Wilde's plays are often read for their witty epigrams; indeed, these epigrams are what make his plays "subversive." "Wit" is defined here as the quality of speech that consists in apt associations that surprise and delight or the utterance of brilliant things in an amusing fashion; the epigram is a brief, pointed, and often antithetical saying that contains an unexpected change of thought or biting comment.
Delivered in a social intercourse that consists of rapid-fire repartee, the tone of Wilde's epigrams are often "half-serious," playing on the potential for the listener's misunderstanding—for example, taking a phrase literally, too seriously, or not seriously enough. Rhetorically, they tend to involve a combination of devices: the reversal of conventionally paired terms, irony, sarcasm, hyperbole, and paradox. Take then, for example, Lord Goring's rejoinder to his father, Lord Caversham, when the latter accuses him of talking about nothing: "I love talking about nothing, father. It is the only thing I know anything about." At one level, Goring's epigram is clearly sarcastic; at another, it is paradoxical, as in a sense one cannot know anything about nothing. The epigram also shifts between conventionally valorized terms: whereas most people would hope to have something substantive to talk about, Goring loves to talk about nothing.
As one might imagine, the "threat" in these games of rhetoric is the concomitant shift in the values—aesthetic, ethical, philosophical, or otherwise—taken up in conversation. Consequently, the apparently frivolous epigram becomes the primary vehicle by which the play mocks the values and mores of the contemporary popular stage.
The Melodramatic Speech
In contrast to its witty, epigrammatic banter, An Ideal Husband also makes extensive use of the melodramatic speech. Such speeches reflect more conventional dialogue from the Victorian popular stage. Notable examples include Lady Chiltern's plea to Sir Robert at the end of Act I, their confrontation in Act II, and reconciliation in Act IV. These rousing speeches—far longer in length than most of the dialogue—involve innumerable apostrophes ("Oh my love!" and so on), exclamations, and lyrical entreaties. Laden with pathos, they radically transform the tone and mood found in the scenes involving epigrammatic banter, representing moments in which poised and polished characters find themselves overcome with sentiment. If the epigram is the means by which the play subverts thematic conventions, the melodramatic speech tends to reaffirm it, serving as vehicle for the play's pronouncements on love and marital life.
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