Algernon: “Oh! I am not really wicked at all, cousin Cecily. You mustn’t think that I am wicked.”

Cecily: “If you are not, then you have certainly been deceiving us all in a very inexcusable manner. I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time. That would be hypocrisy.”

This exchange between Algernon and Cecily occurs in Act 2 when Algernon, who is presenting himself as Jack’s brother Ernest, is shown into the garden. He greets Cecily, calling her his “little cousin,” and she greets him as “my wicked cousin Ernest.” The moral status of Jack’s fictional brother has undergone a change between Acts 1 and 2. At Algernon’s flat in Half Moon Street, “Ernest” was merely “profligate” (Algernon’s word). To use Jack’s terminology, he got into “scrapes,” which is to say “jams” or mischief. Precisely what Jack considers a “scrape” isn’t made clear in Act 1. They are, however, something Algernon is fond of. When Jack warns him that Bunbury may get him into “a serious scrape some day,” Algernon replies, “I love scrapes. They are the only things that are never serious.”

Once the action moves to the garden of the Manor House, where Miss Prism’s moral viewpoint seems to hold sway, Jack’s brother graduates to “unfortunate,” “bad,” and downright “wicked.” Cecily yearns to meet a “really wicked” person, she says. The moment before Algernon enters, she soliloquizes that she’s terrified “he will look just like everyone else.”

This open interest in the idea of immorality is what takes Cecily out of the realm of Victorian hypocrisy and makes her a suitable love interest for Algernon. Her notion that if Jack’s brother is not really wicked he has been “deceiving us all in a very inexcusable manner” turns the plot of the play on its head. She goes on to define hypocrisy as “pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time.” It isn’t, of course. It is the opposite of hypocrisy. In fact, it is the creed of the Wildean dandy-hero.