A Review of Oscar Wilde’s Play “Salomé”
Rating – 7 out of 10
The story of Salomé can be found in the Bible in the Gospels’ of Matthew 14: 3-11 and Mark 6: 17-28. Salomé’s story is short, but not sweet. In a nutshell, Herod is throwing a party for himself, and has some out of town guests to impress. He also has John the Baptist as a prisoner. Herod is holding the prophet at the behest of his wife, Herodias. Herodias hates John the Baptist because he speaks publicly about the sinful nature of her marriage to Herod. She divorced her first husband, Herod’s brother and Salomé’s father, to marry Herod. Herodias is angered and shamed by John the Baptist’s words, and though Herod fears him and regards him as a holy man, he has him arrested and imprisoned for Herodias’ sake. The party is proceeding nicely until Salomé’s dance. We cannot be certain of what kind of dance she performed, but we do know Herod was pleased by it so much he offered to give her anything- even half of his kingdom… if she’d like it! Salomé asks her mother what she should ask for. Herodias doesn’t hesitate to answer, “Ask for the head of John the Baptist.” Herod is afraid of John the Baptist, and of those who also recognize him as a true prophet, but rather than lose face in front of his guests by breaking his promise to give Salomé whatever she desires; Herod has his executioner behead John the Baptist and bring the head to Salomé. Salomé then presents the head to Herodias, and one of the most gruesome parties of all time wraps up.
Oscar Wilde’s version of the events has distinct differences. He himself recognized that his play was influenced by other writings and artwork about, or featuring, Salomé. The play is beautifully written in French, but it does translate well into English. Aside from the obvious poetic and philosophical elements of the play, Wilde adds even more macabre aspects to his rendition of the biblical story. Wilde has a John the Baptist, whom he calls Jokanaan, preaching from deep within his prison in a cistern. Jews and Nazarenes outside Herod’s palace beg for his release to no avail. The guards and guests find their religion completely ridiculous. After all, they pray to a god you can’t see. While this mockery of the beginnings of Christianity is taking place, Oscar Wilde’s Salomé is sick and tired of her lecherous step-father Herod staring at her. She comes to complain to the guards, look at the moon and get some fresh air. Soon she becomes fixated on seeing this man Jokanaan, who says such awful things about her mother. The guards are appalled by her request to see him, because Herod has strictly forbidden it to anyone. Salomé is only further intrigued by Herod’s fear, and gets the captain of the guard, who is thoroughly enamored with her, to bring Jokanaan out to her.
Salomé has an immediate, and unsettling, attraction to Jokanaan. When she makes this clear. the captain of the guard kills himself. Salomé compliments Jokanaan in a constant, and obviously lustful manner, though the guard’s body is lying at her feet. Jokanaan wants nothing to do with her, because she is the daughter of Herodias, and reminds him of her mother. He tells Salomé that he wishes for her mother to repent, but knows she will not. Salomé praises his body, his hair and his lips- which she insists she must kiss, but Jokanaan fervently rejects her. Finally, Herod and Herodias show up. Herod wants Salomé to dance for him, but Herodias thinks he is being inappropriate. However, when Herod tells Salomé that she can have whatever she wants, up to half his kingdom, she agrees. Wilde states that she dances the dance of the seven veils. After she is finished and Herod is delighted, she requests the head of Jokanaan to be brought to her on a silver platter. Herod is aghast. He is afraid of what will befall him if he murders this holy man. Herodias is proud of her daughter’s violent choice. Herod lists all of the valuables that he will give to Salomé instead, in lieu of Jokanaan’s head. Salomé is not swayed. Her pride is deeply hurt by Jokanaan’s rejection and she enjoys her step-father’s fear. Herod gives into her demand, because he feels that executing a holy man would be better than breaking his oath. When the head of Jokanaan is brought to Salomé, she continues to praise and speak to it. As Herod exits, he turns and sees Salomé, finally kissing Jokanaan. Out of disgust with Salomé, and with himself, he has his guards kill her.
I had always thought of Herodias as the chief villain in this biblical story, but Wilde’s version of the story helped me see that I may have been in error. Wilde makes Salomé into a manipulative, lustful monster. This is not how I see her in the Bible. Salomé was raised to trust and follow her mother’s orders. I see her as a pawn, simply doing her vengeful mother’s bidding. Wilde definitely keeps Herodias vengeful in his telling, and adds jealousy for good measure, too. However, I believe that in both the biblical tale and Wilde’s ficitional version, Herod is the truest villain. Herod feels in his heart that Jokanaan is a real prophet. He wants to release him to the Jews and Nazarenes, but does not, solely because of Herodias’ anger. He offers up everything he can think of to Salomé, if only she will not request that he have Jokanaan murdered. However, when she does not relent, he decides that it is better to keep his oath than to spare Jokanaan’s life. Herod allows himself to be manipulated by his base desires. He knows better, but makes evil choices anyway. Herodias is evil as well in Wilde’s version, but just like in the Bible, she doesn’t think Jokanaan is a prophet. She is too shallow and selfish to ever second guess her judgment of him. As for Salomé, she is an absolute monster in the play, but I certainly get the sense that she is insane. When Herod orders her death at the end of play after seeing her kiss Jokanaan’s severed head, I believe he is trying to erase evidence of his guilt. In the Bible, I don’t think that Salomé sees herself as having a choice. She’s told to dance- so she dances. She’s told to ask for John the Baptist’s head- so she does. Not having a clear idea of her age makes it even more difficult to try and understand her role and intentions.
Salomé is one of many women in the Bible I look forward to learning more about. In fact, Salomé is one of two women with that name in the Bible. Herodias’ daughter is never named. The historian Josephus is the one who put a name to the biblical woman. The named Salomé, is a good person. She is the mother of James and John, and most likely one of the women at both Jesus’ crucifixion and his tomb. Some believe that she may even be the Virgin Mary’s sister. I hope that we can learn from both Salomé’s. Learning how not to live can be as important as following a good example of a Christian life.