Salome is Wilde’s retelling of the beheading of John the Baptist. I was only familiar with this story through Sunday School class. However, according to Wikipedia (good research, eh?) Wilde borrowed heavily from several sources in this retelling, moving around certain elements.
Wilde’s short play was certainly interesting, portraying Salome as the embodiment of the moon, lustful and corrupt, but virginal, both willful and capricious at turns. She is compared many times to death. The plot is simple: Salome, beautiful princess and daughter of Herodias is coveted by her mother’s new husband, King Herod. However, Salome visits the prophet and prisoner John the Baptist (named Jokanaan in the play) and lusts after him, at once calling him beautiful and disgusting. Because of this, the young Syrian captain who set up the meeting between these two commits jealous suicide. Jokanaan is not interested in the least, but Salome vows that she will kiss his mouth. Herod enters and begs Salome to sit with him, but when she will not he begs that she dances for him and promises her anything up to half his kingdom if she will. She dances, and cashes in with the request for Jokanaan’s head. Her mother, who was insulted by Jokanaan, is thrilled at the request. He’s reluctant, but eventually agrees and Jokanaan is beheaded. Salome takes the head and in a long ranting soliloquy she both gloats and professes her love to it. She kisses the head and gets blood all over herself. A moonbeam falls on her and when Herod sees the mess, he orders her killed.
So, there’s some detail here that wasn’t covered in my Sunday School class.
I took a glance at the scriptural version of the story, and here it is in Mathew 14 of the King James Version (Wilde could have had access to this version, as well as many in other languages, or in Latin or Greek from his training at Oxford):
“At that time Herod the tetrarch heard of the fame of Jesus, And said unto his servants, This is John the Baptist; he is risen from the dead; and therefore mighty works do shew forth themselves in him. For Herod had laid hold on John, and bound him, and put him in prison for Herodias’ sake, his brother Philip’s wife. For John said unto him, It is not lawful for thee to have her. And when he would have put him to death, he feared the multitude, because they counted him as a prophet. But when Herod’s birthday was kept, the daughter of Herodias danced before them, and pleased Herod. Whereupon he promised with an oath to give her whatsoever she would ask. And she, being before instructed of her mother, said, Give me here John Baptist’s head in a charger. And the king was sorry: nevertheless for the oath’s sake, and them which sat with him at meat, he commanded it to be given her.And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison. And his head was brought in a charger, and given to the damsel: and she brought it to her mother.”
In this version, Salome isn’t named, and her motivations for asking for the head are purely for her mother’s sake, as she gives the head to her at the end. I get the impression, from this, that her mother planned the encounter and fed Salome her lines in order to get her husband to do what she wanted in spite of his people’s wishes.
Why would Wilde make these alterations? For one, I think I agree with him that making Salome into a lustful insane virgin makes for a more interesting story. At least, it gives Salome a character rather than treats her as an extension of her mother’s will.
It looks like Salome is magically levitating John the Baptist’s head, not kissing it on a platter, and I didn’t really see how this painting inspired Wilde until I realized that the second of these paintings is the cover of a book on Wilde’s Plagiarisms I recently read. I didn’t care for the book so much, as it devolved into a justification of creative plagiarism in general, but this tipped off another lightbulb: several scholars mentioned that Wilde borrowed from Huysmans in Picture of Dorian Gray. A couple of months ago I read Huysmans’ A Rebours, basically a story about a jaded rich guy (Des Esseintes) who does all kinds of ostentatious things like gilding a turtle, making his home into an aquarium, and making a perfume organ in order to try to fill the emptiness in his life. Anyway, I was reading it because several sources mentioned it as an inspiration to Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray. In fact, the book features in Wilde’s, as the main character copies some of Des Esseintes’ obsessions. The book itself isn’t named, but it’s kind of obvious that it must be the one from the descriptions Dorian gives. Anyway again, Wilde himself mentions the book in the trials, and there’s a sort of urban legend that Wilde was even reading the book (with a yellow cover, indicating a book from the French decadent movement) when he was arrested. But, here’s the thing: In A Rebours, the fictional main character, Des Esseintes, mentions Moreau’s paintings, buys them, and becomes obsessed with them. Here, he describes the first:
“But neither St Matthew, nor St Mark, nor St Luke, nor any other of the sacred writers had enlarged on the maddening charm and depravity of the dancer. She had always remained a dim and distant figure, lost in a mysterious ecstasy far off in the mists of time, beyond the reach of punctilious, pedestrian minds, and accessible only to brains shaken and sharpened and rendered almost clairvoyant by neurosis….In Gustave Moreau’s work, which in conception went far beyond the data supplied by the New Testament, Des Esseintes saw realized at long last the weird and superhuman Salome of his dreams. Here she was no longer just the dancing-girl who extorts a cry of lust and lechery from an old man by the lascivious movements of her loins….She had become, as it were, the symbolic incarnation of undying Lust, the Goddess of immortal Hysteria, the accursed Beauty exalted above all other beauties by the catalepsy that hardens her flesh and steels her muscles, the monstrous Beast, indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, poisoning, like Helen of ancient myth, everything that approaches her, everything that sees her, everything that she touches” (52-53, translated by Robert Baldick).
Now THAT sounds like Wilde’s Salome. The insanity, the goddess-like cursed nature…later in this passage Des Esseintes ruminates on the meaning of the lotus flower:
“Did it suggest to the old Tetrarch a sacrifice of virginity, an exchange of blood, an impure embrace asked for and offered on the express condition of murder?” (53).
Perhaps Wilde sought to answer that question with a more complex answer–it was an embrace asked for, but asked for by Salome herself.
Something else I feel is notable is that Wilde wrote Salome in French, the language of Huysmans, perhaps as a tribute or a way to converse in the language from which the idea stemmed? Wilde didn’t cite these reasons for writing in French himself, but that he was just trying out another instrument. Though, I wouldn’t put it past him to leave this as a sort of inside joke only accessible to those who have read Huysmans’ work.
There were other writers, too, who had retold the Salome story, but I will leave that for my next post. Wilde was certainly doing some interesting intertextuality here at the very least: but is it allusion or something else? Stay tuned…