Note: Critics often describe Wilde's characters as one-dimensional. This uni-dimensionality is on the one hand an effect of Wilde's borrowing from stock characters of the popular theater and, as discussed in the Context, his emphasis on artifice on the other. Notably, with regards to the latter, Wilde introduces his characters through playful references to art objects and aesthetic stereotypes. We will report on his characters accordingly.
Sir Robert is the play's "tragic" hero, a government official who owes his success and fortune to secret scandal. As the stage notes indicate, Sir Robert is a "personality of mark" with a manner of impeccable distinction; the contrast between his chiseled jaw and romantic eyes suggests a violently willed separation of thought and emotion in his personality. Sir Robert suffers from certain divided loyalties as well. Extremely ambitious, Sir Robert remains tied, even at present, to his mentor Baron Arnheim' s gospels of wealth and power, gospels that emphasize the domination of others over all else. On the other hand, love has driven him to hide his past in the desperate hope of remaining the ideal husband to his wife. Conscious of what his success has c ost him, Sir Robert suffers from a decidedly nervous and harried temperament.
A woman of grave Greek beauty and twenty-seven years of age, Lady Chiltern embodies the Victorian new woman: upright, virtuous, educated, politically engaged, and active in her husband's career. She is the play's sentimental heroine, a sort of moral absol utist who worships her ideal husband and cannot brook the revelation of his secret past. In terms of Wilde's other plays, Lady Chiltern recalls the puritanical Lady Windermere.
One of the play's wittiest and most well dressed characters, Mrs. Cheveley is the vicious and opportunistic villainness, a disciple of the deceased Baron Arnheim who values wealth and power above all. She stands as foil to the virtuous and earnest Lady Ch iltern, being cast throughout the play as a sort of monstrous femme fatale. Notably, Mrs. Cheveley is continuously imagined as the product of "horrid combinations" that evoke her duplicity. To take a few examples of how the play constructs her dou ble-dealing: one character in Act I describes her as the "unnatural" union of daytime genius and nighttime beauty. More viciously, Act III describes her as lamia-like—that is, reminiscent of a female demon, half woman and half snake. One could perha ps draw parallels between Mrs. Cheveley and the adventuresome Mrs. Erlynne from Lady Windermere's Fan.
Of impeccable dress and inimitable wit, Lord Goring is the play's thirty-something dandified philosopher, an idle aristocrat who serves as a thinly veiled double for Wilde himself. Irreverent, wry, and dangerously clever, Goring "plays with the world" and in doing so rejects ideals of duty, respectability, and responsibility. As with Wilde's other dandies, he functions as a figure for modern art of living and the aestheticist creed, particularly in his encounters with his stuffy father, Lord Caversham . Expounding a philosophy of love and forgiveness, Goring also figures as savior and helpmate to the Chilterns, teaching Lady Chiltern in particular of the dangers in idealizing one's husband. In terms of Wilde's other plays, Goring recalls the dandified Lord Illingworth in A Woman of No Importance.
An exemplar of English prettiness, Mabel, Sir Robert's younger sister, embodies what Wilde describes as the "fascinating tyranny of youth" and "astonishing courage of innocence." Pert and clever, Mabel flirtatiously matches Lord Goring's wit throughout t he play and their somewhat unconventional union serves as a foil to the other marriages and would-be engagements that compose the plot. Mabel acts much like Cecily in The Importance of Being Earnest.
Father to Lord Goring, Lord Caversham, described as a "fine Whig type," is a stuffy, serious, and respectable gentleman who is firmly opposed to the excesses of his dandified son. Continually he urges his son to marry and adopt a career, posing Sir Robert as model. Caversham appears as a figure for the old-fashioned against a son who makes and masters the art of modern living.
A pleasant and popular woman with "gray hair à la marquise and good lace," Lady Markby appears at the dinner party in Act I and visits Lady Chiltern in II, both times with Mrs. Cheveley in arm. Lady Markby is emblematic of an older generation of So ciety women, bemoaning the effect of politics and the higher education of women on married life. In this sense, she counterpoises the Victorian new woman embodied by Lady Chiltern.
Lady Basildon and Mrs. Marchmont are described as "types of exquisite fragility" with an affection of manner of delicate charm, ideal subjects for the French Rococo painter Watteau. Never developed into major characters, these women frivolously banter on a number of topics throughout Act I; notable ones include the dreariness of politics, being serious, education, and so on. Like Watteau's figures, they are perhaps more decorative than anything else, though—as the insightfulness of their conversatio ns suggests—one can never underestimate the decorative on Wilde's stage.
Vicomte de Nanjac, attaché at the French Embassy in London, is a young man famous for his ties and Anglomania. He appears in Act I at Sir Robert's dinner party as a sort of comic figure, his malapropisms and awkward speech posed against the polishe d repartee of the other guests.
A "perfectly groomed" young dandy and secretary to Sir Robert. He appears briefly in Act I and escorts Mrs. Marchmont to dinner.
A "mask with a manner" who serves Lord Goring. Phipps is the ideal butler. Absolutely impassive, he reveals nothing of his intellect or emotions and "represents the dominance of form." Phipps appears briefly at the beginning of Act IV in a comic interlud e with Lord Goring.
A minor character, James is Lord Goring's footman and appears to show Mrs. Cheveley into Lord Goring's library in Act III and withdraws when Phipps gives him a glassy stare.
Butler to Sir Robert Chiltern, Mason is another minor character who announces each guest at the dinner party in Act I.
Sir Robert's footman. He appears briefly in Act IV.