Sir Robert Chiltern
At the start of the play Sir Robert Chiltern is the "ideal husband" who gives the play its title. He is 40 years old, clean cut, and good-looking. In Act 1 he is proud of himself and all he has done in his career and for his country. He is also content with and proud of his marriage. However, his career rests upon a secret: when he was just starting out he sold a government secret illegally to a speculator, who used it to make himself and Sir Robert a lot of money. He is therefore not nearly as pure as he would claim, or as strong: when Mrs. Cheveley, a blackmailer, threatens to expose his secret if he doesn't do what she wants, he crumbles quickly. When he asks his friend Lord Goring for help with the situation, he spends a lot of time justifying his actions. Instead of telling his wife the truth, he initially conceals it from her. Sir Robert is a good man but he has, as he himself points out, "feet of clay." Sir Robert is both honorable in his career, his politics, and his love for his wife but dishonorable in his criminal past and the way he has lied about it. The tension between these opposites form his character and challenge the audience to consider what it means to be flawed. British audiences might recognize something in Sir Robert's name that American audiences would not. Members of Parliament cannot technically resign their posts. Instead they take a paid government position, which disqualifies them to serve. The term for this is "taking the Chiltern Hundreds." Chiltern's last name would by itself signal a character who will have to resign from the government in disgrace.
Wilde describes 27-year-old Lady Gertrude Chiltern as having a "Greek beauty." She loves her husband, but she also loves the idea of her husband, who she believes is beyond moral reproach. She loves his success and his reputation as an ethical statesman. She has held to strict ethical standards since she was young, but circumstances challenge her in this play, forcing her to change her insistence on moral purity. When she first learns her husband isn't as perfect as she had thought, Lady Chiltern essentially threatens to leave him. Later she must find a way to love him despite his flaws, which she does. Along the way she discovers that she herself is capable of moral flaws and that forgiveness of others' moral shortcomings is, in itself, a virtue. Lady Chiltern also represents a more traditional view of women: in the end she forgives her husband in order to allow him to fulfill his ambitions.
Mrs. Laura Cheveley is the play's villain. She is continually bad but also multilayered. She enjoys flirtation and values money and social connections. However, she is also good-looking and charming enough that she and Lord Goring had planned to marry once upon a time. She pulls off some of the play's wittiest observations. Her primary crime in the play is attempting to blackmail Sir Robert so she can make a lot of money on the Argentine Canal scheme. However, there are other crimes in her past. She stole a diamond brooch from Lord Goring's cousin Mary Berkshire and was expelled from school for theft when she was young. Mrs. Cheveley is openly out for her own good and doesn't try to hide it, although her means are underhanded. While she clearly lusts after money and material goods, she sometimes has other goals in mind. When she attempts to blackmail Sir Robert, she is after more than money. She despises Lady Chiltern's attitude of moral purity and therefore superiority. Blackmailing Sir Robert, who wants to hide his dirty dealings in the past from his clean-minded wife, gives Mrs. Cheveley an opportunity to disrupt the Chilterns' marriage by exposing its underlying moral hypocrisy. This would give her as much satisfaction as making a financial profit from the transaction.
Lord Arthur Goring, also known as Viscount Goring, is 34 years old. Handsome and intelligent, he lives a life of pleasure and idleness as a dandy, devoting himself to the latest styles and fashions. This often makes him appear superficial, but while Wilde's stage directions say he plays at life, in reality he alternates between being verbally playful, often with Mabel Chiltern or his father, Lord Caversham, and being quite serious and direct. In this respect he is one of the play's most paradoxical characters. While his superficiality and seriousness appear contradictory, they are, in fact, attributes shared by one person. Lord Goring says provocative things and plays with social conventions. More than one critic has seen Goring as Wilde's mouthpiece in this play because his verbal style, packed with witty epigrams, so closely resembles the author's. However, in action Lord Goring is very much the play's hero. He gives Sir Robert good advice when his friend comes to him in trouble, helps Lady Chiltern, and acts boldly to retrieve the letter Mrs. Cheveley uses to blackmail Sir Robert. Wilde rewards Goring's heroism by marrying him off to his true love (Mabel Chiltern) at the end of the play.
Wilde's first descriptions of Mabel Chiltern, Sir Robert's sister, make her sound not just young but innocent, even naive. However, throughout the play she proves herself witty, and in her own way a skilled manipulator. She charms and redirects Lord Caversham at will. She's aware of Lord Goring's love for her before he is, and matches him comment for witty comment. She even, at the very end of the play, rejects the idea of an ideal husband, seeking to craft a realistic and functional relationship with Lord Goring instead.