Origins and themes

Wilde had considered the subject since he had first been introduced to Hérodias, one of Flaubert's Trois Contes, by Walter Pater, at Oxford in 1877. His interest had been further stimulated by descriptions of Gustave Moreau's paintings of Salome in Joris-Karl Huysmans's À rebours. Other literary influences include Heinrich Heine's Atta Troll, Laforgue's Salomé in Moralités Légendaires and Mallarmé's Hérodiade.[8]

Many view Wilde's Salomé as a superb composite of these earlier treatments of the theme overlaid, in terms of dramatic influences, with Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck's characteristic methodical diction,[9][10] and specifically Maeterlinck's La Princesse Maleine, 'with its use of colour, sound, dance, visual description and visual effect'.[8] Wilde often referred to the play in musical terms and believed that recurring phrases 'bind it together like a piece of music with recurring motifs. ' Although the "kissing of the head" element was used in Heine and even Joseph Converse Heywood's [11][12][13] production, Wilde's ingenuity was to move it to the play's climax. While his debts are undeniable, there are some interesting contributions in Wilde's treatment, most notably being his persistent use of parallels between Salomé and the moon.

Scholars like Christopher Nassaar point out that Wilde employs a number of the images favored by Israel's kingly poets and that the moon is meant to suggest the pagan goddess Cybele, who, like Salomé, was obsessed with preserving her virginity and thus took pleasure in destroying male sexuality.[15]

Following the prelude three demarcated episodes follow: the meeting between Salome and Iokanaan, the phase of the white moon; the major public central episode, the dance and the beheading, the phase of the red moon; and finally the conclusion, when the black cloud conceals the moon.[16]

An argument is made by Brad Bucknell in his essay, “On "Seeing" Salome” that the play can be seen as a struggle between the visual, in the form of various characters’ gazing as well as Salome’s dance, and the written word. Salome’s dance (which is never described) overpowers Iokannan’s prophecies, and Salome herself dies due to Herod’s command to crush her. As Bucknell writes of Salome’s dance, “The power of the word is inverted, turned back upon its possessors, the prophet and the ruler-figure of the tetrarch.” [17]

The idea of the gaze—specifically the male gaze—is also explored by Linda and Michael Hutcheon in ""Here's Lookin' At You, Kid": The Empowering Gaze in Salome.” In their essay, the two write that Salome’s body “clearly becomes the focus of the attention—and the literal eye—of both audience and characters. As dancer, Salome is without a doubt the object of the gaze—particularly Herod's male gaze.” The Hutcheons argue that while the male gaze has been traditionally rooted in the idea of sexual privilege, leading to a gendering of the gaze as ‘male’ in the first place, the character of Salome undermines this theory by knowingly using the male gaze to her advantage, first by gaining access to Iokannan via the male gaze and later through her dance.[18]

However, others argue that the female gaze is also present in the play, with Salome gazing and objectifying Iokannan. As critic Carmen Skaggs writes, “Syrian, Herod, and Salome objectify the subjects of their gazes. They admire each one for his/her beauty alone. The desires of all three are forbidden and recognized as dangerous by those around them, but they are not persuaded to turn away”.[19]

Skaggs also discusses in her essay “Modernity's Revision of the Dancing Daughter: The Salome Narrative of Wilde and Strauss” the possible homosexual subtext of Wilde’s play. Skaggs points to one instance in the play when Salome promises Narraboth a flower, a signal of homosexuality in Wilde’s time. Skaggs and other critics argue that Salome’s sexuality is presented as typically masculine, which makes the relationship between her and the Young Syrian border on the homoerotic. Skaggs also argues that Wilde is attempting to explore different forms of worship, with Salome, the Young Syrian, and Herod worshiping beauty and serving as contrasts for the religious Iokannan, whose worship revolves around God.[19]

Oscar Wilde’s play Salome is a twist on the execution of John the Baptist, fueled by motives of lust and slaughter.[20] Scholar Tania Albin believes Wilde’s interpretation is deeply rooted in the Biblical story of Salome’s dance to please Herod and her mother’s plea for John the Baptist’s head.[21] Wilde’s twist on the biblical story focuses on the personality of Salome and the hypersexual implications.

Wilde’s play Salome is the distortion of the Biblical story through the creation of Salome as a victim and victimizer. She is the incarnation of seductive lust and manipulative power. Salome is the object of lust and perverted desire leading to her twisted obsession in the beheading of John the Baptist.[22] Keijser believes that Wilde was influenced by the Bible’s word choice and style, adapting Bible verses and diction generously. Biblical images, symbols, and diction are referenced from the Gospels, Isaiah, Song of Solomon and the Book of Revelation. Wilde even gives John the Baptist a more derived biblical Hebrew name with Iokannan.[23] In the Song of Solomon, Wilde’s text is literally adapted from the biblical context, Salome says that “[n]either the floods nor the great waters can quench my passion”. This is the closest Wilde comes to copying the Song, for it says, “[m]any waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it” (8:7).[22] Referencing the book of Revelation, Jokanaan compares Herodias with the figure of Jezebel, proclaiming her to be a treacherous woman who uses her sexual wiles to corrupt men and bring about their downfall. Wilde twists the context so that Salome is the one who desires John’s head rather than Herodias.[22] Wilde creates an incarnation of obsessive lust and power from a biblical context where she operates beyond the play.

Salome is not even mentioned in the Biblical story, but Wilde chooses to make the focal point of the play the perversion of lust and desire of Salome rather than Herodias vengeance on John the Baptist. He uses the sexual power of the dance to construct lustful emotions, which are barred out in the biblical text. The depiction of Salome as a pawn to her mother Herodias diminishes her image as a woman of manipulation, but Wilde portrays her as a woman of power and manipulator creating this femme fatale manifestation. The kissing of John’s severed head testifies to this ideal of what Bram Dijkstra calls “the virgin whore”, a perversion of purity tainted by lustful desires.[21]

Joseph Donahue, a theater historian, believes that Wilde uses poetic license in filling in narrative gaps from the accounts of the head on the platter story, to tease out explicitly what was written implicitly.[20] Despite the similarities, Wilde’s depiction mixes legend with biblical history, the temporal with the eternal, but also blends form and medium creating a complex rendition of sensual repulsion.[24] Wilde’s recreation of this biblical horror based upon lust and manipulation of Salome's passion is its own downfall.

This content is from Wikipedia. GradeSaver is providing this content as a courtesy until we can offer a professionally written study guide by one of our staff editors. We do not consider this content professional or citable. Please use your discretion when relying on it.