Libelling Oscar Wilde: The case of Regina vs. John Sholto Douglas

Archer, Dawn Elizabeth (2011) Libelling Oscar Wilde: The case of Regina vs. John Sholto Douglas. Journal of Politeness Research, 7 (1). pp. 73-99. ISSN 1613-4877

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This paper explores the 1895 libel trial between Oscar Wilde (literary personality) and the Marquis of Queensbury (father of Wilde's close friend). Focussing on the lead defence counsel's cross-examination of Wilde (plaintiff), I demonstrate that Carson's FTAs are “aggressive” and, in some cases, “deliberately” so (cf. Bousfield, Impoliteness in interaction, John Benjamins, 2008: 72). However, as they do not breach the rules of the courtroom or involve an overt “intent to harm” (Goffman, Interaction ritual: Essays on face-to-face behaviour, Pantheon Books, 1967: 14), I argue that they do not constitute impoliteness. I further argue that Carson's FTAs should not be considered “incidental” in nature, given they were more planned and more anticipated than Goffman's (Interaction ritual: Essays on face-to-face behaviour, Pantheon Books, 1967: 14) definition seems to allow, and thus suggest that Carson's FTAs be recognized as sitting somewhere between Goffman's intentional or incidental levels – thanks, in part, to their manipulation of multiple goals (Penman, Facework and politeness: Multiple goals in courtroom discourse, Multilingual Matters Ltd., 1990) – in what I have labelled the ambiguous-as-to-speaker-intent zone (Archer under review). I also demonstrate Carson's use/manipulation of representational frames and reality paradigms so as to emphasize Wilde's moral “deviance”. In brief, a reality paradigm equates to “the systems of beliefs [and] values … by reference to which a person or a society comprehends the world” (Fowler, Linguistic criticism, Oxford University Press, 1986: 130), and representational frames, to the way(s) in which interlocutors opt to “represent the character traits, ideas and opinions of and even statements made by others” (Locher and Watts, Relational work and impoliteness: Negotiating norms of linguistic behaviour, Mouton de Gruyter, 2008: 99, n9). I conclude by responding to two questions highlighted by my investigation: (1) Should we be talking about impoliteness in the courtroom (even when investigating the cross-examination phase)? and (2) To what extent can our understanding of facework be enhanced, in both a courtroom context and more generally, via a consideration of reality paradigms (and their strategic manipulation)?

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