Doubles in Salomé

Since our discussion on Kiberd’s Inventing Ireland, I have been thinking about the ways his interpretation of doubles in The Importance of Being Earnest could apply to Salomé. The Importance of Being Earnest explores the consequences of the double lives of Jack and Algernon. The theme of a double life can be interpreted as Wilde coding a play about homosexuality, but Kiberd instead reads the doubles in the play as symbolic of the relationship between England and Ireland. He says, “… the Double is a close relation of the Englishman’s Celtic Other. Many characters in literature have sought to murder the double in order to do away with guilt (as England had tried to annihilate Irish culture), but have then found that it is not so easily repressed, since it may also contain man’s utopian self” (Kiberd 42). In Salomé, the audience witnesses the absolute downfall of Salomé, and following Kiberd’s model, she can be read as the double of both Herod and Jokanaan. Salomé is the epitome of desire, both in her actions and how other characters view her beauty.

While Salomé is the “femme fatale” of the play, Herod is equally, if not more, morally corrupt. Kiberd says, “If the English were adult and manly, the Irish must be childish and feminine. In this fashion, the Irish were to read their fate in that of two other out-groups, women and children; and at the root of many an Englishman’s suspicion of the Irish was an unease with the woman or child who lurked within himself” (30). Therefore, Salomé is the Herod’s double in the sense that he villainizes the emotions and desires that she expresses because he recognizes the same desires in himself. She says to Jokanaan, “Jokanaan, I am amorous of thy body! …Let me touch thy body” (590). Her desire is parallel to the incestuous desire Herod expresses for her during the Dance of the Seven Veils. Salomé represents the “Celtic other,” within Kiberd’s paradigm because of her femininity, childishness, and the orientalism associated with her character, and therefore, Herod represents her English double. He pleads with Salomé, offering her any gift in replacement for the head of Jokanaan. He says, “Your beauty has grievously troubled me, and I have looked at you too much. But I will look at you no more. Neither at things, nor at people should one look. Only in mirrors should one look, for mirrors do but show us masks” (601). When Herod looks at Salomé he is essentially looking at a mirror, and what is reflected back is his own wicked desires; his mask of righteousness is removed, exposing his immorality.  

I believe Jokanaan serves as an English counterpart to the Celtic Salomé as well. Wilde’s writing constantly criticizes the rigid morality of Victorian English society, and Jokanaan is the voice of judgement in this play. He actually has very few lines in the play, but he constantly speaks of the wrath of God that will come down upon Salomé and Herod. He says, “He shall be seated on this throne. He shall be clothed in scarlet and purple. In his hand he shall bear a golden up full of his blasphemies. And the angel of the Lord shall smite him. He shall be eaten of worms” (598). Herod vehemently denies that this prophesy is about himself. Despite Jokanaan’s condemnation of the other characters, he suffers the most gruesome death as he is beheaded. What does Wilde suggest by giving the voice of religious judgement such a violent end? As Salomés seizes the head of Jokanaan, she says, “Art thou afraid of me, Jokanaan, that thou wilt not look at me…? Thou didst reject me. Thou didst speak evil words against me. Thou didst treat me as a harlot” (604). Returning to Kiberd’s paradigm, the English compulsion to annihilate their “Celtic other” is motivated by fear. As Salomé asks if Jokanaan is afraid of her, Wilde suggests that the English perhaps fear the Irish, the people on whom they project their emotions and immorality, because they represent a repressed side of themselves.

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