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Salomé

Oscar Wilde

Part 3

Part 2

Part 4

Summary

The First Soldier insists that they transport the Syrian's body or risk Herod's discovery of it. The Page moans that the Syrian was his brother and closer to him than one: he gave him perfume, earrings, a ring, and in the evening they would walk by the river. The Syrian would tell him of his country and gaze at himself in the river. Suddenly the court enters, Herod calling for Salomé, and Herodias reproaching him for always staring at her daughter. Herod muses on the "strange look" of the moon, comparing her to a drunken madwoman looking for lovers. Herodias replies that the "moon is like the moon, that is all" and bids him inside. Herod refuses, calling the servants to bring the festivities outside. Herodias knows all too well why he remains.

Herod slips on the blood of the Syrian and gasps at the ill omen; he also refuses to look on the corpse. The Soldiers feign not knowing why the Syrian killed himself. Herod remarks he thought Romans only did so. Tigellinus replies that some do—the Stoics—but that they are "perfectly ridiculous." Herod regrets the Syrian's death: he was fair to look at though he looked too much at Salomé. Upon the removal of the body, Herod feels a wind blowing and hears a beating of wings in the air. Herodias hears nothing and again bids him inside. Herod invites Salomé to drink from his cup so he might drain it or bite into his fruit so that he might eat it. She refuses. Herod reproaches the bitter Herodias for the daughter she has raised. He offers Salomé her mother's seat.

Jokanaan announces that what he has foretold has come to pass. Herodias asks Herod to silence him: he is forever "vomiting insults" against her. She remarks that Herod most certainly fears him, for why else does he not deliver him to the Jews? Herod replies that he spares Jokanaan from delivery to the Jews since he is a holy man who has seen God. A Jew rejoins that no man has seen God since Elias. God has hidden himself, and thus evil has come upon the land. Another Jew notes that Elias saw but the shadow of God. Yet another insists that God shows himself in everything. Another attributes that belief to a dangerous Greek doctrine. A fifth insists that man cannot know how God works. A weary Herodias asks Herod to silent the group. Herod notes that some say Jokenaan is Elias.

Jokanaan announces the coming of the "Savior of the world." When Herod asks what he means, Tigellinus answers that Caesar takes the title. Herod protests that Caesar is not coming into Judea. As lord, he can do as he wishes but he is too gouty. A Nazarene declares that Jokanaan speaks of the Messiahs who work miracles. Herodias scoffs. The group reviews the miracles: the changing of water into wine, the healing of the lepers, his walk with the angels, the raising of the dead daughter of Jairus. Though he approves of the other works, Herod forbids Him from performing the last. Jokanaan curses the daughter of Babylon with "golden eyes" and "gilded eyelids," announcing her stoning, the piercing of her body with swords, its mashing under shields.

Analysis

The primary action of the ensuing scene begins with the appearance of Herod and his court. First, however, the Page delivers a short eulogy by the Page the Syrian. His death is irrelevant to the drama of the figures that captured his gaze and "make" the play's spectacle, mourned only by the friend who warned him. The reader should linger on this parenthesis. The homoeroticism in their friendship is thinly veiled: the Syrian was the Page's "brother" and "nearer to [him] than a brother". In his memories, the Page's "seduction" in by the Syrian revolve around his voice—a "flute" that told him stories of his exotic land—and his gaze. Specifically this gaze was a narcissistic one: the Syrian loved to gaze at himself in the river, much to his friend's reproach. The Syrian's self-love seduces the Page, and thus the Page sets himself to adorning the Syrian with agate, earrings, and perfume. Soon thereafter, Herod will also underline how the Syrian is caught up in a system of looks, recalling how he was "fair to look upon"—we are surely in a universe of aesthetes here—and had "languorous eyes", eyes that perhaps looked too much at Salomé. Note again that it is not only the characters that are objects of the look here but their looks, as in they look, themselves. Finally, recall that the Syrian's death emerges not only from looking at Salomé, but from being looked at by the princess and moon. As the Page laments, he should have hidden him from the moon's deathly stare and removed him to a cavern out of sight.

Whatever his place under these gazes in life, in death the Syrian falls out of this system of looks altogether, becoming a tabooed object that must be removed from the royal stage. "I will not look on it" insists Herod. Though quickly removed, the Syrian leaves his trace on the palace grounds, the blood on which Herod slips. For Herod, his slip portents death, serving perhaps as the counterpart and another prefiguring of Salomé's dance of death. Visually, the Syrian's blood, the trace of his corpse, remains as a stain, a mark of death on the palace and its system of looks that the king cannot efface. With the removal of the Syrian's corpse, death only makes itself felt by other means. Herod complains of a wind and the sound of beating wings, sensing the invisible "angel of death" lurking behind them that Jokanaan heralds earlier. It is also of course in these scenes that Jokanaan foretells and demands Salomé's death under the shields, a prophecy Herodias mistakes as her own.

Calling for the torches to be lit, Herod takes the party outside to look at Salomé. Despite Herodias's embarrassed reproaches, he cannot tear his eyes away: ultimately her image will transfix him entirely. Along with staring at Salomé, Herod of course also gazes at the moon. As noted above, the moon appears here as a double of Salomé's: for the Page specifically, the woman bearing death. Earlier, perhaps echoing Mallarmé's Herodias, Salomé triumphantly imagines her as a virgin, a goddess who never defiled herself as her sisters did. Tellingly, Herod sees no virgin in the moon but its opposite: a naked, drunken madwoman who searches everywhere for lovers and will not let the clouds cover her nakedness. As Salomé notes earlier, the wish in his gaze is all too clear. In following Herod's desiring gaze, we should not also forget the recurring eroticism of the mouth. Herod invites the princess to drink from his cup and bite into his fruit, leaving the trace of her mouth so that he may consume the rest. Eating is of course already sensual: here, under the trace of Salomé's mouth, it is a metaphor for sex.

The next major exchange following Herod's attempts at seduction are the debates of the Jews and Nazarenes. Already the Jews have been posed as "howling" and "wild beasts," haggling over the controversy introduced by Jokanaan. The reports of the Messiahs' miracles by the Nazarenes that follow the debate of the Jews 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 themselves 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 seems apiece with the comic court dialogue, dialogue rather sparse in this rather heavy play. Wildean humor emerges, for example, in the conjunction of the Tetrarch's automatic reverence of Caesar and unwittingly caricaturizing observation that the emperor is too gouty to travel. Similarly is it hard not to hear the "perfectly ridiculous" of Wilde's society comedies in Tigellinus's characterization of the Stoics—the all-too-certain enemies of Wilde's philosophy of pleasure—as being "perfectly ridiculous" in their tendency to commit suicide.

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