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.

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.

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.

Salomé and Choices

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.

You accept the love you think you deserve

I was at first surprised to see the subject matter Wilde chose for this play. It felt out of place to me, especially in comparison to the other pieces we have already studied, which focused more on Victorian society. But, as I continued to read, I could see the connections between this subject matter and Wilde’s own life, notably when considering the ideas of desire and indecency. 

The play Salome centers itself on the action of desiring, looking, and lusting after. Herod and the Syrian captain both look at Salome with sexual desire. This gaze is condemned by others, with the feeling that “something bad” happening being reiterated over and over again. And, that prophecy is fulfilled, as the Syrian kills himself and Herod is forced by his oath to Salome to behead Jokanaan. Salome also lusts after Jokanaan, which is condemned by almost everyone in the play. For her display of unacceptable lust, and her display of power in being able to get Jokanaan beheaded, she is killed herself. 

The lust that these characters exude is considered to be “wrong.” This makes me think of Wilde and his homosexuality. As we discussed in our last class, Wilde was told that his natural attraction and feelings of love were unnatural, gross, and indecent. Since Salome, the Syrian, and Herod had tragic ends (though Herod doesn’t die, just is forced to behead Jokanaan), Wilde is saying that unnatural lust results in bad things happening to you, either by yourself (in the case of the suicide), or by others. And we see this in Wilde’s case with his imprisonment.

We asked the question in class: what does thinking your natural attraction is wrong do to one psychologically? What does it make you feel that you deserve out of a relationship? I think it would make you think that you do not deserve a traditional, healthy relationship, and this makes sense to me in the context of Wilde and Bosie. Being told you are a bad person may make you think that you deserve bad things being done to you, like Bosie did to Wilde.

Femme Fatale-ity

Salomé is the perfect architype of a femme fatale: a beautiful, mysterious woman with nefarious intentions for the men she attracts. She outwits all of the men in the play, brazenly defying their commands and desires, occasionally to the point of causing their demise. And yet, I cannot help rooting for her as I read the play. She is an intoxicating character. I was tempted to believe that this sympathy was coming from my own modern perspective, but I don’t think that that is the whole picture.

There is a definite feeling of sympathy for Salomé when we first see her in the play. Her very first lines are about the way in which Herod has been looking at her all night. This gaze is implied to be some form of sexual desire, which continues throughout the play. However, unlike conventional femme fatale roles, Salomé is not blamed for Herod’s sexual desires. Instead, Herodias chastises Herod directly, and not her daughter. Herod even admits to his blame late in the play when he says, “It may be that I have loved you too much” and “I have looked at you too much. But I will look at you no more” (601). This is a more open-minded take on the femme fatale, who is usually demonized for her sexuality by men and especially by other women.

However, it is not a completely open-minded take, as Salomé is still criticized by Jokanaan, and still dies in the end. But her death at the end of the play feels to me very abrupt and out of place. Surely, Herod has some desire to kill Salomé, but after the long speeches and fervent arguing that takes place between the trio earlier in the play, the simple command “Kill that woman!” feels rather out of place (605). I’m interested in hearing everyone else’s thoughts on this ending and how it affects your thoughts on the play’s characters.

Wilde’s Prophesy in Salomé

After I finished reading Salomé, I wondered why we read it at this point in the semester. While we are focusing on Wilde’s plays right now, on first glance, it is very different from An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest. For one, it is very light on the aphorisms, which I appreciated. More seriously though, the play explores the consequences of desire and the question of why there is evil in a world where there is a God. There are threads of Catholicism in many of Wilde’s works, but thus far, we have mainly seen Wilde using the more aesthetic elements of the religion and the ideas of mystery and predestination. In Salomé, Wilde’s characters discuss profound questions in theology. The instance that struck me the most was when the Jewish characters discuss who has seen God. A Third Jew says, “God is at no time hidden. He showeth Himself at all times and in everything. God is in what is evil, even as He is in what is good” (594). The other characters disagree with this, especially regarding God’s role in what is evil. In Wilde’s poems, An Ideal Husband, and even his “Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young,” he deconstructs moral binaries, describing wickedness as “a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others” (1244). However, in Salomé, Wilde calls attention to the wickedness of his characters and their evil deeds.

            A case can be made for a queer reading of Salomé, especially building off our discussions in class this past week. We talked about the psychological and emotional consequences of constantly being told your desires and identity are immoral or “grossly indecent.” In Wilde’s case this is his relationships with men, specifically Bosie. However, Salomé and Herod experience this too. They are constantly told by Herodias and The Voice of Jokanaan that terrible things will happen to them, specifically that God will smite them, but they cannot stop themselves. This reminded me of how Wilde could not stop living his double life, even as he faced public scrutiny and was treated terribly by Bosie. We discussed in class how Wilde essentially prophesied his own death and destruction in his works, and this play is a prime example of that. The saddest part of reading Salomé from this perspective is that there is no resolution for Wilde. Parts of Wilde are in both Herod and Salomé, and as a result, Wilde accepts his own suffering and recognizes that much of it is self-inflicted.  

            In addition to the allusions to Wilde’s repressed homosexual desires in the dialogue of the play itself, the play was translated from French to English by Bosie. I am interested as to what other people make of this. Is the play addressing Bosie? Along these lines, this play is symbolic of how Wilde and Bosie’s secret lives and time abroad is mediated by Bosie to an English audience. Is it possible that Bosie’s translation changes the tone of Wilde’s original writing?

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.