Violence in Salomé

Salomé is unique to Wilde’s other pieces in its non-English setting and characters but also in the prevalence of violence. The two significant instances of such violence are the beheading of Jokanaan and the crushing to death of Salomé, and from an anticolonial reading of the text, both hold greater significance than just their deviation from Wilde’s typical style. Wilde’s lectures in the US drew heavily on his mother’s depictions of the dangers of English authority in Ireland In “Anticolonial Wilde,” Deglán Ó Donaghaile describes Wilde’s views on English violence saying, “English conquest of Ireland could be discerned through the ‘trail of blood’ left in its historical wake. Speranza described the colonization of Ireland as a psychological exercise as well as a military one” (40). The fact that Herod slips in blood in the play is a foreshadowing of the violence to come but also a recognition of the violence that already took place throughout history.

First considering the beheading of Jokanaan, it is important to note that this element comes from the original biblical story, “John the Baptist Beheaded.” While this was not one of the many additions Wilde made to the original story, it is indicative of Wilde’s anticolonial messages in the play and his choice to reimagine this specific biblical tale. John the Baptist was originally beheaded by King Herod at his daughter’s request, who was instructed to do so by her mother and King Herod’s wife, Herodias. Herod and his family rule Judea, and he is depicted as a monstrous figure in the Bible, attempting to have the infant Jesus killed earlier in the New Testament. However, the inclusion of Salomé holding the head of Jokanaan is one of Wilde’s many additions to the tale, and it functions to highlight the fascination and horror of the colonized other represented that Salomé represents as she revels in the violent beheading. In his book, Irish Orientalism: A Literary and Intellectual History, Joseph Lennon discusses the phenomenon of “Irish Orientalism,” a method by which the Irish people reclaim discursive agency in discussions of English imperialism through the representation of other colonized peoples, specifically from Asia and the Middle East. Through his over-exaggeration of the violence in the biblical story, Wilde works within the European construction of the violent and passionate Orient to critique cultural expectations and justify Salomé’s horrific request because she is first objectified and condemned for her desires.

         The death of Salomé holds multiple meanings as well. Herod condemns her monstrous desires, saying, “Kill that woman!” (Wilde 605). The soldiers then crush Salomé to death beneath their shields. By calling her “that woman” Herod re-inforces Salomé’s position as “the other” throughout the entire play. From a post-colonial perspective, especially considering the oriental tropes that surround Salomé’s character, her death by shield is symbolic of the violence against the “Celtic Other” by English imperial powers. Wilde portrays her as childish, unreasonable, and out of control, and the Irish people were portrayed by the English using similar descriptions which he refutes in his lectures in the United States. Rather than explicitly condemn the violence of English imperialism in the play, Wilde again works within stereotypes against colonized peoples to demonstrate that the dangerous and reductive construction of the “Celtic Other” is actually a greater reflection of the English than the Irish.

Identifying and Orientalism

I did not enjoy Salomé when I first read it. Something about it felt spare and maybe stilted compared to the other Wilde pieces we’ve been looking at this semester that come off as so quintessentially Wilde — it doesn’t tease and taunt the reader in the same way. Upon closer inspection, however, and after talking it over in class, Salomé does seem just as elusive and nuanced as other Wilde works. I especially appreciated the way our conversations about Orientalism and Wilde’s queerness intersected in this play, conflating the two ways of thinking about subversive or non-normative identities. Wilde taps into a particular, sexualized narrative of the biblically unnamed Salome, using tropes of the East to heighten her sexuality for the play, while also giving her a dark sense of agency.  A lot of this hinges on her outward expressions of her desire for Jokanaan. In response to her advances, Jokanaan calls Salomé, “‘the wanton! The harlot! Ah! The daughter of Babylon with her golden eyes and gilded eyelids’” (596). His attention to her gilded eyelids seems particularly significant here, as tied to her sexuality, as they suggest a sort of rich, outlandish otherness, resonant of other Orientalist descriptions of “heavy-lidded foreigners” and the like, a description that fits with the visual tradition and artistic representation that exists for this story, presenting similarly gilded Salomés as we looked at in class.  The Beardsley illustrations go even further to solidify the engagement with these narratives of Otherness. Though made independently of Wilde’s influence, Beardsley’s illustrations also use styles and imagery from Eastern cultures (as an extraordinarily broad and nuanced grouping) to represent hyper-sexualized, gender-ambiguous, and bizarre figures as a response to Wilde’s text and narrative. The use of the exotic and the other allows both men a space to explore and represent the other in different ways, bending gender representations and sexual expectations. 

It is interesting then to try to parse the ethics of such an engagement in Orientalism on Wilde’s part, considering his own multiple marginalized identities, being Irish and queer.  Clearly a focus on the Other, and the pronounced difference and exoticism of Eastern cultures, allows Wilde access what he feels is a useful dichotomy for presenting other sorts of differences, a relationship similar to that which Kiberd articulates in his article, about the reciprocal constructing of Irishness and Englishness, defining the self as what the other is not — the same is happening in this play and is what allows us a queer reading of the narrative. However, just because Wilde can understand being the cultural or sexual other in England, does that give him the license to so egregiously use another Other, another binary, to think around the dynamics of his own marginalized identities?  I do think there is a way to think about Wilde’s particular Orientalism, as informed by his own place amongst “others,” as different from those within an English heteronormativity doing the same, but that doesn’t mean his use of Orientalist tropes is in any way above critique (plus it happens in a lot of his other works, beyond just Salomé). Salomé still feels distinctly different from Wilde’s other plays, but it’s easier to see now how it functions in a particular way to allow him a different sort of identity exploration, one that hinges on constructions of the East.