Ed Cohen


On 28 February 1895 Oscar Wilde arrived at his club, the Albemarle, after an absence of several weeks and was presented with an envelope containing the Marquis of Queensberry's calling card. On the back of the card were scrawled the words: "For Oscar Wilde Posing as a Somdomite [sic]." As the culmination of months of harassment by the Scottish aristocrat - who objected to Wilde's intimacy with his youngest son, Lord Alfred Douglas-the short text so incensed Wilde that it incited him to instigate legal action against its author. Filing charges under the 1843 Criminal Libel Act (6 and 7 Vict. I, c. 96), Wilde's legal representatives asked the court to interpret the marquis's text as a verbal attack upon his person and to hold its author criminally responsible for the consequences of his writing. Unfortunately for Wilde, the statute invoked on his behalf allowed the accused party a unique form of rejoinder: the defendant could assert his innocence by placing a competing interpretation of the alleged libel before the court - in what was termed a "plea of justification" - which sought to prove that the offending statement was both "true" and "published for the public benefit." If the court verified that both these conditions obtained, then the defendant would be deemed innocent of the charge and the libel found to be legally substantiated. Needless to say, the Marquis of Queensberry's lawyers quickly countercharged that such was the case. This defense tactic effectively transformed the legal proceeding in Wilde v. Queensberry into an interpretive contest both for determining the text's "true" meaning and for assessing its social significance. Hence, what was at stake in the proceedings of Wilde v. Queensberry was not simply whether or not the writing on the Marquis of Queensberry's card constituted a libel against Wilde, but also what it meant "to pose as a sodomite," whether Wilde had done so, and if publishing the knowledge of such a "pose" was in the public interest.

Framed by the tenor of these questions, the trial necessarily foregrounded the specificity of the phrase "posing as a sodomite." Since the contested statement did not actually accuse Wilde of "sodomy" - or of being a sodomite - for which a strict standard of legal proof (i.e., proof of penetration) would have been required, the defense sought instead to show that Wilde was the kind of person--or at least that he had (re)presented himself as the kind of person-who would be inclined to commit sodomy. In support of this personification, the plea of justification tried to shift the legal focus on sodomy away from its traditional status as a criminally punishable sexual act so that it became in the defense's construction a defining characteristic of a type of sexual actor (the "sodomite"). In order to provide a credible standard of proof for this characterological claim, the defense's plea of justification listed thirteen allegations that "Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde . ..did solicit and incite ... [another male person] to commit sodomy and other acts of gross indecency." Here, playing upon the indeterminacy introduced by the word "posing," the defense interpretation subsumed the specific cultural and legal history evoked by the word "sodomy" with the newer, relatively unknown category, "acts of gross indecency," metonymically subsuming the former within the behavioral penumbra of the latter. Thus, even as the defense plea displaces "sodomy's" historical privilege as the sole basis for criminalizing sexual acts between men and constitutes it as one of a number of "other acts of gross indecency," the earlier concept is simultaneously recouped by the defense plea as the legitimating criterion through which a much wider variety of "indecent" relationships between men can be brought within the legal purview.