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Salome1894Beardsley

Salome and the head of Jokanaan. 1894 illustration by Aubrey Beardsley.

Salome (French: Salomé) is a tragedy in one act by the Irish playwright Oscar Wilde. The play is a work of historical fiction, set in Judea in the 1st century CE. It is inspired by events which are briefly narrated in the Biblical Gospels of Matthew and Mark.

The play's title character is a princess of Judea, the stepdaughter of Herod Antipas, the tetrach or king of Judea, and the daughter of Queen Herodias.[1] Before marrying Herod, Herodias had been married to his older brother, the previous king whom Herod had killed. The prophet Jokanaan[2] has often spoken out against Herodias' incestuous marriage. At the start of the play, Jokanaan is being held prisoner in Herod's palace. When Salome sees Jokanaan, she instantly falls in love with him, in spite of his strange appearance. However, when Jokanaan finds out that Salome is the daughter of Herodias, he is repulsed by her and will not allow her to touch him. Nevertheless, Salome insists that she will kiss Jokanaan's mouth. Herod, who takes an interest in Salome which seems inappropriate for a stepfather, asks the princess to dance for him. Salome refuses at first but agrees after Herod tells her that she can have anything she wants as a reward after her dance. Salome asks for the head of Jokanaan, simply so that she can keep her word and kiss his mouth.[3]

Oscar Wilde wrote Salome in French in 1891. The text was first published in 1893. An English translation, with illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley, was published in 1894. The translation is usually credited to Wilde's lover Lord Alfred Douglas. In reality, Douglas' imperfect translation was extensively revised and rewritten by Wilde himself before publication.

Salome was intended to be performed in London in 1892, in a production which would have starred the famous French actress Sarah Bernhardt. The 1892 production never took place. At the time, it was illegal to represent Biblical characters on the British stage and performance of the play was banned. Consequently, the first performance of Salome was not in Britain but in Paris, on February 11, 1896. Although there were private performances of the play for English theater clubs in 1904 and 1905, the first public performance of Salome in the United Kingdom, at London's Savoy Theatre, did not occur until October 5, 1931.

The play has been adapted twice as an opera. The first version, with music by Richard Strauss, was first performed in 1905. The second, with music by Antoine Mariotte, was first performed in 1908.

Plot

Olivier Bruaux - Salomé - Oscar Wilde 2009-07

The Young Syrian and Salome in a 2009 production of the play.

The play takes place on a moonlit night on a terrace of the palace of King Herod of Judea. Several soldiers, servants and slaves are gathered on the terrace. Nearby, King Herod is holding a banquet, attended by Jews, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, including ambassadors of the Roman emperor. The people gathered on the terrace can see the banquet quite clearly. A Young Syrian, a captain of the guards, looks at the Princess Salome, Herod's stepdaughter, and marvels at her beauty. His friend, the Page of Salome's mother Queen Herodias, warns the Young Syrian that he looks at the princess too much and that no good will come of it. The Page comments that the moon looks like a dead woman who has risen from the tomb. He fancies that the moon is looking for someone to kill.

The voice of the prophet Jokanaan is heard. It is revealed that Jokanaan is being kept prisoner nearby in an old water tank. The same water tank served as the prison for Herod's older brother, Herodias' first husband and the previous King of Judea, for twelve years before Herod had him killed. Herod is rumored to be frightened of Jokanaan.

Salome leaves the banquet and goes onto the terrace, commenting that she does not like the way that her stepfather Herod has been looking at her. She hears the voice of Jokanaan and is fascinated by it, even though she knows that Jokanaan has frequently said very unpleasant things about her mother Herodias. From the soldiers, Salome finds out that Jokannan is a young man and decides that she wants to see him. She asks the soldiers to bring Jokanaan from his prison but they all refuse, telling her that Herod has forbidden it. Eventually, she promises to look and smile at the Young Syrian and give him a green flower when she passes by him the following day. The Young Syrian commands the soldiers to bring Jokanaan to the princess.

John+Salome

Jokanaan and Salome. 1894 illustration by Aubrey Beardsley.

Jokanaan makes some comments which Salome takes as insults directed towards her mother. He also says that he can hear the beating of large wings which he believes are those of the Angel of Death. When Jokanaan finds out that Salome is the daughter of Herodias, a woman he has condemned for committing incest by marrying her late husband's brother, he is horrified. Salome, however, immediately falls in love with the prophet. She is, in turns, fascinated and then repulsed by his very white skin and very black hair. She ultimately decides that it is his very red mouth which she loves. She repeatedly tells Jokanaan that she will kiss his mouth. Jokanaan, however, is disgusted by the idea of Salome touching him.

The Young Syrian cannot bear Salome's display of affection for Jokanaan. He commits suicide and falls between Salome and the prophet. Before he is taken away, Jokanaan reminds Salome that he said he could hear the wings of the Angel of Death and it was therefore a prophecy of the Young Syrian's death. The Page remembers how he said that the moon was looking for someone to kill but did not know that someone would be his friend the Young Syrian.

Some of the soldiers say that they should take away the Young Syrian's corpse, since Herod hates the sight of dead bodies, unless they are people whose deaths he has ordered himself. The Page says that there is no need, since Herod never goes onto the terrace because he is afraid of Jokanaan. Herod goes onto the terrace immediately afterwards.

Herod has come to the terrace to look for Salome, wondering why she left the banquet early. His wife Herodias comments that he looks at her daughter too much. Herod says that the moon looks like a naked woman looking for lovers. Herodias, however, thinks that it just looks like the moon. Herod slips in the Young Syrian's blood, which he takes to be an evil omen. He cannot understand why the Young Syrian killed himself, although he thinks that the young soldier may have looked at Salome too much. Herod thinks that he can hear the sound of the beating of large wings. Herodias, however, says that she can hear nothing.

The banquet is moved onto the terrace and torches are lit to illuminate the scene. Herod asks Salome to drink some wine. She answers that she is not thirsty. He asks her to eat some fruit. She answers that she is not hungry. He asks her to sit next to him in her mother's throne. She answers that she is not tired.

Gospel of Mark Chapter 6-3 (Bible Illustrations by Sweet Media)

Salome dances before King Herod. 1984 Bible illustration which is now in the public domain.

The voice of Jokanaan is heard again, much to Herodias' displeasure. She despises the man whom she feels is constantly criticizing her. Herod points out that Jokanaan has never mentioned her name. He denies that he is scared of Jokanaan, whom he feels has never criticized him, except for marrying the wife of the brother that he had murdered. Herod is open to the possibility that Jokanaan may be a genuine prophet who has seen God.

Saying that he needs cheering up, after having slipped in blood and been troubled by the sound of large wings, Herod asks Salome to dance for him. At first, she refuses. Herod tells her that if she dances for him, he will give her anything she wants, even half of his kingdom. Salome agrees. Against her mother's wishes, Salome performs the Dance of the Seven Veils, bare footed with the Young Syrian's blood still on the floor.

Traversi Salome

Salome with the severed head on a silver platter. Mid 18th century oil painting by Gaspare Traversi.

After her dance, Salome tells Herod that for her reward she wants the head of Jokanaan on a silver platter. Herodias is pleased to hear this but Herod is horrified. He tells Salome that she should not listen to her mother's advice. Salome replies that asking for Jokanaan's head was entirely her own idea and had nothing to do with her mother. Herod tries to get Salome to change her mind, offering her instead the world's largest emerald, one hundred white peacocks, many hidden jewels and other treasures which even Herodias has never seen, even the robe of the High Priest and the curtain from the Temple. He also apologizes for having looked at Salome too much and promises never to do it again. Salome, however, insists that she wants the head of Jokanaan and nothing else. Herod admits defeat and orders the execution of Jokanaan.

Jokanaan's head is brought to Salome and she begins to talk to it. She says that Jokanaan was the only man that she ever loved and that, although he may have seen God, he obviously did not really see her, otherwise he would have loved her too. She tells the head that she will keep her promise to kiss Jokanaan's mouth.

Herod is horrified by the scene. He is certain that he has committed a crime against God by having Jokanaan killed and that the prophet's death will have terrible consequences. So that he does not have to see the sight of Salome with Jokanaan's head any longer, Herod orders that all the lights be put out. Shortly afterwards, the moon passes behind a cloud.

In the darkness, Salome can be heard saying that she has kissed Jokanaan's mouth and is uncertain if the bitter taste which she tasted was that of blood or that of love. When a beam of moonlight illuminates Salome once again, Herod orders that she be put to death immediately. His soldiers respond by crushing Salome beneath their shields.

Footnotes

  1. The stepdaughter of Herod Antipas and the daughter of Herodias is nameless in the New Testament. She is named as Salome in Antiquities of the Jews by the 1st century Romano-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. In Josephus' account, there is no reference to any connection between Salome and John the Baptist.
  2. Jokanaan (Iokanaan in the original French version of the play) is the name which Wilde gives to the Biblical character John the Baptist. The Hebrew and Aramaic equivalents of the name "John" are more usually transliterated into English as "Yohanan".
  3. Neither the Gospel of Matthew nor the Gospel of Mark give any indication that the daughter of Herodias had fallen in love with John the Baptist. In both Biblical accounts, asking for John's head is not her idea. Instead, she asks for it because her mother tells her to do so.

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