Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The Look and the Spectacle of the Body
That Salomé concerns itself with looking is about as self-evident as its concern with sex. The Salomé legend, featuring what has been for the West one of the primal scenes of woman-as-spectacle and male spectator, is organized in all its forms around the seductive play of voyeurism and exhibitionism, exhibition and concealment, and the transgression of visual taboos on the body. Invariably, the transgression of these taboos involves illicit sexual desire. Looking in Salomé is dangerous, bringing death on the stage. Thus the image of the prophet that captures Salomé's illicit gaze awakens her lethal desire and the fascination of Herod's incestuous gaze by the image of the dancing Salomé, and her seductive veils binds him to the prophet's execution.
At the center of the play is of course Salomé. Her image fatally captures the male gaze: for looking on her too much, the Syrian will die. Equally significant is Salomé's own "strange look," a look she will cast specifically on Jokanaan, which will demand the prophet's recognition to the point of his death. We elaborate the qualities of this Salomé as spectacle and look further under Motifs. The other forbidden gaze in the play is Herod's. Herod's look upon Salomé is incestuous, lascivious, and grotesque—that of a "mole's eyes" under "shaking eyelids." When Herod's lust for looking leads him to Jokanaan's execution, he will guiltily exclaim that Salomé is punishing him for his look. Thus he will resolve 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."
Along with the dancing Salomé, the play's other primary body-as-spectacle is Jokanaan's. As a mystic, Jokanaan would remove himself from worldly desire—again, here organized fundamentally by structures of voyeurism and exhibitionism, look and spectacle—in his apparent "blindness" and invisibility. Reduced to God's mouthpiece, Jokanaan sees nothing. Only gradually does he emerge from his haze to see Salomé—the girl everyone else is looking at—and then immediately refuses to grant her his gaze. As Salomé exclaims, the prophet's blank eyes are above all terrible, like black holes burned in tapestries, dragon caverns, and—in a reference to her attempt to seduce him—lakes troubled by "fantastic moons." The blackness of his eyes marks Jokanaan's refusal to return the enamored princess' gaze by looking at her. Secreted in the cistern and barred from view by royal decree, Jokanaan is also an invisible, tabooed body. Salomé's transgression is her look on him, a look that gives him an eroticized body.
Throughout the play, Jokanaan conjures the image of Herod's ruin, evoking a king on his throne "clothed in scarlet and purple" and bearing a "golden cup full of his blasphemies", a fallen king wearing a silver robe and holding a cup of abominations, and onward. Jokanaan proclaims that an angel will smite this monarch and that "he shall be eaten of worms." Such images of kings bedecked in the earthly splendor that condemns them to their future ruin are of course familiar to readers of the Bible. They take on especially potent visual form in the late-Renaissance tradition in painting of vanitas, in which those trappings of earthly splendor and beauty conceal the death and decay that have already come and indeed are already visible upon closer scrutiny. Salomé thematizes similar conjunctions of beauty, splendor, and decay throughout, twinning, for example, the dancing Salomé and her veils with the image of a corpse and its shroud. Such conjunctions are crucial to Wilde's work, Dorian Gray of course being the foremost example.
Though Salomé is not directly "about" the Orient, the reader would do well, in an era where many still believe that the "clash of civilizations" is upon us, to take a cue from Edward Said and consider the play's imbrications in the longstanding Western discourse of Orientalism. In this sense, Salomé would figure less a "portrait" of some supposed Orient than as staging of Victorian fantasies of it. Take, for example, the parenthesis on the Tetrarch's wine toward the beginning of the play. Here the Second Soldier lists Herod's three wines in a series of parallel structures, describing their color and land of origin: purple from Samothrace, yellow from Cyprus, and red from Sicily. Color is evoked in simile: purple like Caesar's cloak, yellow like gold, and red like blood. The listings of the wines is reminiscent of a fairy tale device, the wines mapping the fantastic and exotic world of the play and evoking its trappings of power. Here the language belongs to a fantasy of the exotic Orient, an Orient composed of ornaments, luxurious commodities, wondrous artifacts, fiery passions, and high adventure.
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.
The Moon as Woman
As noted above, the moon appears here as a double of Salomé's and a symbol of woman. For the Page, the moon is the woman bearing death. Salomé triumphantly imagines the moon as virgin, as the 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 seeks everywhere for lovers and will not let the clouds cover her nakedness. As Salomé notes earlier, the wish in Herod's gaze is all too clear. Again, Herodias resists the cast's propensity for symbolism. When Herod sees a madwoman in the moon, she can but scoff: "the moon is like the moon, that is all."
Salomé features a host of omens symbolizing the death about to befall the palace, the majority of which are perceived by an increasingly desperate, paranoiac Herod and prophesied by Jokanaan. Examples include: the beating wings of the angel of death, the blood in which Herod slips, and the blood-red moon. Some have somatic effects: his garland is like fire and burns his forehead. He tosses it on the table and its petals become bloodstains on the cloth. Certainly one hears the echo of the crown of thorns here. Terrified Herod reflects that one "must not find symbols in everything" as it "makes life impossible." Unlike Herodias, however, Herod would not seek life in an ultimately hopeless denial of metaphor but in metaphor itself—specifically, the reversibility between metaphor's terms. Thus "it [is] better to say that stains of blood are as lovely as rose petals." Of course, the omen is perhaps characterized by the inflexibility of its metaphoric structures, the stop in the whirligig between a metaphor's terms. Though usually vague in its meaning and thus producing uncontrollable anxiety in its audience, it remains "motivated" nevertheless as a demonstration of some ill fate. Thus the petals are blood because the garland must portent dark times in the palace.
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