Salomé

by: Oscar Wilde

Motifs

The Princess, the Prophet, and the Moon

As almost all its critics have noted, Salomé weaves an extensive network of metaphors around the color white, which all link to the moon, Salomé, and the prophet. Key terms in this network include: an unearthly paleness, flowers, silver and doves (in the case of Salomé), sepulchers, ivory, and statues (in the case of Jokanaan). Significantly it elaborates this network in the cast's various acts of looking at the feminized trio, its members appearing as the play's consummate—and most consuming—objects of the look. Thus the play begins with two voyeurs: the Syrian, who marvels at the beautiful princess, and the Page, mesmerized by the moon. The Page's first line is an injunction to look: "Look at the moon!" Though both these voyeurs first appear lost in their own reveries, their respective monologues soon interweave around the pronoun "she." The moon becomes a metaphor for the princess: she is a dead woman rising from a tomb, slowly moving, dancing a dance of death. The link to the prophet, who will himself soon rise from the tomb-like cistern at the back of the stage, is also clear. Thus the image of the moon/princess/prophet heralds the viewers' death. As the Page repeatedly warns the Syrian, if he looks at "her" too much, undoubtedly something terrible will happen.

Importantly, however, not only does the male look at the female: the female looks back and also with fatal results. The play unfolds under the gaze of the moon, a gaze that, as the page notes, searches for the dead. As the Syrian muses, the princess herself has a "strange look" (the play is consistently unable to resist the double entendre); the Page senses the significance of this female look more clearly: "You would fancy she was looking for dead things." This phrase of course parallels the Syrian's own fancy: "You would fancy she was dancing." Again, Salomé's dance is the dance of death. And, in dancing, she looks for dead things. Thus the feminine will bring death here as both look and spectacle.

The Eye and the Veil

In establishing its structures of looking, the play also develops an extensive metaphoric network around the eye and the spectacle and specifically, the spectacle of the legend's "primal scene": the dance of the seven veils. Rather than attempt to chart its many variations, we can take two of the gifts Herod offers to Salomé in hopes of escaping her demand as points of reference. The lavish array of treasures Herod offers Salomé explicitly concern themselves with sight. Herod would surrender almost everything to prevent Jokanaan's execution. He offers Salomé the privilege of royal sight, tempting her with an emerald that magnifies the powers of the eye. When Salomé refuses, the privilege of an augmented look failing to interest her, he offers her his flock of white peacocks. These fifty peacocks join the chain of metaphors linked to the "clouds" that swathe the moon/Salomé and participate in the seductive interplay between veiling/unveiling, exhibition/concealment. This chain, once again determined by the color white, includes Salomé's veils, the fan that conceals her face, and the doves and butterflies that are her fingers. The choice of peacocks here is hardly innocent, evoking the mythological origins of the peacock's fan in the blind eyes of Argus. In a sense then, Herod offers the princess a seeing eye (the emerald) and then an array of blind ones. In both cases the eye figures as ornament, but, while the former functions as a tool of sight, the later is decorative, ornamenting Salomé's forms of concealment (veils, clouds, etc.). One can detect differential repetitions of these key tropes throughout the array of fantastic treasures: the fifty moon-like pearls, the many eye-like gems, the moonstones, and the parrot-feather fans.

The Jews and the Nazarenes

It is almost stupid to note that Salomé is intensely Christian in its trajectory, told as if Christianity has already "surpassed" Judaism. Salomé situates itself at the advent of the Messiah. Thus another group at the banquet catches the voyeur's attention at the outset of the play are the beast-like Jews who are engaged in irrelevant debate. Their next major appearance sets them off against the Nazarenes. The Jews debate the status of Jokanaan before Herod, and then the Nazarenes go on to the report on the miracles of Messiahs. This sequence would indicate the "progress" from the religion of the Jews to Christianity that Jokanaan's prophecies already herald. Indeed some of the arguments Wilde has written for the Jews seem to favor the movements into Christianity (i.e. because God has hidden himself, evil has fallen on the land, etc.). Certainly the debate of the Jews lends itself to comic interpretation, their dialogue seeming apiece with the comic court dialogue.

Often identified as a Symbolist play, Salomé offers those looking for symbols far too many to enumerate here. Almost all of the play's poetic images, gestures, and objects arguably take on symbolic value. We have identified the more obvious ones here. Herodias presents a decided exception in this cast so heavily inclined toward symbolism in their speech, scoffing at whatever mysteries the characters might conjure.