So I happened upon this excellent article by Nancy Thuleen, which discusses Wilde’s influences in writing Salome, including Huysmans’ and Moreau’s (though I’ve become convinced that Wilde was drawing from Huysmans’ description and not Moreau’s painting, regardless whether or not Wilde saw the painting first-hand). Thuleen hits on my concern exactly when she says: “Wilde’s creation of Salome is, too, a work of art, but the question of his originality remains. In nearly every critical assessment, an effort is made to come to terms with the seemingly “derivative” quality of Wilde’s play.”
“Seemingly ‘derivative’” with scare quotes and everything. Can we get a more tentative label for plagiarism? But I understand the hesitation—Wilde is a great artist, and his plays and witticisms are highly entertaining. To call his work plagiarism seems to undermine its greatness. However, my argument is that to simply call it greatness, is to undermine the subtleties of his poetic plagiarisms, influences, allusions, or whatever-you-call-’ems.
But I digress: what are these other sources for Salome? Thuleen cites Heinrich Heine, author of Atta Troll. I glanced over this epic poem, and there’s really only one line that I think points to Wilde’s play: “Would a woman crave the head/Of a man she did not love?” The woman who says it is Herodias, before she, herself, (rather than Salome) kisses the head. I wonder if this question prompted Wilde to give Salome the spotlight, as it was she who requested the head, not her mother, at least not directly, in Matthew’s version. The rest of the poem seems to have to do a lot more with bears and is a somewhat comic adventure, apparently with political commentary.
The other major possible source according to Thuleen is J.C. Heywood’s verse-play Salome. I skimmed it, and it has the dramatic tenor of Wilde’s play, also incorporating cannibalism to boot. There is also some reference to slipping/treading in blood, which is a major image in Wilde’s Salome, as Herod is afraid she will slip in the blood as she dances. Also, though Salome herself doesn’t take center stage in Heywood’s play, she is the focus of some of the concern and attention. Likewise, Wilde’s play begins with the young Syrian and his companion talking about the scene, and alluding to Salome’s deathly nature. When we finally see Salome in Heywood’s play, she does say a few things that distinguish her as a character and could translate well into Wilde’s Salome. She says, “I cannot deem it wrong to love!” and Sextus mentions that she looks so pale at one point, a description that Wilde uses often. However, the Heywood play takes place after Salome has caused the beheading of John the Baptist and there are some people who are fairly upset at her. She is also referred to as a Christian, which is interesting (because why would she murder John the Baptist? But I think her conversion perhaps happens afterwards)—Wilde seems to make her a pagan, believing in the mystical, unlike her mother, who doubts any truth of Jokanaan’s prophesies.
There are apparently a gaggle of other plays and literary treatments of the narrative, making it disputable that Wilde drew from any one source, and perhaps more likely he found the narrative a sort of common property, a tale repeated so many times, and so underdeveloped in the Biblical version that it was fair game. There is sort of a common law fair use attitude about tales told multiple times, and both biblical and fairytales (Snow White most recently) seem to fall into this category.
One other possible inspiration which occurred to me while reading it, but that I’ve not seen any other scholar mention is Hamlet. I know, farfetched, and perhaps not even strong enough to be called allusion, but I noted several things in common—the threads are tenuous, but I couldn’t help think of them as I read. For one, the family structure of both Salome’s and Hamlet’s mother remarrying her husband’s brother. For another, the sexual tension between the child and the parent of the opposite sex (or in Hamlet’s case at least the interpretation of Freudian sexual tension, since it was not as explicit as in Salome). Also, the fine line between insanity and genius—both Hamlet and Salome say some pretty wonky things, but in Hamlet’s case we know that it’s a front, and while we might expect this in Salome, since we could think she’s only finding some excuse to act in her mother’s interests, feigning insane lust, Salome is found out at the end to actually be nuts. So, perhaps some parallels here?
Anyway, I thought Salome was brilliant and a really complex example to dive into in regards to influence, plagiarism, and allusion. In my opinion, the influence is undeniable, but plagiarism? Not quite.