I) The Riddle of “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.”

“The Portrait of Mr. W. H.” is one of the most confounding and misunderstood of Oscar Wilde’s works. It has been read as a parody, serious literary criticism, and as a key to understanding Wilde’s homosexuality. It is in many ways the most atypical and unclassifiable work he wrote, but it also fits well into Wilde’s oeuvre and expands on and plays with ideas that he would explore elsewhere. In fact, as a bizarre hybrid of short story and critical essay, it sits at an interesting crossroads between Wilde’s creative work and his critical work.

The history of this story is as complex and elliptical as the story itself. It was originally published in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1889, the same year as the magazine version of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Two years later, it was collected in Wilde’s short story collection Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories. The version that appeared in both the magazine and in Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime was approximately 12,000 words and divided into three sections.

In its original version, “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.” is a rather straightforward comical mystery, in the style of the other stories in Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories. In the story, an unnamed narrator learns from his friend Erksine of a theory of Shakespeare’s sonnets formulated by Erksine’s friend Cyril Graham. Graham’s theory is that the mysterious “Mr. W.H.” that the sonnets were supposedly addressed to was a boy player in Shakespeare’s company named Willie Hughes. Though Erksine disavows the theory, the narrator becomes obsessed with it and seeks to further prove it. In this version, “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.” is primarily a parody of the excesses of criticism and particularly of the obsessive, semi-idolatrous industry of Shakespearean criticism that grew up in the nineteenth century.

After the story was initially published, Wilde began expanding the story, more than doubling its size to 26,000 words and dividing it into five sections. This longer version is a much more complicated text. While keeping the frame story in place, Wilde greatly deepens the story of the narrator’s obsession with the sonnets, and along the way includes extended ruminations on the nature of art and the Renaissance idea of Neo-Platonic male “friendship” that was an obsession of Wilde’s mentor Walter Pater.

The discussion of Neo-Platonism also includes an extended discourse on the Wildean concept of “personality.” According to the narrator’s theory, Willie Hughes is among that class of young, beautiful men whose overwhelming personality serves as muse for a certain type of aesthetically aware older artist, of which Shakespeare was one. It is the same type of personality that Dorian Gray possesses in the eyes of Basil Hallward. It is also, possibly, the same type of personality that Alfred Douglas possessed for Wilde and Wilde would end up discussing this idea of personality, both as it related to Shakespeare and Dorian Gray, from the witness stand during his trial.

These additions, and the overlaps they have with Wilde’s other works, both critical and creative, and with his personal life, are what take the expanded edition of “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.” out of the realm of pure satire. However, the expanded edition still contains the satirical frame story, and Wilde even includes some additions to it which make it more ridiculous. It is this disjointed combination of elements that makes the longer version such a difficult text.

Further complicating our understanding of the expanded version is its bizarre publishing history and the fact that it was not even made public until more than 20 years after Wilde’s death. The expanded version was originally to be published in 1893 as a stand-alone volume by John Lane and Matthew Erksine, with a frontispiece illustration of the portrait by Wilde’s frequent illustrator Charles Ricketts. It was frequently advertised in Lane and Erksine’s catalog, which appeared in the back of their “Keynote Series” books and their literary magazine The Yellow Book, but was perpetually “In Production.” The delay was further exacerbated by the dissolution of Lane and Erksine’s partnership in 1894. Reportedly, when dividing up their stable of authors, “The Portrait of Mr. W. H.” became a point of contention, as both Lane and Erksine wanted to keep Wilde but neither wanted to published “The Portrait.” Lane, who retained Wilde’s work, eventually canceled the project and returned the manuscript and Ricketts’ portrait to Wilde.

There is speculation that Lane and Erksine were hesitant to publish the expanded version of “The Portrait” because rumors of Wilde’s sexual proclivities were already spreading around the London literary scene. The point became moot the following year, when Wilde was arrested and Lane pulled all of his works from publication. Following the arrest, both the manuscript and Ricketts’ portrait disappeared, probably sold at an auction of Wilde’s belongings.

The manuscript was lost until 1921, when it mysteriously turned up in the possession of the New York publisher Mitchell Kennerly (Ricketts’ portrait was lost and never recovered). Kennerly published the story as a stand-alone volume, but in a limited edition of only 1000 copies. It finally received mass distribution with a British edition in 1958, published by Metheun and featuring an introduction by Wilde’s son Vyvyan Holland.

Though Holland’s introduction is invaluable for being the first to reconstruct the story’s tangled history, it is also the first to complicate its critical history by taking it as a more or less straight critical essay and as representative of Wilde’s true theory on the sonnets. This was exacerbated in 1962 when,  in its first mass printing in the US, it was included in a bizarre volume entitled The Riddle of Shakespeare’s Sonnets in which it was printed alongside serious essays on the sonnets by Northrop Frye and Leslie Fiedler, among others, and apparently taken as serious criticism.

The differing versions and unsure genre classifications continue to be a problem for the work today and have created a confused critical and bibliographical history for the story, as the Annotated Bibliography illustrates. The longer version is included in Richard Ellman’s collection of Wilde’s criticism, The Artist as Critic, while the shorter version is included in Ian Small’s Penguin Classics collection of Wilde’s complete short stories. It is still cited by Shakespeareans as serious criticism, while Wilde scholars have reached wildly different conclusions about. The reaction is so varied that is often seems as if critics are reading entirely different stories. However, as this history indicates, that may be because they actually are.

II) The Aims of This Project

While in jail, “The Portrait of Mr. W. H” was still on Wilde’s mind. He wrote to Ricketts, who by this time was running his own press, and asked him to publish it. When Ricketts questioned the wisdom of publishing it at this particular time, Wilde responded, “Yes, perhaps you are right. Mr W.H. might be imprudent. The English public would have to read Shakespeare’s sonnets” (qtd in Holland xi).

Though this may at first glance seem like just another example of Wilde’s famous insouciance, this quote also leads us back to the mystery at the heart this mystery story. Is this story about Wilde’s homosexuality? Is it about the Sonnets? Can we make any assertions like this with any more certainty than we can say the Sonnets are about Willie Hughes?

In surveying the responses to “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.,” it became obvious that these questions were still largely unresolved, though few critics seem to want to acknowledge as much. It became obvious that being able to talk about the story in an informed way required two things: an understanding of the relationship between the two different versions of the story and an understanding of the relationship between the story and the Sonnets.

Therefore, this project has two purposes. The first is to visually represent the extensive revisions the text underwent from its original published version to the revised version that appeared in 1921. Following the work of other digital humanities projects such as The Enfolded Hamlet, I have used color coding to map out the changes, showing the extensive additions to the revised version, as well as deletions and the text that appears in both versions.

The purpose of tracking these changes is to help us better understand the relationship between the two versions. The additions to the revised version are most notorious for making the homoerotic aspect of the relationship between Shakespeare and Willie Hughes more explicit, but we can see that the additions do far more than that. They also include far more extensive quotations from the sonnets and extended discussions of neo-Platonism and the aesthetics of drama that in many ways resemble Wilde’s ideas on art as expressed in more straightforward critical essays such as “The Truth of Masks.”

The purpose of linking to the sonnets is to allow the reader do as Wilde suggested and read the sonnets alongside the text.  Reading the texts side-by-side, we can see that Wilde’s use of the sonnets, which frequently involves divorcing quotations from their context and interpreting them in very unconventional ways, cannot be classified as serious literary criticism, at least as it is usually defined. However, by seeing the intricate ways Wilde interacts with Shakespeare, it is also hard to simply dismiss it as a parody of bad criticism. Instead, Wilde’s narrator uses Shakespeare’s words as raw materials which are molded into a new, unique work of art. In many ways, the interaction with the text in this story is most analogous to the work of Pater, whose essays on artworks such as the Mona Lisa performed a similar type of creative misreading.

Hopefully, this project will allow readers and scholars to gain a more complete understanding of the complicated ways in which this text works and its place in Wilde’s oeuvre.

Works Cited

Holland, Vyvyan. “Introduction.” The Portrait of Mr. W.H. London: Metheun: 1958.

Hubler, Edward, ed.. The Riddle of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. New York: Basic Books,


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