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The Importance of Being Earnest is one of Wilde's most famous plays and still commands the affection of the public through its cinematic adaptations; most recently with Reece Witherspoon and Colin Firth. In Earnest, Wilde uses a mixture of social drama; popular at the time and other popular but less politically engaged forms such as melodrama and farce. The use of gentle parody is probably what protected Wilde from the more biting attacks aimed at his contemporaries such as Henrik Ibsen and Thomas Hardy who commented to similar effect on the values and attitudes of Victorian society. Within the drama Wilde manages to satirise the values that many still believed were the very reason for the great triumphs of Victorian Britain on the world stage. These were the ideas of respectability, self sacrifice, moral rectitude and high mindedness that were closely associated with the Victorian aristocracy. Little by little however Wilde reveals all these to be simply elements of an elaborate mask worn by the ruling elites, behind which each is engaged in precisely the opposite modes of behaviour. In short the principle characters will go to any lengths to avoid their responsibilities and place self interest at the top of their own agendas. Through the literary techniques of dramatic irony parody and reversals Wilde reveals the moral hypocrisy at the heart of the Victorian establishment.
Submitted by Julian Singer Lecturer in English Literature at City College Plymouth.
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