Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin, the second child of an Irish doctor and an Irish poet and nationalist. His mother's interest in poetry spurred on the young Wilde's interest in it as well. Until he was nine he was educated at home by two governesses, one German and one French, who each taught him their languages. After the age of nine he attended formal schooling at Portora Royal School. When Wilde was 10 his father was knighted. Also when he was 10 his younger sister, Isola, died of meningitis.
In 1871 Wilde entered Trinity College, Dublin, where he studied the classics until 1874. There he became especially interested in Greek literature, thanks in great part to the tutelage of J.P. Mahaffy. He was also a member of the University Philosophical Society, where he was noted for his emergent interest in aestheticism which would characterize his later life. While at Trinity he was an excellent student, maintaining good grades and winning several scholarships and awards, most notably the Berkely Gold Medal, which was the highest award offered by the University for studies in Greek. He also competed for, and won, the demyship for Magdalen College, Oxford.
He attended Magdalen College between 1874 and 1878, and studied Literae Humaniores. He joined the Apollo Masonic Lodge at Oxford, and also seriously considered converting from Protestantism to Catholicism. He almost went through with it, but balked at the last minute. The most notable effect of his time in Oxford was his increasing interest in aestheticism and the decadent movement, decorating his room and dressing in more showy fashions. By his third year he was firmly rooted in the aesthetic culture, and was noted as one of the leading proponents of the movement and lifestyle. He developed during this time his love for art, and his belief that its purpose was the betterment of society. In 1878 Wilde won the Newdigate Award for a poem that he had written, called Ravenna. Also in 1878 he graduated with a double first, which was quite rare, in Classical Moderation and Literae Humaniores.
After graduating he returned to Dublin, but, after his childhood sweetheart married Bram Stoker, returned to London, only briefly visiting Ireland twice in the rest of his life. For the next few years he attempted to gain Classics positions at Oxbridge, and eventually set up in London as a bachelor, as well as travelling through England, America and France giving lectures. In 1881 several of his poems were collected in a book that was quite popular, the first print run even selling out. In 1882 he was invited on a tour of America that was intended to last for four months but ended up taking a whole year as he proved popular among the public. He was criticised by critics opposed to the aesthetic movement, but was otherwise well-received. In 1883 he wrote The Duchess of Padua, and moved to France in the early months of that year based on the expected earnings from that play. In May he returned to England and the lecturing circuit. In 1884 he again met Constance Lloyd, who he had first met in 1881, and the pair were married. They had two sons, one born in 1885 and the other in 1886. Also in 1886, Wilde became involved in his first homosexual affair with Robbie Baldwin, who seduced him at Oxford.
Between 1885 and 1887 he was involved as a journalist and critic with the Pall Mall Gazette, among other notable journals. His reviews during this time period were largely positive, and he was noted for his support of Irish Nationalism, much as his mother had before him. In the middle of 1887 he was the editor The Lady's World, which he renamed The Woman's World. He also drastically altered the content, adding many more articles on parenting and culture, and especially art and fashion. By 1889, however, his interest in and enthusiasm for the magazine had flagged along with sales, and he left to pursue his creative endeavors. His first children's book, The Happy Prince and Other Stories, was published in 1888. This was quickly followed by Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories and The House of the Pomegranate, as well as The Portrait of Mr. W.H., which first appeared in 1889. During this time period he also published many essays and dialogues. Perhaps his most famous story is that of The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was first published in 1890 and which garnered a great deal of notice among literary critics, who did not like the content or decadence of the piece. Wilde defended his work in print, and later edited it and added six more chapters. General consensus is that the plot is exceptional while the novel itself is technically more mediocre.
Wilde's real talent lay in plays. His first well-receive work, Salome, was written in Paris in 1891, though not performed until five years later. In 1892 his first comedy with an undercurrent of social critique, Lady Windermere's Fan, came out. It was well-received by the public, though disliked by conservative critics, and toured the country. His next, A Woman of No Importance came out in 1893, and was similarly popular. He was commissioned to write the third, An Ideal Husband, in 1894. His most famous play, The Importance of Being Earnest, was first performed in February of 1895. It was without a doubt his most popular play at the time, as is largely regarded as the pinnacle of his career, as well as being his chef d'oeuvre.
From about 1891 onwards he was involved in a homosexual affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, who over the next few years introduce Wilde to a number of male prostitutes. In 1895 Alfred's father, the Marquess of Queensberry, publicly insulted Wilde, calling him a "somdomite" [sic]. Wilde, against the advice of his friends and family, had Queensberry charged with libel. Queensberry thus had to prove that the charges were true in order to escape prosecution for libel. Details of Wilde's homosexual activities began to appear in the press before the trial began, and by the time it started in April of 1895 it was a cause celebre that had attracted a great deal of attention to details of Wilde's private life. The presentation of the case in court resulted in Queensberry being found innocent of the charges, and Wilde was left bankrupt after being forced to pay for Queensberry's defense due to the Libel Act 1843.
Immediately after this devastating loss, an arrest warrant was issued for Wilde on charges of gross indecency and sodomy. Friends advised him to flee to France, while his mother advised him to stay and fight. Many of his homosexual friends fled England around this time, including Alfred Douglas. In the end, Wilde was arrested and held in custody until his trial started on April 26th 1895. He pled not guilty, and the first trial ended in an undecided jury. Though some officials wanted to drop the case, it had become too famous, and on May 25th he was sentenced to two years' hard labour, the maximum sentence allowed. Wilde was imprisoned first at Pentonville, then at Wandsworth, both prisons located in London. He grew so sickly in prison that he collapsed in Chapel and burst an eardrum, requiring him to be held in the prison infirmary for two months. In November he was transferred to HM's Prison, Reading. During his time he composed De Profundis, a 50,000-word letter to Alfred Douglas.
In 1867 he was released from prison, physically worse for the wear, but dedicated to what he saw as his spiritual renewal. Almost immediately he went to the continent, where he remained for the rest of his life. He took the name "Sebastian Melmoth" while there, to avoid unwanted attention. During this time he wrote letters advocating penal reform in England. In mid-1897 he wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol, his last great work. It brought him some money. By this time his wife had taken their children and changed their name to "Holland" to prevent association with Wilde. Nonetheless she continued to support him financially. In late August he lived briefly with Alfred Douglas, though this was disapproved of and eventually the pair of them were separated by their families.
His final address was at Hotel d'Alsace, where he spent the remainder of his days in an increasingly weakened state. He had turned to alcohol and taken to wandering the streets alone. He refused to write any more, claiming that he no longed enjoyed it. On 25th November 1900 he developed cerebral meningitis, probably resulting from the burst ear drum he had sustained in prison. On the 29th he was baptised into the Catholic Church. On November 30th, 1900 Oscar Wilde died at 46 years of age.