The Climax (from Salomé ) by Aubrey Beardsley. 1894.
- Play title: Salomé
- Author: Oscar Wilde
- Written (in French): 1891
- First published in English: 1894
- Page count: 65
Salomé is a one-act play by Oscar Wilde based on the biblical story of the death of John the Baptist. Wilde uses considerable poetic license in his version of what was originally a story from the gospels of Saints Matthew (14:1-12) and Mark (6:14-29). The play’s setting is the palace of Herod and the occasion is a banquet to entertain the ambassadors of Caesar. John the Baptist is a prisoner of Herod. In brief, Salomé who is the stepdaughter of Herod, asks for the head of John the Baptist because he has shunned her romantic advances. This tale of beheading is well known, as is the dance of the seven veils that Salomé performs. What makes Wilde’s play quite distinct is the emphasis on symbols, most notably the moon. It is also a decadent piece of literature focusing on the transgression of moral and sexual boundaries. Indeed, the play was originally banned in England, ostensibly as it dramatized a biblical tale but probably also due to the risqué content. The artist, Aubrey Beardsley, supplied sixteen now famous illustrations to accompany the text.
Ways to access the text: Reading/listening.
The full play text is available on Project Gutenberg and includes the illustrations by Beardsley. There are repeat uploads of the text on Gutenberg but a search for “Salomé: A Tragedy in One Act by Oscar Wilde” will return one of the English language versions.
If you would prefer to listen to the play as an audiobook, then I would recommend a version available on YouTube entitled “Salomé by Oscar Wilde – Lester Fletcher”. The running time of this audiobook is 49 minutes so please note that this is an abridged version. However, it is also a professional production and preferable to the many amateur recordings.
Why read/listen to Salomé?
A femme fatale.
Most people are at least vaguely familiar with the story of Saint John the Baptist and the notorious woman who asked for his head on a silver platter. In fact, this biblical story was extremely popular in the 19th century, especially amongst French writers, so Wilde was not alone in revising the tale. However, Wilde depicts Salomé as an especially powerful, narcissistic, dangerous woman who oversteps so many lines that she finally shocks the reader. It is important to note how Wilde’s character is different from the woman in the original biblical story. In the original, Salomé is simply Queen Herodias’ daughter and is not even named in the text, moreover, she only requests the head of John the Baptist because it is her mother’s wish. In Wilde’s play, Salomé becomes a far more assertive figure, aware that her own royal status and sexual allure may be used as tools to impose her will on others. It seems unusual to have a femme fatale who originates in a bible story but Oscar Wilde depicts a woman whose actions cost the lives of two men and possibly the ruin of a third. As few people want to read a story where the ending is already known, it is important to point out that the moment of true depravity in Wilde’s play, the crescendo moment, is not the execution of the Saint.
Wilde’s command of language.
Reading or listening to Salomé is a distinctive experience due to how Wilde has crafted the language of the play. This work is quite dissimilar to his more popular, comedic plays like, for example, The Importance of Being Earnest. Therefore, one should certainly not approach Salomé expecting light comedy or wit. It is best to emphasize that this play is symbolist in nature and the key symbol of the moon could be said to have its own role. Wilde also focuses on a few particularly symbolic colours in the work, and part of his style is a somewhat superfluous use of similes. These observations are made not to dissuade the potential reader, but to underline that Wilde creates a heady, artificial environment where language seems overly ornate at times, packed with symbols, and purposely repetitive in nature. However, once one begins to appreciate what the author is striving to achieve then one does not resist the language merely for being slightly unfamiliar. What the author achieves in the play is the steady ramping up of tension. This play is tragic, and the author creates an atmosphere of impending doom in language that reflects his own aesthetic style. Due to the unfamiliar style of language and the often elaborate and detailed descriptions of things, the reader may indeed begin to feel slightly mesmerized, especially by the audiobook version. This effect is purely a consequence of Wilde’s astonishing command of language.
The moon’s significance.
The moon is a powerful symbol in Wilde’s play. In ancient times, the Greeks worshipped the moon goddess Selene while the Romans had the goddess Luna. Most significant for the play is that the moon has long been a symbol of womanhood and special rites even accompanied the arrival of the new moon and full moon. In the opening lines of Salomé, the descriptions used by the young Syrian and the Page of Herodias serve to conflate the princess Salomé with the pale moon in the night’s sky. Wilde uses this literary device to show the importance of the moon as a symbol and to immediately link it to Salomé. However, the central question is what the moon signifies in the play and this is where Wilde’s main symbol appears unstable because each character sees something quite different in the moon. The Page of Herodias ominously sees a “dead woman” who is “looking for dead things” whereas his young friend, the Syrian, sees “a little princess who wears a yellow veil.” Herodias says nonchalantly that “the moon is just the moon” but warns that those who look too long upon it may go mad. It is significant that Salomé self-identifies with the moon, describing it as “cold and chaste. I am sure she is a virgin.” It is probably easiest to interpret this alliance between Salomé and the moon as being indicative of her influential power over others. Therefore, Salomé is one who appears to wield power whereas the other characters discover highly subjective meanings in the moon and are thus vulnerable to influence. This corresponds to the ideas of the symbolist literary movement where symbols were richly suggestive rather than explicitly restricted to one meaning. Also, Wilde’s symbol is aesthetically beautiful but without true depth, a mirror surface that will not reveal its true meaning. Admittedly, this is rather unhelpful to the curious reader so one must delve deeper.
The second aspect of the moon symbol is the significance of colours, specifically white, red, and black. As Wilde makes numerous references to these colours, it is best to reduce an interpretation to the most essential points. Iokanaan (John the Baptist) declares a key prophecy in the text, saying, “in that day, the sun shall become black like sackcloth of hair, and the moon shall become like blood.” The day he prophesizes is the day that the “daughter of Babylon” (Salomé) shall die, crushed beneath the shields of soldiers. Later, Herod recalls this prophecy just before Salomé dances when he sees that indeed, “the moon has become as blood.” To aid our overall understanding, one must note that the colours of white, red, and black each symbolize specific things in the play. White is associated in the play with doves, flowers, butterflies, and snows and is a symbol of purity and chastity. Red is associated with wine, blood, fruit, and lips and is symbolic of sexuality. Finally, black is associated with the cistern/hole where Iokanaan is imprisoned, with the executioner, Naaman, described as a “huge negro,” and with the “huge black bird,” and is therefore symbolic of death. Many critics divide the play into phases of the moon which coincide with the predominance of each colour and they also link these phases to our changing perceptions of Salomé. As such, the play opens with the pale, chaste, young princess, but then after Narraboth’s blood is spilled we enter the red phase where the moon changes colour and Salomé performs the sexual, erotic dance of the seven veils, and finally, we enter the black phase when Herod orders that all light is extinguished and the princess dies
The moon’s significance in the play is ultimately decided by the power that each character invests in it. Only Queen Herodias is immune to the influence of the moon. Herod, however, is sensitive to omens of any kind, most notably the changing colour of the moon, and he is also the only character who receives the same premonitions as Iokanaan. The most significant premonition is the coming of death, first signaled by Iokanaan when he hears “the beating of the wings of the angel of death” and later experienced by Herod when he hears the same “beating of vast wings.” The only question is who Death has come to retrieve for the netherworld? As Herod is most fearful of the prophet and concedes that his own marriage to Herodias is incestuous, he is also most willing to appease the wrath of the prophet’s God. It may seem strange that Herod, who views Caesar as the “Saviour of the World” and not Jesus, is ultimately the one to carry out Iokanaan’s cruel sentence on Salomé (crushed beneath soldiers’ shields). Yet, this is how prophecy, fear, and the symbolism of the moon finally unite.
Wilde constructs an intricate plot where Herod not once, but twice removes the veil from a precious symbol. As symbols have already been shown to be unstable in this play then tampering with symbols also carries a definite risk. In the first instance, Herod steals the sacred veil from the Jewish temple potentially removing all mystery from a sacred object. The second occasion is when he requests that his stepdaughter perform a dance, a dance where she removes seven veils and transforms her identity from chaste, virginal daughter to potential wife. Herod reveals his own lurid fantasies about Salomé, but they are expressed through his comments on the moon’s appearance, saying that ‘she’ is a naked, drunken woman “looking for lovers.” In the last moments of the play, the moon which has become symbolic of Salomé, interpreted in so many ways by different characters, reflects light upon Salomé revealing her true identity, namely a depraved necrophiliac. This obviously shatters Herod’s dreams for his stepdaughter as his future wife. Herod is confronted with an obscenity and immediately fears reprisals from the prophet’s God, so Herod must sacrifice Salomé. It is fitting that Herod had previously said “it is not wise to find symbols in everything that one sees. It makes life too full of terrors.” It is Salomé’s downfall that King Herod interprets the moon as a symbol of what Salomé can become – his new wife. When the king’s interpretation is wrong, and the moon is red, and the prophet’s words of warning ring in his ears, then Salomé must die.
Looking is dangerous.
Wilde depicts the ‘male gaze’ in all its sleazy splendour through the character of Herod. Yet, many characters become obsessed with the appearances of others in the play, for example, both Herod and the young Syrian stare unashamedly at Salomé, and in turn Salomé stares wantonly upon Iokanaan. It also appears that the Page of Herodias stares somewhat intensely at Narraboth (young Syrian) when warning him, “you look at her [Salomé ] too much … something terrible may happen.” Wilde depicts lascivious men looking at a girl, a lascivious girl looking upon a man, and a sexually jealous man looking upon his male friend. Therefore, the act of staring is not restricted by gender or even sexuality. Each character is certainly projecting their own personal longings upon what becomes a mere object of desire, a person who is translated into mere surface and robbed of their full personality. Most notably, Iokanaan, a prophet, is reduced to superlative descriptions of his body, hair, and lips, by Salomé. The prophet’s core message including his religious chastisements fall on dumb ears and Salomé simply says, “I am amorous of thy body.” Staring induces fear because it reveals a disregard for hierarchy (Narraboth, a slave, desires a princess), or it reveals a transgression of the law of Moses (Herod’s sexual desire for his own stepdaughter). It is noteworthy that those who chastise the starers, namely Herodias and her Page, each has something to lose. Herodias may lose her crown and half a kingdom to her own daughter while the Page may lose the friend whom he has showered with romantically charged gifts (perfume and rings). Moreover, the stare isolates characters from one another because what is visually appealing or tantalizing has the consequence of muting all warnings, making language impotent. All things become surface alone and as the play reveals, such looks can be highly deceptive.
We understand that the stare reduces the looked upon person to a mere object. What makes staring unusually dangerous in Wilde’s play is just how far characters will transgress societal norms to attain an object of desire. In this regard, Salomé herself is unmasked as truly monstrous. In comparison, Herod’s sexually motivated gaze may be called traditional as it is camouflaged with enticements to Salomé to yield to his will. His initial order to dance becomes a sugared plea with promises of jewels and half a kingdom. In contrast, Salomé’s will is steely and she offers Iokanaan nothing in exchange for his cooperation. The prophet forcibly rejects her, saying, “I will not have her look at me” and prefers to return to his prison cell rather than endure her obscenities. Iokanaan’s belief that a mere look is wounding echoes the mythology of Medusa. Salomé ultimately destroys this man just so she may experience the kiss she desires. If one heeds Herod’s words, then looking reveals an inner truth. Faced with the final scene where the girl he desired is revealed as a monster, he says “I will not suffer things to look at me.” Wilde plays with the power of the look, especially when it is ironically reversed and suddenly shocks.
The Bible. Authorized King James Version, Oxford UP, 1998.
Wilde, Oscar. Salomé, A Tragedy in One Act. Translated by Alfred, Lord Douglas, Project Gutenberg, 2013.