In 1895, the playwright and wit Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) was prosecuted for ‘acts of gross indecency’ with other men. Parts of his trial were covered in newspapers of the day, but because of British censorship laws, this fuller account was not published in English until 1906. Even then, it was printed in Paris, ‘For Private Circulation Only’.

It contains Wilde’s passionate defence of ‘the love that dare not speak its name’ – a phrase which has become famous. Wilde celebrated the ‘deep spiritual affection’ between ‘an elder and younger man … such as was sung in the sonnets of Shakespeare and Michael Angelo’. His speech prompted a ‘medley of applause and hisses’ from the court gallery (p. 58).

What’s special about this copy?

This copy of The Trial of Oscar Wilde by Charles Grolleau is part of a limited edition of 500 books printed on handmade paper. There were also 50 more copies entitled The Shame of Oscar Wilde printed on Japanese vellum. Grolleau claims that his book is compiled ‘from the shorthand reports’, but critics have pointed out that this is a much condensed version of what actually happened in court.

What was the background to the trial?

In 1895, Wilde was enjoying widespread fame with comedies such as The Importance of Being Earnest. He was also having a love affair with the young Lord Alfred Douglas. In February 1895, Douglas's father, the Marquis of Queensberry, accused Wilde of being a ‘somdomite’ [sic]. Wilde sued Queensberry for libel and lost, in a trial at the Old Bailey on 3–5 April.

Another trial was then ordered to prosecute Wilde, since male homosexuality was criminalised at the time. This trial started on 26 April, and Wilde took the stand on the fourth day. A final trial took place on 22–25 May, when Wilde was sentenced to two years in prison.

‘The love that dare not speak its name’: Oscar Wilde and Shakespeare’s Sonnets

In these trials, Wilde mentioned Shakespeare’s Sonnets several times to describe his poetic exchanges with Lord Alfred. On 30 April, he made his famous speech about ‘the love that dare not speak its name’, in response to a question about how he understood that phrase in a sonnet by Lord Alfred (pp. 57–60).

In the final days of the last trial, Wilde was asked about the decency of his own ‘prose-poem letter’ to Lord Alfred. Wilde answered, ‘It was like a sonnet of Shakespeare. It was a fantastic, extravagant way of writing to a young man’ (pp. 100–01).

Wilde’s interest in the Sonnets marked a new stage in their critical history. It forced readers to engage with the homoeroticism of William Shakespeare’s poems to his ‘fair youth’, or explicitly deny it.