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  • Wilde and Shakespeare in Shaw's You Never Can Tell
  • John A. Bertolini (bio)

The friendly rivalry between Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde began when the two exchanged gift volumes of Widowers' Houses and Lady Windermere's Fan and continued until Shaw reviewed The Importance of Being Earnest.1 Wilde took exception to Shaw's theory that Earnest must have been an old play dusted off by Wilde. As evidence to support his guess, Shaw suggested the Gilbertian heartlessness of the play combined with its triple-decker title. Clearly Shaw was disturbed by the play's exemplification of a perfect "art for art's sake" aesthetic, divorced from social, political, or philosophical concerns. The play's perfection of form, in which not a scintilla of sentiment disturbs the immaculately trivial surface of the play, presented Shaw with an alternative to Ibsen that was strong enough a temptation to provoke from Shaw a formidable line of defense, first in his potentially insulting review and then later, after Wilde was away in prison, in You Never Can Tell, a play meant to displace Earnest from Shaw's path.

As Ellmann and others have explained, Wilde's Salome allegorizes Wilde's own internal division between the paths laid out by two of his mentors in aesthetics, Ruskin and Pater, in the eponymous heroine's trap between Jokanaan's attractiveness and Herod's power over her.2 Just as Ruskin asserted a moralized aesthetic in which beauty of form serves meaning, Pater asserted an aesthetic free of all contingencies but a fidelity to its own harmony. Wilde fought against Pater's dominance but succumbed to it at least in his public stances: "An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style," Wilde announces in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray. In other words, Wilde espoused an aestheticization of morality. Shaw had detected just this tendency, for in his review of Wilde's An Ideal Husband, Shaw suggests that Wilde played "with everything: with wit, with philosophy, with drama."3 But Shaw believed Wilde to be playing with them to an end. In Earnest the playing had become an end in itself. [End Page 156]

Just as importantly, through Salome's capacity to use language as imagination to alter reality in her mind, Wilde asserted his own propensity toward radical subjectivity. When Salome's desires clash with Jokanaan's self-circumscription, she asserts an alternative reality that exists in her own mind and nowhere else. Not since Shakespeare's Richard II conjured England's earth to impede Bolingbroke's rebellious progress with stinging nettles has a character in British drama believed so in the power of words over reality. In between Salome and Earnest, Wilde had written three social comedies (Lady Windermere's Fan, A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband ) that are essentially the same play rewritten, a verbal ballet for a puritanical young woman, a dandy (who can be either a hero or villain, older or younger), a leading man (who is idealized, or flawed, or both), and an older woman (who is either a villain or a flawed saint). Each of the three plays also provides a witty critique of the shallow values of contemporary society. But with Earnest, Wilde reasserts the radical subjectivity of Salome, this time through a new form of his social comedies in which all ties to the logic and solidity of the real world are loosened so thoroughly that the play seems to take place in its own world.

Shaw had seen Wilde doing exactly what he himself was drawn to do with his own plays. Wilde had asserted in De Profundis: "I took the drama, the most objective form known to art, and made it as personal a mode of expression as the lyric or the sonnet."4 Indeed that is exactly what he did. He asserted a radical subjectivity for art, the rendition of a subjective point of view—the artist's personality, individual style, and idiosyncratic view of the world—through the medium of drama in which the writer himself does not speak in his own voice except insofar as form, dialogue, action, and character express the author...


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pp. 156-164
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