself against foul accusations, and he does this among other things with the help of
Shakespeare. In what way this takes place, will be discussed in the next chapter.
Chapter 4: the Trials and Shakespeare
In 1895, the trials of Oscar Wilde took place at Old Bailey, London’s main courthouse. In
these trials, Wilde used Shakespeare in his defense against Queensberry’s accusations. In
Dorian Gray and The Portrait of Mr. W.H. Shakespeare is mentioned in a rather roundabout
way. The real purpose of the presence of Shakespeare is always left to the imagination of the
reader. However, when Wilde involves Shakespeare in his defense speech, it is suddenly not
so veiled anymore, and Wilde’s view on Shakespeare becomes very personal.
Ironically enough, the first trial was started by Wilde himself, when he charged the
Marquess of Queensberry, Bosie’s father, with libel. Queensberry had repeatedly objected to
the intimate relationship between his son and Wilde. Pretty soon however, Wilde’s case soon
seemed a dead-end situation and he dropped the charges against the Marquess. Soon after,
Wilde himself was arrested and charged on terms of “gross indecency”.
When Wilde was cross-examined, he was asked about one of Lord Alfred’s poems,
called “Two Loves”. The following lines from the poem are quoted by the attorney:
Sweet youth,
Tell me why, sad and sighing, dost thou rove
These pleasant realms? I pray thee tell me sooth,
What is thy name?' He said, 'My name is Love,'
Then straight the first did turn himself to me,
And cried, 'He lieth, for his name is Shame.
But I am Love, and I was wont to be
Alone in this fair garden, till he came
Unasked by night; I am true Love, I fill
The hearts of boy and girl with mutual flame.'
Then sighing said the other, 'Have thy will,
I am the Love that dare not speak its name'.
Wilde claimed that it is quite clear what was meant by this “Love that dare not speak its
name”. When asked to explain exactly what it entailed, Wilde answered:
‘The Love that dare not speak its name’ in this century is such a great affection of an
elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made
the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo
and Shakespeare. It is that deep, spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It
dictates and pervades great works of art like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo,
and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so
much misunderstood that it may be described as the "Love that dare not speak its
name," and on account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is
the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual,
and it repeatedly exists between an elder and a younger man, when the elder man has
intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him.
That it should be so the world does not understand. The world mocks at it and
sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.’
It is quite significant that Wilde mentions Shakespeare’s name in the same breath as
Michelangelo’s in his defense. In Dorian Gray, these two are also mentioned in one
paragraph, as well as the names of Montaigne and Winckelmann: “The love that [Dorian]
bore [Basil] –for it was really love- had nothing in it that was not noble and intellectual. It was
not that mere physical admiration of beauty that is born of the senses, and that dies when the
senses tire. It was such love as Michael Angelo had known, and Montaigne, and
Winckelmann, and Shakespeare himself” (Dorian Gray, 87). In this quotation we find the
core of Wilde’s defense against all accusations. Wilde believed that the relationship between
men could be of a purely “noble and intellectual” nature, and therefore there was nothing
wrong with it. The relationship is merely something that benefits both men, the younger man
drawing on the elder man’s intellect and the elder man enjoying a bit of the youth and beauty
of the younger. To Wilde, this was not only the case in his own life, but also in the case of
Shakespeare, Montaigne, Michael Angelo and Montaigne.
The names of Winckelmann and Montaigne are very relevant in this respect. Johann
Winckelmann was a German archeologist and art theoretician from the 18th century, who is
considered the founding father of archeology. He was very interested in ancient Greek culture
and considered Classic art as the noblest of all arts. Ironically enough it was the famous
Giacomo Casanova who mentioned Winckelmann’s homosexuality in his memoirs.5 The
French philosopher Montaigne wrote his Essais in the 16th century. In one of them he talks
about his friendship with a younger man called Étienne de La Boétie. He illustrates the
distinction between the relationship between man and wife on the one hand and between two
men on the other:
The love we bear to women … is more active, more eager, and more sharp: but withal, 'tis
more precipitant, fickle, moving, and inconstant;
a fever subject to intermissions and paroxysms,
that has seized but on one part of us.
Whereas in friendship, 'tis a general and universal fire, but temperate
and equal, a constant established heat, all gentle and smooth, without
poignancy or roughness. Moreover, in love, 'tis no other than frantic
desire for that which flies from us. …
Friendship, on the contrary, is enjoyed proportionally as it is desired;
and only grows up, is nourished and improved by enjoyment, as being of
itself spiritual, and the soul growing still more refined by practice. 6
So the “friendship” that Montaigne describes in this essay refers to a higher kind of
relationship that can exist between two men, one that is less fickle than the one between man
and woman. This can be closely related to the way Wilde tried to portray his relationships
with (younger) men.
In The Portrait of Mr. W.H., the names of Michael Angelo and Montaigne also return
in relation to the love between men. About Michael Angelo it says:
Michael Angelo … addresses the young Tommaso Cavalieri in such fervent and
passionate terms that some have thought that the sonnets in question must have been
intended for that noble lady, the widow of the Marchese di Pescara… But … it was to
Cavalieri that they were written. … Strange as these sonnets may seem to us now,
when rightly interpreted they merely show with what intense and religious fervor
Michael Angelo addressed himself to the worship of intellectual beauty, and how, to
borrow a fine phrase from Mr. Symonds, he pierced through the veil of flesh and
sought the divine idea it imprisoned. (The Portrait, 187)
Michael Montaigne, Essais, ‘On Friendship’ Ed. William Carew Hazilitt, transl. Charles Cotton. Project
Gutenberg's The Essays of Montaigne, Vol 6., 2006. Chapter XXVII
The narrator goes on talking about the philosopher Montaigne, saying that “[t]he same idea is
also put forward in Montaigne’s noble essay on Friendship, a passion which he ranks higher
than the love of brother for brother, or the love of man for woman” (186). Even
Winckelmann, who is mentioned before in Dorian Gray, returns in The Portrait. “A romantic
friendship with a young Roman of his day initiated Winckelmann into the secret of Greek art,
taught him the mystery of its beauty and the meaning of its form” (187).
It is important to realize that Shakespeare as well as Montaigne, Michael Angelo and
Winckelmann where so important to Wilde especially because of their supposed relationships
with younger men. They give examples of a kind of intellectual, high-principled love which
surpasses the level of heterosexual love, which is why Wilde refers to it as “the noblest form
of affection” in his defense speech. The unfortunate part is that it could not prevent Wilde
from being sentenced to two years of hard labor. His elaborate explanation of the “love which
dare not speak its name” was not enough to save him from a conviction. The fact that he uses
Shakespeare’s name in his defense speech gives a very personal twist to his view on the
playwright. In his art, Wilde used Shakespeare to merely hint at certain things, to create a kind
of underlying homosexual feeling. Wilde is in a way able to “hide” behind his characters who
are projecting themselves on Shakespeare, like we saw in both Dorian Gray and Mr. W.H.
But during his trial, Wilde felt forced to use great names as a way to convince others of the
‘noble and intellectual nature’ of his male relationships. He is no longer able to hide behind
his characters or his art. He tries to project himself on Shakespeare, to convince the judge that
there was no “gross indecency” in his actions.
In conclusion, Wilde refers to Shakespeare repeatedly in Dorian Gray and Mr. W.H.
When he is on trial, he also mentions the playwright. There is a difference however, because it
is the person of Wilde himself who is on trial, not one of his fictional characters. This gives a
new dimension to the use of Shakespeare’s name. While Wilde lets his characters project
themselves on Shakespeare, in his defense speech he seems to be projecting his own person
on Shakespeare’s. In Mr. W.H., an important message seems to be that it is not necessarily the
truth that matters, but more whether the forgery is put forth in a beautiful, artistic manner. In
his trial however, Wilde is actually relying on the truth, which is why he mentions
Shakespeare as well as Michael Angelo, Montaigne and Winckelmann because it was known
about them that they had homosexual relationships as well as the fact that they where highly
respected people, involved with art and intellect as philosophers, artists and critics.
Chapter 5: Conclusion
Oscar Wilde’s work as well as his life has fascinated many people for decades, already
starting in his own time. He went from an eminent and respected playwright and writer to a
lonely, disgraced man in the course of a couple of years. Throughout his work, the name of
Shakespeare looms large. In this thesis, I have examined for what reason Shakespeare’s name
is being used and what the influence of Shakespeare is on two of Wilde’s works. After that, I
took a closer look at Wilde’s criminal trial, and how Shakespeare once again appeared and for
what reason.
The Picture of Dorian Gray was one of Wilde’s works that stirred up much turmoil.
Critics called the novel immoral and objected to the homoerotic atmosphere in it. This
atmosphere in Dorian Gray is among other things created by the combination of passages that
talk of the admiration of male physical beauty and metaphorical phrases which contain a
highly erotic undertone. Wilde defended his novel with an epigrammatic preface in which he
claims that there is no such thing as an immoral book, but only books that are badly written.
(Dorian Gray, vii).
Somewhere in the months before Dorian Gray, The Portrait of Mr. W.H. was
published; a short story in which the practiced reader can also discover a feeling of implicit
homosexual relationships, also - among other things - due to a preoccupation with male
beauty and intellect, just as I pointed out from Dorian Gray. It might be useful to add in this
respect that in this story, Wilde seems to view Mr. W.H. and the “Fair Friend” as one and the
same person, something which is never actually proven at any point. The question which rises
from this story, however, is whether this fact is relevant to the story, just like it is questionable
whether the authenticity of the portrait is relevant to Graham’s theory about Willie Hughes. It
seems as if to Wilde it is not the truth that is most important, but the beauty of the story.
In both aforementioned stories, Shakespeare plays an interesting part. The use of the
roles of Imogen as well as that of Rosalind is far from accidental in both cases. They are
significant to both of the stories because Imogen as well as Rosalind are Shakespearian
heroines that at a certain point in the play have to dress up as boys: these roles indicate a
turning point for Dorian and Erskine in Dorian Gray and The Portrait respectively.
These two stories show how highly Wilde thought of Shakespeare. His view on
Shakespeare contains multiple aspects. First and most importantly, Wilde saw Shakespeare as
the absolute artistic summit. Moreover, in Mr. W.H., a picture is painted of Shakespeare as an
incredibly altruistic person, who puts up with the whims of his young lover Willie Hughes, as
someone with an inexhaustible reserve of patience. This is not unlike the way Wilde himself
pandered to all of Bosie’s whims. Ultimately, this leaded to how Wilde projected himself on
Shakespeare, which shows from his defense speech when he can no longer hide behind his art.
From Dorian Gray, The Portrait and his testimony in court, it shows that Wilde saw
no harm in the relation between an older and a younger man. Moreover, he considered it
intellectual and noble and he saw artists like Shakespeare and Michelangelo as a kind of
“predecessors”. He shared their admiration for beautiful young men and saw those boys as a
source of inspiration for his art. This does not mean that Wilde admitted at any point that he
was in fact guilty of the accusations that were made against him during his criminal trials. In
The Portrait of Mr. W.H. an interesting insight is given which seems to reveal the essence of
why Wilde was so fond of using Shakespeare:
It is no doubt true that to be filled with an absorbing passion is to surrender the
security of one’s lover life, and yet in such surrender there may be gain, certainly there
was for Shakespeare. (187)
This quote refers to Shakespeare’s endless patience with Willie Hughes, which can be blamed
on the love that Shakespeare felt for the boy. As mentioned before, Wilde must have
recognized his relationship with Lord Alfred in this, though he seems to find something
beautiful in this devotion, and by it he gains an intimate friendship – in the Montaigneian
sense of the word - even though he has to surrender to his lover’s whims.
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