Kathleen Riley

Oscar Wilde and Classical Antiquity

Oxford University Press
Published 2017
ISBN: 9780198789260

Edited by Kathleen Riley, Alastair J. L. Blanshard, and Iarla Manny

Few authors of the Victorian period were as immersed in classical learning as Oscar Wilde. Although famous now and during his lifetime as a wit, aesthete, and master epigrammist, Wilde distinguished himself early on as a talented classical scholar, studying at Trinity College Dublin and Oxford and winning academic prizes and distinctions at both institutions. His undergraduate notebooks as well as his essays and articles on ancient topics reveal a mind engrossed in problems in classical scholarship and fascinated by the relationship between ancient and modern thought. His first publications were English translations of classical texts and even after he had ‘left Parnassus for Piccadilly’ antiquity continued to provide him with a critical vocabulary in which he could express himself and his aestheticism, and a compelling set of narratives to fire his artist’s imagination. His debt to Greece and Rome is evident throughout his writings, from the sparkling wit of society plays like The Importance of Being Earnest to the extraordinary meditation on suffering that is De Profundis, written during his incarceration in Reading Gaol.

Oscar Wilde and Classical Antiquity brings together scholars from across the disciplines of classics, English literature, theatre and performance studies, and the history of ideas to explore the varied and profound impact that Graeco-Roman antiquity had on Wilde’s life and work. This wide-ranging collection covers all the major genres of his literary output; it includes new perspectives on his most celebrated and canonical texts and close analyses of unpublished material, revealing as never before the enduring breadth and depth of his love affair with the classics.

Table of Contents

Foreword, Edward Petherbridge
List of Illustrations
List of Contributors
Introduction: Taking Parnassus to Piccadilly, Kathleen Riley
1: Mahaffy and Wilde: A Study in Provocation, Alastair J. L. Blanshard
2: How Wilde Read John Addington Symonds’s Studies of the Greek Poets, Gideon Nisbet
3: ‘Very fine & Semitic’: Wilde’s Herodotus, Iain Ross
4: Wilde’s Abstractions: Notes on Literæ Humaniores, 1876-8, Joseph Bristow
5: Beyond Sculpture: Wilde’s Responses to Greek Theatre in the 1880s, John Stokes
6: Wilde and the Emergence of Literary Drama, 1880-95, Clare L. E. Foster
7: ‘Tragedy in the disguise of mirth’: Robert Browning, George Eliot, and Wilde, Isobel Hurst
8: Death by Unrequited Eros: Salome, Hippolytus, and Wilde’s Inversion of Tragedy, Kostas Boyiopoulos
9: Imagining Utopia: Oxford Hellenism and the Aesthetic Alternative, Leanne Grech
10: ‘All the terrible beauty of a Greek tragedy’: Wilde’s ‘Epistola’ and the Euripidean Christ, Kathleen Riley
11: Burning with a ‘hard, gem-like flame’: Heraclitus and Hedonism in Wilde’s Writing, Kate Hext
12: Cosmopolitan Classicism: Wilde between Greece and France, Stefano Evangelista
13: Wilde’s New Republic: Platonic Questions in Dorian Gray, Marylu Hill
14: From Eros to Romosexuality: Love and Sex in Dorian Gray, Nikolai Endres
15: Oscar as (Ovid as) Orpheus: Misogyny and Pederasty in Dorian Gray and the Metamorphoses, Iarla Manny
16: Wilde and Roman History, Philip E. Smith II
17: The Criminal Emperors of Ancient Rome and Wilde’s ‘true historical sense’, Shushma Malik
18: ‘I knew I had a brother!’: Fraternity and Identity in Plautus’ Menaechmi and Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Serena S. Witzke


  • ‘The analysis and inclusion of a variety of sources, including unpublished, annotated manuscripts, transcripts, and Wilde’s notebooks, are an invaluable resource and welcome additions to ongoing discussions on Wilde. While the weaknesses of this collection are few, the debates present are original, well-conceived and offer readers a concrete position from which to expand and further consider Wilde’s classicism. .’ – Robert Finnigan, The Review of English Studies
  • ‘This is an excellent and highly recommended contribution to Wildean studies from the perspective of the classical tradition.’ – Pau Gilabert, International Journal of the Classical Tradition
  • ‘This is a highly satisfying book, stimulating, varied, visually appealing, refreshingly jargon-free and exceptionally well edited. All the essays hold interest; some of them are outstanding. … It has much to offer anyone interested in the enigma of Wilde, and one can only admire and be grateful for the impact of a very particu- lar classical education on this exceptionally gifted and unordinary individual.’ – Peter Raby, The Classical Review

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