Salome is a tragedy by Oscar Wilde. The original 1891 version
was in French. Three years later an English translation was published. This
play is based on the story of John the Baptist’s beheading, which can be found
in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, making it a Biblical drama. And although
Wilde changes the story significantly, he remains true to its roots. He doesn’t
try to turn what is a serious episode in the story of Jesus into a comedy or a
farce. Instead he turns what is already a tragic story into something way
darker. While the Gospel’s Salome is an innocent girl manipulated by her
mother, Wilde’s Salome decides the fate of Jokanaan without any prompting or
consultation. The end moment in the play, where Salome is quickly executed
after kissing Jokanaan’s lips, only reinforces the creepy gloominess of Wilde’s
The play begins with a group of soldiers watching the Tetrarch
banqueting. One of the soldiers, a young Syrian, shows a fancy for Salome. We
also get to know that Jokanaan, a prophet has been held captive in a cistern.
When the prophet cries out, the soldiers begin discussing his authority and
religion in general. I noticed that the local citizens in the play are quite
contentious. In the play we hear from Jews, Nazarenes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and
Samarians. All are nominally Jews or have some connection to Jewish beliefs
but, but we see in the play that their beliefs actually differ a lot.
The level of happiness of the protagonist i.e. Salome was the
highest in the beginning of the play and it gradually kept decreasing from
there on. The setting of the play is in the palace of Herod Antipas, Tetrarch
of Judaea. But even though it’s a palace, Wilde’s description of the set is
I feel that the king in this play was a little different then
what is generally seen in other plays. A character like king is usually full of
pride and praises himself irrespective of whether those praises are true or
not. Here we got to see that the King was a coward as he was afraid of the prophet
so much that he had hidden his face behind a cloak when the head of the prophet
was brought to him.
The prophet in this play reminded me of a character ‘The
Joker’ from the movie ‘Batman.’ In the movie the joker was a psychopath, insensitive
to human emotions, said absurd things and did not show any fear of death. We
could see all these qualities in the prophet as well. The prophet was
insensitive to Herodias, made absurd predictions and did not utter a single cry
when his throat was being slit.
We come across the conflict of the play when Salome insists
the young Syrian to let her see the prophet. On meeting Jokanaan Salome lusts
for him but jokanaan hates her. Salome is a confused girl, to put it mildly. She
can’t seem to decide whether she loves him or hates him. Even when she declares
that she will kiss him, her motives aren’t very clear. Her lust is mixed with
something more violent and forceful. This combination of the really dark and
the really sensual defines Salome. I noticed that the women in this play had
quite strong roles. Both Salome and Herodias would easily defy King’s orders
and would without any hesitance put forth their opinion to the King. Quoting
from the text Herodias had said to Herod, “My daughter and I come of a royal
race. As for thee, thy father was a camel driver! He was a thief and a robber
to boot!” Also when the servant brought the head to Salome she held it in her
hands without showing any expression of fright, guilt, remorse or disgust while
the King had hid himself behind his cloak on seeing the head. This play was
published in 1891 and women were not given equal rights to men at that time.
So, we can conclude from this that Oscar Wilde was trying to break the stereotype.
The play comes at its climax when Herod decides he’d like to
see Salome dance when Salome has no interest in even seeing her stepfather, let
alone dancing for him. The suspense starts to build up when Salome after
performing the dance then asks for Jokanaan’s head on a silver platter.
Herodias feels delighted while Herod is horrified. He tries to get Salome to
change her mind, but she won’t budge. So he has to call for Jokanaan to be beheaded.
The scenes where the Herod sees all the Omens and keeps
getting more and more scared reminded me of ‘Julius Caesar’ by William
Shakespeare. In ‘Julius Caesar’ Caesar had also seen the omens for his death
but in spite of getting scared he showed bravery and was determined to fight
death while his scared wife was pleading him to take the bad Omens seriously.
Opposite to this here in this play the king was scared of the Omens and his
wife tried to give him some strength by saying not to take the omens seriously.
At the end of the play Salome is given Jokanaan’s head. She
addresses it, getting angry at him for rejecting her. Still, she shows fancy
for him. When the stage goes dark, Salome kisses Jokanaan. Herod, disgusted,
orders Salome to be put to death. The soldiers crush her beneath their shields.
I found this ending very abrupt and unexpected. We get to see this similar
writing style in some other works of Oscar Wilde like ‘A Florentine tragedy’
where Simone slits Guido’s throat at the end.
If we see how the play stood at the end then all the main
characters i.e. Salome, Herod, and Herodias had gotten what they wanted. Salome
had kissed Jokanaan’s mouth. Herod had seen Salome dance. Herodias had seen
Jokanaan get killed. So, all their wishes were fulfilled.
Critical reaction to OscarWilde’s effort has been mixed.
Mallarme, in a letter full of praise, commended Wilde for his portrayal of the
princess as did Maurice Maeterlinck. Other critics were less favourably
impressed. William Butler Yeats, though often an admirer of Wilde’s works,
considered Salome’s dialogue “empty, sluggish, and pretentious”