Abstract: I examine Wilde’s Hellenism in terms of the specific texts, editions and institutions through which he encountered ancient Greece. The late-nineteenth-century professionalisation of classical scholarship and the rise of the new science of archaeology from the 1870s onwards endangered the status of antiquity as a textual source of ideal fictions rather than a material object of positivist study. The major theme of my thesis is Wilde’s relationship with archaeology and his efforts to preserve Greece as an imaginative resource and a model for right conduct.
From his childhood Wilde had accompanied his father Sir William Wilde on digs around Ireland. Sir William’s ethnological interests led him to posit a common racial origin for Celts and Greeks; thus, for Wilde, to read a Greek text was to intuit native affinity. Chapters 1–3 trace his education, his travels in Greece, his involvement with the founding of the Hellenic Society, and his defence of the archaeologically accurate stage spectaculars of the 1880s, arguing that in his close association with supporters of archaeology such as J.P. Mahaffy and George Macmillan Wilde exemplifies the new kind of Hellenist opposed by Benjamin Jowett and R.C. Jebb.
Chapter 4 makes a case for Wilde’s final repudiation of archaeology and his return to the textual remains of Greek antiquity, present as an intertexual resource in his mature works. Thus I examine the role of Aristotle’s Ethics in 'The Soul of Man Under Socialism’ and of Platonism in the critical dialogues, The Picture of Dorian Gray and ‘The Portrait of Mr W.H.’ I present The Importance of Being Earnest as a self-conscious exercise in the New Comedy of Menander, concluding that Wilde ultimately returned to the anachronistic eclecticism of the Renaissance attitude to ancient texts.