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Salomé

Oscar Wilde

Study Questions and Suggested Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

What is the significance of Herod's smothering of the torches at the end of the play? Why does he retire from view?

In calling for the torches to be put out, Herod withdraws into darkness. The play prefigures this retirement a few scenes earlier, when he desperately implores Salomé to release him from his word and spare the prophet Jokanaan. Guiltily, Herod believes Salomé is punishing him for his incestuous 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 at things and being looked at, 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.

What is the significance of Naaman, Herod's executioner? Why function does he serve in the play?

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 legitimates and protects him. In particular, Naaman's skin figures strongly in the play's treatment of colors. 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 stands against the gleaming whiteness of his body but blackness as prop.

Examine the relationship between the Syrian and the Page. What does it have to do with "looking"?

The Syrian and the Page open the play, appearing as two voyeurs. The former looks at the princess, and the latter looks at the moon, seeing therein a harbinger of death. As if sensing that the forbidden Salomé, like the moon, threatens death with both her look and as that which captures the Syrian's, the Page will continually warn him against looking at her too much. The play will then briefly elaborate the relationship of these two secondary voyeurs after the Syrian's suicide when the Page delivers a short eulogy. The Syrian's 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 homoeroticism in their friendship is thinly veiled: the Syrian was the Page's "brother" and "nearer to [him] than a brother". For the Page, the Syrian's death comes not only from looking at Salomé, but from being looked at by the princess and moon. As he laments, he should have hidden the Syrian from the moon's deathly stare and removed him to a cavern out of sight. In his memories, the Page's "seduction" 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: thus he sets himself to adorning him with agate, earrings, and perfume.

Suggested Essay Topics

What is the significance of the mouth in Salomé? Possible considerations include: the relations between the mouth and eroticism, the mouth and the voice, the mouth and the dead, etc.

Consider Salomé's color scheme. How do colors function in the play? Possible considerations include: color and symbolism, color and synesthesia (the confusion of the senses), color and the body, etc.

Consider the prohibitions on looking in the play. Who is prohibited from looking at what? On what terms, in whose authority, and in what language do the prohibitions appear? What transpires when these prohibitions are violated?

Consider the trope of the dance in Salomé. Along with the dance of the seven veils itself, when does "dancing" appear in the play? What is its significance?

What is the function of the Jews in the play? Consider them in particular their relation to their "foils," the Nazarenes?

What is the significance of blood in Salomé? Consider, for example, the bloodstain left by the Syrian in which Herod slips, the blood petals of Herod's garland, etc.

Consider the trope of decapitation in the play. Along with the prophet's execution, where else does decapitation appear? What is its significance? You may also want to examine related tropes of defacement, dismemberment, castration, etc.

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