What’s in a name?

While we were discussing Salomé in class on Wednesday, I was struck by the fact that her character is not named in the Bible. I wasn’t familiar with the Bible story before we discussed Wilde’s play in class, so I didn’t have many preconceived ideas when it came to the play. However, I was surprised by Salomé’s lack of a name in each version of the Bible that we looked at. As someone pointed out in class, a name is a sign of power. It establishes your identity outside of your relationship to anyone else. In the New Living Translation, Salomé is first identified as “Herodias’s daughter” and after that is only referred to as “the girl.” That language completely ties up Salomé’s identity with her mother. The value of having a name is that you have something to identify you irrespective of your relationship to anyone else. Wilde’s naming the play Salomé embodies the newfound agency that she has in his telling of the story. Instead of a girl listening to her mother, Salomé is strong enough to articulate what she wants and what is necessary to get it.

However, I think that it is important not to oversell Salomé’s agency in the play. Although she takes action to get what she wants, she does so in a manner that is relatively restricted and her course of action results in her own death. As we noted in class, Salomé is ultimately killed for expressing her sexuality. She does so in a confined system in which the only way to express her agency is to lean into Herod’s desire for her and perform a dance. Although Salomé has agency in doing what she thinks is necessary to get what she wants, I think that it is important to remember that she is still limited in how she can go about getting it, and that chasing what she wants ends in her death.

Regardless of how independent she is and how clear she is in her desires, Salomé is still restricted to the society in which she lives in which Herod has all of the power. She can try to carve out a space for herself, and is able to trick him into killing John the Baptist, but that is not enough for Salomé to truly be powerful because it only takes three words from Herod for Salomé, too, to be killed. The differences in power are clear throughout the play, and  acknowledging Salomé’s weak position is necessary to understand what happens to her in the play. A queer-desire reading of the play would suggest that Salomé is killed because of her sexuality, which is deemed wrong. In order for that reading to be clear, I think that it is important that Salomé is not the character with the most agency. She still must feel pressure to conform to the society in which she lives, which is why it is so offensive to Herod when she backs him into a corner in which he must kill John the Baptist. Salomé in Wilde’s play certainly has more influence than the character in the original story, but it is important that she is not a hugely powerful character. Ultimately, she is still the girl who dances and then dies.

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