Oscar Wilde’s Portrait of W. H.

This was a really neat little story about a seductive literary theory, which unfortunately lacks hard evidence.  The theory, that William Shakespeare dedicated most of his sonnets to a young actor in his company named Willie Hughes (of whose existence there is no proof), inspires one man to commit fraud, commissioning a forged painting to prove the actor’s existence, and then commit suicide.   Another man takes up the theory, tries to prove it, fails, and then another man as well.

Most of the story is dedicated to the tying together of the threads of the theory with quotations from plays and poems, all very tenuous but very compelling evidence.

The entire story seems to me to be a very good analogy of the project of literary analysis: are scholars dedicated to finding fact, or in proving a pet theory, however far-fetched?  And will they manipulate evidence in order to prove it?  Also, sadly, is the literary profession hopeless…one that can just drive one to the brink of suicide?

I can see something in this point of critique.

But beyond this layer of criticism, Wilde adds an ironic element to this story about literary fraud by plagiarizing actual literary theorists in this work.  But why does Wilde do this?  Is it to further point out the ridiculousness of literary analysis, saying that  all analysis, even real analysis is fraud?  Is he insulting these specific authors by comparing them directly to the work of obsessive and desperate men?  Is it carelessness?  Is it because he  had a different sort of conception of literary property, as he sometimes claimed?  Did the fact that his work was a story and the “borrowed” works were from nonfiction have anything to do with it?

Paul Saint-Amour claims he injected plagiarism into this work as a way of “collaps[ing] theory into theater” because the story is a stort of “parable of literary property.”

I don’t quite see this – though this could certainly be a parable of many sorts, I don’t see the work as a parable of literary property, copyright and/or the ownership of Shakespeare’s works are not in question.  The obsessed gentleman researcher was not in any danger of overtaking and “possessing” the dominant view of Shakespeare, when the conflict was his struggle to find enough verification to publish on the subject at all.  Also, though the portrait was a fraud but the artist was paid for his work, and he was in on the scheme.  If Wilde was making a comment with this story, I think its on the obsessive-compulsive nature of literary analysis.

But where does his plagiarism fall into this critique?

I am less of the opinion that Wilde was making an active statement by plagiarizing.  After all, this work was not the only one he plagiarized in.  He plagiarized in a few of his essays, and in long descriptions in Chapter 11 of Dorian Gray, and those essays and story did not have a similar theme of critique.  I think good Old Oscar did know what he was doing, he plagiarized for dramatic affect, as an ironic gesture, maybe even as good poke in the ribs to the musty old literary scholars, too. But we shouldn’t take his action as a sign of a serious statement about the subversion of intellectual property.   Besides, this was the guy that said, ” Art never expresses anything but itself.

This isn’t to say that he didn’t use plagiarism for a purpose – I’ve got my theories on that – but I’m thinking that it wasn’t so much (if at all) a political purpose, as an artistic one.

Things to remember: ironic use of plagiarism, come back to research exactly which sections are plagiarized.

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