When we were discussing Salome’s character in class, I did not see her agency as much as I saw her exploitation and sexualization. The added conversation about approaching this story through a post-colonial Orientalist lens also made me think about the construction of the piece and the intentions of Wilde behind it.
As we discussed, Orientalism is the production of a romanticized version of the “East” that is not accurate and more of a projection of Western views on the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. It isn’t a true representation. There is a heavy focus on tropes and stereotypical or projected traits. It is shown in works of art and literature as barbaric, violent, sensual, exotic and emotional.
The story of Salome, who we know is a young girl, was not inherently sexual in the Bible. As we read in class, her asking for John the Baptist’s head was her mother’s idea, not her own. She was not even named. Her dance could have been out of celebration, or spiritual in nature. I do think that this lack of information on Salome and her unnamed presence made her story attractive for Wilde and other artists to reimagine, as we connected it to the story of W.H. Perhaps she was an opportunity for Wilde to tell his own story, to represent himself in literature and history.
However, Wilde made Salome into a femme fatale, a sexualised and seductive character who was killed for expressing such sexuality and villainized for having John the Baptist killed, although Herod was really the one who had the power to kill him. I think this is more exploitative of a young girl who did not have these traits in the original story. Her dance of the seven veils changes the nature of her dance into something more sexual, and her desire to kiss the lips of John the Baptist makes her the villain who was responsible for his death.
Thinking about how her story was changed by Wilde’s reinterpretation, and knowing the nature of Orientalism, I feel like the first thing that jumps out at me from Wilde’s version is Salome’s exploitation. Perhaps Wilde was acting on his own desires, wanting to create a popular story, or not thinking about the consequences of this characterization, but I don’t think it was a just choice to Salome.
What I found most interesting about Salomé is how Salomé’s choices have complete control over the direction of the play, and how this control directly comes from her attractiveness. At the beginning of the play, she is able to manipulate Narraboth into bringing out Jokanaan because he desires her. When she meets Jokanaan, she pursues him. She tells him how much he admires his appearance and asks him to let her kiss him. This is an interesting reversal of gender roles because it is usually the man who pursues the woman and tells her how beautiful she is. This reversal of gender roles happens in Wilde’s other works as well, such as in An Ideal Husband when Lady Chiltern is invested in politics while Lord Goring is interested in fashion. However, Jokanaan wants nothing to do with her, and for once, Salomé is unable to get what she wants.
Salomé is also shown to have the ability to exert control over Herod. Like with Narraboth, Herod seems to desire Salomé, and Salomé is able to get what she wants because of this. There’s an interesting contrast between Salomé and her mother Herodias. While Salomé is able to get what she wants from Herod, Herod never listens to Herodias when she asks him to stop looking at Salomé. This could be because Herod desires Salomé over his wife, and so Salomé can sway him to do things. He offers her anything if she dances for him, including half his kingdom. However, instead of asking for half the kingdom, she asks for the head of Jokanaan. Herod tries to offer her other things, but she refuses them all. Her mother approves of Salomé’s choice.
What’s interesting about Salomé asking for Jokanaan’s head in the play is that in the original Bible story, it’s her mother that asks her to ask for Jokanaan’s head. However, in the play, Salomé asks for the head of her own volition. This gives her more agency in this narrative. It’s like she’s punishing Jokanaan for being the one man who won’t give her what she wants. After she’s presented with Jokanaan’s head, she laments about how much she loved him. This reminded me a lot of how Dorian mourned Sibyl in The Picture of Dorian Gray and how Sibyl became more perfect to him after her death.
At the very end of this play, however, power is returned to Herod when he has Salomé killed for her actions. This reminded me a bit of the end of An Ideal Husband when Lady Chiltern goes back on what she wants when Lord Goring tells her to so her husband can keep his career. No matter how much power Salomé had in the play, power always reverts back to the man.