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Salomé

Oscar Wilde

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Plot Overview

Oscar Wilde was born in 1854 in Dublin, Ireland to two accomplished parents—his mother was a respected poet and translator and his father was a knighted surgeon. Wilde won prizes in classics throughout his youth and received prestigious scholarships to Trinity and then Magdalen College, Oxford, where he won even more prizes for his poetry. While at Oxford, he came under the influence of aestheticists Walter Pater and John Ruskin and joined them later to become a key figure in the founding of the aesthetic movement. After university, Wilde moved to London, where he insinuated himself into London's most glamorous drawing rooms as a wit, dandy, and high aesthete. In 1881 he published a volume of poetry and left for an American lecture tour on the arts the following year, during which he met Henry Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Walt Whitman. Upon returning to London, he married, fathered two sons, and published several collections of children's stories and Irish folktales. In 1887 he also took a post as editor of Woman's World magazine.

The period from 1890 to 1895 brought Wilde to the height of his writing career. The Picture of Dorian Grey appeared in 1891, shocking the public with its homoeroticism. A string of hugely successful plays followed: Lady Windemere's Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895), and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). Scandalous in their assault on Victorian mores, Wilde's new comedy of manners conquered the London stage. Wilde also spent part of this period in France, befriending members of the symbolist and decadent movements and writing his French short drama, Salomé (1891). This period also marked the beginning of Wilde's ill-fated love affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, which would soon prove to be his downfall. In 1895 Douglas's irate father, the Marquess of Queensbury, left a card at Wilde's club addressed: "To Oscar Wilde, posing as a somdomite (sic)". Getting the point, Wilde sued for libel but dropped the charges when the sensational trial turned in his disfavor. He was then arrested and convicted of homosexual practices and sentenced to two years hard labor. Wilde would later write of his time in prison in his last major work, The Ballad of Reading Gaol" (1898). Broken by his public disgrace, Wilde spent the last years of his life sick and poor, wandering Europe and sinking into drug addiction. Ultimately he died of cerebral meningitis in a Paris hotel in 1900.

As noted above, Wilde wrote Salomé while frequenting the symbolist circles of late nineteenth-century Paris. Among the symbolists, the legend of the Oriental princess who dances for the head of John the Baptist had experienced a massive revival in both the visual and literary arts. According to his biographers, Wilde drafted the bulk of the play in a single sitting after an evening spent discussing the legend with a number of fellow writers. Taking a break, Wilde stopped by a nearby café that same night and requested that the orchestra help him in his endeavor by playing something that might conjure a "woman dancing in her bare feet in the blood of a man she has craved for and slain." Wilde completed his play soon thereafter. Significantly, he wrote Salomé entirely in French, and, because of a law forbidding the theatrical depiction of biblical figures, the play never saw production in either English or England during Wilde's lifetime. As a result, Wilde published the work in the original, and actress Sarah Bernhardt later staged it in a production. An English translation of the play by Lord Alfred Douglas appeared in 1894, though Wilde reportedly regretted what he saw as its "schoolboy fault." Hedwig Lachmann produced Salomé's more respectable German translation, which served as the libretto to Richard Strauss's opera of the same name. A number of Salomé's critics have suggested that Wilde's weakness in French explains the play's at times simple and repetitive dialogue; others have argued for its intentionally mechanical and estranged effects, comparing the piece especially to the work of symbolist Maurice Maeterlinck. It is also possible that Wilde's turn from his native tongue corresponds from a turn from the "native" subjects of his domestic comedies, French figuring here as the language of choice for his Orientalist reverie.

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