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Oscar Wilde | Biography

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Family and Education

Born on October 16, 1854, in Dublin, Ireland, Oscar Wilde lived a life that was in many ways as colorful and dramatic as the characters he invented. He came from an established and well-respected family in which his mother was an accomplished poet and translator, and his father was a doctor who was knighted for his service in the Irish census. An uncle also served in the Irish Parliament.

Wilde received a first-rate education, attending Portora Royal School, Trinity College Dublin, and then Oxford. He won honors at each institution, first for his scholarship and then for his writing. After graduating Wilde began a varied literary career that was at first very successful and then highly notorious. Wilde published poetry, criticism, fiction (including fairy tales), and plays. While some of his poetry and fairy tales are still read, it was his work in the other three genres that won him literary immortality. Essays such as "The Decay of Lying" (1889) and "The Critic as Artist" (1891) make their cases through conversations among paired selves representing different components of an argument, a structure Wilde followed both in his most famous play, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), and in his one novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Wilde and Theater

Oscar Wilde started writing plays when he was just 25. His earliest plays were tragedies and were not well received. Wilde became much more successful when he turned to writing comedies. The first of these, Lady Windermere's Fan (1892), was Wilde's first truly popular play. Like his most famous play The Importance of Being Earnest, it uses a number of conventions common to period drama, such as a case of mistaken identity and a child who is returned to its rightful parents. The second, A Woman of No Importance (1893), was a satire of the English upper class written specifically to build on the success of Lady Windermere's Fan. Both plays derived their power and humor mainly from the witty lines Wilde wrote for the various characters more than from the originality of plot or situation. The first staging of An Ideal Husband took place in January 1895, shortly before a scandal broke that defined the remaining years of Wilde's life.

Wilde's Personal Life and Tragic End

Though Wilde married and had children, his homosexual relationships—illegal in London, England, in the late 1890s—ultimately played a larger role in shaping his life. When he had an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, the son of the Marquis of Queensberry, the marquis made Wilde's homosexuality public. In response Wilde sued him for libel. This action proved disastrous for Wilde. Considerable evidence of Wilde's homosexuality was publicized, and the libel suit was dismissed. Wilde was put on trial and sent to prison for two years for "gross indecency" starting May 25, 1895. When he got out, Wilde had lost his health, money, and artistic focus. He wrote very little and died on November 30, 1900.

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