What Makes a Tragedy?

While reading Salomé, I found myself coming back to the same question: what makes a tragedy? In my edition of Oscar Wilde’s complete works, the play is introduced with the following information: “A Tragedy in one Act. Translated from the French of Oscar Wilde by Lord Alfred Douglas” (583). The fact that it is called a tragedy put preconceived notions in my head about what the play would be like, which I didn’t fully notice until finishing the play, when I found myself unsatisfied with the ending. That dissatisfaction did not come from the quality of the play itself, but from my ideas about what tragedy should be.

We are aware of comments people make frequently about tragedy and comedy and the way in which they are connected. “Comedy is tragedy plus time” or “A tragedy ends in death, a comedy ends in marriage” are two common ways of saying that tragedy and comedy lie on a razor’s edge and the difference between the two is in how they make us feel. For example, over spring break, I saw comedian Mike Birbiglia perform his new show, “The Old Man and the Pool.” The show is stand-up comedy, but it is also a story about fearing death and the belief that we only have one chance on this planet so we need to learn how to use it for others. In a different context, the show would have been tragic and almost uncomfortable as the audience was forced to consider their own mortality, but because of the framing of the show as comedy, we laughed throughout, even in serious moments.

That experience offers an insight into how closely comedy and tragedy exist, which is important to remember when dealing with anything that is meant to be a pure comedy or is meant to be a pure tragedy. When I read that Salomé is a tragedy, I expected there to be death in the play, but part of me also expected to grow a deep connection to the characters, which I did not. Because the play is so short, I felt a bit of whiplash when reading. The Young Syrian kills himself only seven pages into the play, and it comes with almost no warning. This death startled me more than it made me feel anything for the characters, which then clouded my reading of the rest of the play. After the Young Syrian dies, he is not seriously considered by the other characters, whose focus is entirely on Jokanaan. It seemed as if the Young Syrian was meant to be forgotten as a kind of nameless victim of Salomé’s desire for Jokanaan, but, because his death was so sudden, I couldn’t let it go.

Salomé is undoubtedly a tragedy from a technical standpoint. Death is a driving factor in the plot, and the play ends with one of the most brutal deaths of all. However, I did not feel a real emotional attachment to any of the characters involved which made it hard for me to care about the death beyond a basic human level. That made me think about what the purpose of tragedy is. Is it meant to make us feel deeply, or do something else? After comparing Salomé to other tragedies I’ve read, I came to the conclusion that tragedies are meant to reveal something dark in ourselves. We connect to the tragedy and we care about the tragic hero because they seem like someone we know or someone we could be and we see the way in which they can avoid their fate. For example, Hamlet is a particularly interesting tragic hero because he seems so thoughtful and reasonable in his fears about killing Claudius until the end of the play, when he seems to have actually gone slightly mad. We understand every action that Hamlet does, in part because he tells us what he wants and why he is scared. The audience walks away from the play moved and even disturbed because we understand Hamlet on a basic level, and it is worrying to understand a person who leaves so much destruction in his wake. Hamlet is a tragedy because of the brutality involved, and it is a successful tragedy because it makes us look at ourselves and question whether we are capable of such brutality.

In that sense, I think that Salomé is a successful tragedy, even though I did not connect with any of the characters. The play seems to advocate for tolerance towards other people’s wishes. Salomé is insistent that Jokanaan must die, which leads to her own death, and Herod is tricked into promising that Jokanaan will die because he refuses not to get what he wants. The death in the play comes from characters refusing to bend their will, which can be a lesson for audiences. Stubbornness is very common among people, and this play shows the extreme version of such obstinance. Herodias repeatedly tells Salomé not to make a deal with Herod, yet she does anyway, which leads to her own downfall. The warning is the reminder to the audience that the play does not have to end the way it does: if only Salomé backed down, she and Jokanaan would both be alive. That is an important reminder for the audience to get, which makes the tragedy feel rooted in reality even though there are moments that feel over the top.

Salome and the Sonnet

While reading Salomé, I noticed several themes and techniques that led me to believe that Wilde may have drawn inspiration from the Victorian love sonnet tradition, which I studied in a different class. However, if Wilde borrowed from the sonnet tradition, he also subverted it.

First, I noticed the theme of the beloved as “looked upon,” which is very characteristic of the love sonnet tradition. Usually, a male lover looks upon an unaware female beloved. Both Salomé and Jokanaan function in the role of the beloved. Salomé is looked at by others constantly from the very beginning of the play. “The Young Syrian” cannot help himself from staring. Later, Herod is scolded by his wife for the same excessive staring. In dancing, Salomé puts herself explicitly on display, stressing her role as looked upon. Jokanaan is also looked upon by Salomé, who observes his preaching from afar before approaching him. Wilde subverts this trope by putting men and women in the role of both the lover and beloved. Furthermore, the beloved is aware that they are looked upon. Salomé even uses this knowledge to her advantage. Finally, Wilde subverts this trope by warning about the danger of looking at the beloved.

Another common theme in love sonnets is for the beloved to be pure, good, and leading the lover to the divine. This is also a component in Salomé. Salomé is continuously described as extremely pale, suggesting purity. Meanwhile, Jokanaan is described to be “as chaste as the moon is.” Furthermore, his role as a prophet suggests his connection to the divine. Wilde subverts this trope by undermining Salomé’s innocent exterior with her desire for revenge. She dances on the blood, allowing the whiteness of her feet to touch a staining substance.

In looking at their beloved, the lovers use blazons to describe what they see, which is also common in the love sonnet tradition. Salomé’s lovers speak of her “little white hands like fluttering doves” and “feet like little white flowers.” Meanwhile, Salomé looks upon Jokanaan and notes eyes “like black holes burned by torches in a Tyrian tapestry” a body “like the lilies of a field that the mower hath never moved” or “like a plastered wall where vipers have crawled,” hair “like clusters of grapes” or “like a crown of thorns” and a mouth “like a pomegranate cut with a knife of ivory.” Though blazons are usually amorous, Salomé’s blazon becomes hateful as Jokanaan rejects her over and over. Wilde subverts this literary device by changing its connotation.

Finally, I saw a theme of power-play which struck me as very Petrarchan. Often in love sonnets, the beloved holds power over their lover, who is helpless to resist them yet cannot access them. The tension between lover and beloved is evident in Salomé as Salomé refuses to dance, agonizing Herod, Jokanaan refuses the kiss, agonizing Salomé, and Salomé seeks revenge against both Herod and Jokanaan. Wilde subverts this trope by making the beloved both aware of their power and having Salomé use it for her own means. Wilde gives the beloved much more agency than the typical sonnet. 

Overall, I could see a link between Wilde and love sonnets, though Wilde puts his spin on convention. Salomé especially reminded me of Christina Rossetti’s sonnet series Monna Innominata. These sonnets also reverse gender roles and give the beloved more agency while working within the tradition.