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.