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Salomé

Oscar Wilde

Part 5

Part 4

Important Quotations Explained

Summary

Herod offers Salomé an emerald from Caesar that, if looked through, has telescopic properties. Salomé continues to demand Jokanaan's head. Increasingly desperate, Herod rejoins that Salomé only asks to punish him for looking at her. Her beauty has troubled him. He will look no more, at neither things nor people. "Only in mirrors should one look, for mirrors do but show us masks." He calls for wine. He offers her his flock of white peacocks with feet of gilded gold. When they cry the rain comes, and the moon shows herself when they spread their tales. Among them Salomé will be like the moon in the midst of a great cloud.

Salomé is unmoved. Herod protests that Jokanaan might be a holy man and has foretold disaster on the day of his death. Herod offers her the jewels hidden in the palace: pearls like moons caught in a net; black and red-wine amethysts; topazes like the eyes of tigers, cats, and pigeons; moonstones; onyxes like the eyes of a dead woman. He has a crystal that woman cannot look upon and that men can only see upon being beaten with robs, a golden cup that turns to silver when filled with an enemy's poison, turquoises that enable their wearer to imagine what is not real. Herod would even give her the veil of the sanctuary to be released from his word. Salomé refuses.

Herod falls back, having drained his glass of wine, and the Soldier bears his death ring to the frightened Executioner. The executioner climbs into the cistern. Salomé leans over it, wondering why she does not hear sounds of struggle. She hears something fall. Convinced it is the sword of the cowardly executioner, she commands the Page and then the Soldiers to finish the job. All recoil. A huge black arm emerges from the cistern, bearing Jokanaan's head on a silver shield. Salomé seizes it, as Herod hides his face with his cloak. The Nazarenes pray, and Herodias smiles and fans herself.

Salomé tells the head that she will kiss its mouth now. But she still asks why Jokanaan refuses to look at her. She commands him to look at her. She remarks how ee rejected her with his viper tongue and treated her, the princess of Judaea, as a harlot. Now his head is hers to do with as she wishes. Jokanaan was the only man she loved, his body a beautiful "column of ivory set on a silver socket", a garden of doves and silver lilies, a silver tower decked with ivory shields. He saw his God but never saw her. She hungers for his body, and nothing will quench her. She was a virgin, and she took his virginity. If he had looked at her, he would have loved her, and love's mystery is greater than death's.

Herod declares Salomé monstrous. Herodias approves. Herod refuses to stay and calls for the servants to put out the torches. He will not look at things nor suffer them to look at him. "Put out the torches! Hide the moon! Hide the stars!" he exclaims. Herod begins to climb the staircase to the palace, and the stage goes dark. The voice of Salomé annouces that she has kissed the prophet's mouth. It tastes bitter, perhaps of blood or love. A moonbeam falls on Salomé, covering her with light. Herod turns and, upon seeing Salomé, orders the soldiers to kill her. They rush forward and crush her beneath their shields.

Analysis

Desperately, Herod implores Salomé to release him from his word. Again, note the profusion of the tropes of looking. Herod guiltily believes that Salomé is punishing him for his look. Her "beauty has troubled him" and he has looked at her "too much." He resolves to withdraw from looking altogether, turning from both people and things. This withdrawal prefigures his disgusted retirement from the scene of the visible, where he puts out the palace torches and reduces the stage to darkness: "I will not look at things, I will not suffer things to look at me." Herod would have nothing to do with the economy of desire, the games of voyeurism and exhibitionism that structure the play. Strangely, he then delivers the play's only "Wildean" epigraph: "Only in mirrors should one look, for mirrors do but show us masks." Instead of looking and being looked, Herod would opt, hopelessly, for the fascinations of the mirror and masquerade. This escape is hopeless as the self's look in the mirror is of course hardly free of the game of looks between self and other.

Tellingly, the lavish array of treasures Herod offers Salomé also concern themselves with sight. Herod would surrender all of these 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, the fifty peacocks that join the chain of metaphors linked to the "clouds" that swathe the moon/Salomé. 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 is hardly innocent, the mythological origins of the peacock's fan being 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 ultimate gift is of course the stolen veil of sanctuary: that is, the veil designated to conceal the Ark of the Covenant. Herod's sacrilege, so stunning to the Jews, lies not simply in the veil's misuse but in the equation of the sacred veil and Salomé's, the veil as keeper of holy mysteries and the veil as the keeper of sexual ones.

Salomé tersely refuses to yield, and the executioner descends into the cistern. Though this "huge Negro" is a marginal figure at best, it is his very marginality that merits commentary. The silent and imposing Naaman is a stock figure of nineteenth-century Orientalist fantasy. Literally part of the background, he is vaguely animal like, subject to bestial emotions (such as unreasoning fear), and perfectly carries out the will of others. As the emergence of his arm from the cistern suggests, he is but an instrument of death: as the soldiers remark, the king's insignia is the death sentence that legitimizes and protects him. In particular, Naaman's skin figures strongly in the play's treatment of color. Note in particular the violent contrast between his arm and the pale head of the prophet. The tableau stages a strange double castration, chopping off both the prophet's head and the executioner's arm. Naaman's black arm is literally reduced to a prop supporting the prophet's head and its ornate charger. On a stage where all bodies are liable to become art objects, it is not so much Naaman's "aestheticization" that marks his subordination but his relegation to the background. His is neither the terrible blackness of Jokanaan's eyes that stand against the gleaming whiteness of his body but blackness as prop.

After the brief, suspenseful deferral of Jokanaan's death, Salomé hungrily seizes upon the prophet's head and makes her chilling declaration of love. As the disgusted Herod observes, here she would appear at her most monstrous, rehearsing the praises of Jokanaan that she made earlier regarding the whiteness of his body, the blackness of his hair, and the redness of his lips. At times, they chillingly evoke the prophet's decapitation ("Thy body was a column of ivory set on a silver socket"), underlining how Salomé had loved Jokanaan to death. Again she issues her demands: Jokenaan must look at her ("Open thing eyes! Lift up thine eyelids, Jokanaan! Wherefore dost thou not look at me?"), and she must kiss him.

This final, almost gruesome spectacle proves too much for Herod, who, as noted above, moves to retire from the field of vision. The stage goes dark, and Salomé consummates her love for the prophet in a necrophilic kiss, committed in the darkness as if too obscene to be seen. Salomé has transgressed the boundary between living and dead reinforced by Herod earlier with regard to the Messiahs' miracles, the Tetrarch insisting that no one resurrect the dead. Salomé's address to the prophet's head would reanimate it through the voice, and their abject kiss crosses the boundaries between them in full. The play thus delivers Salomé up to the judgment of two gazes: the moon and the Tetrarch's. The moon's gaze, though once apparently aligned with Salomé's, now appears autonomous, bearing death from a decidedly inhuman (though still feminine) realm. The moon "chooses" Salomé as its victim, and Herod follows its command. Salomé, the consummate spectacle, is condemned to death by obscurity, the princess disappearing under the barrage of shields that smother her. Her demise is ponderous and monumental as befits a biblical epic—note the decelerating rhythm of the pronouncement of Salomé's execution: "The soldiers rush forward and crush beneath their shields Salomé, daughter of Herodias, Princess of Judaea."

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