Salomé

by: Oscar Wilde

Part 5

Summary Part 5

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."