Salome Oscar Wilde and Gospels of Matthew and Mark

The works of Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900) played a prominent part in the complex and contradictory literary life of Britain at the end of the 19th century. Wilde proclaimed that dreary reality should not become the subject of Art. Consequently, he tended to enrich his own delicate, though cold poetry with references to ancient myths.Thus, the legend of Salomé has its beginnings in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark (Matthew 14: 3–11, Mark 6: 17–28). There is no doubt that Oscar Wilde was familiar with numerous treatments of Salomé such as “Hérodias” by Gustave Flaubert, the unfinished poem by Mallarme “Hérodiade” and the paintings of Gustave Moreau.

Heather Marcovitch states in the article “The Princess, Persona, and Subjective Desire: A Reading of Oscar Wilde’s Salome” states that “Wilde planned to distinguish his portrayal of Salome from those of the writers and painters before him.” (88)Indeed, The Salome of Wilde differs from her previous literary incarnations.

“In Flaubert’s story, for instance, Herodias is the instigator of both Salome’s dance and request for John the Baptist’s head.

Salome is merely a pawn in Herodias’s struggle for power with Herod in Flaubert’s story. Wilde, by giving Salome her own motive for dancing before Herod, gives back to the princess a measure of subjectivity that had been denied her since the Bible omitted her name from its tale of John the Baptist’s beheading.” (Marcovitch 88)Two other sources for Wilde’s treatment of the Salome legend deserve to be mentioned. Heinrich Heine, in his 1843 epic Atta Troll, invents a fantastic setting of the story: during the vision of a witches’ wild chase, the narrator describes how Herodias, laughing madly with desire, kisses the head of John.

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She had loved him, Heine continues, and had demanded his head in the heat of passion – for, he asks, “why would a woman want the head of any man she did not love?”

This setting incorporates elements of the Biblical legend, but is one of the first to attribute John’s decapitation to a sexual desire on the part of the woman. Surely, this was an important forerunner of Wilde; nonetheless, as Ellmann points out, Wilde’s Salome is not merely a retelling of Heine’s tale, since the German version makes the shocking kiss into the punishment of Herodias after, not before, her death. Importantly, too, Heine’s ever-present irony is nowhere to be found in Wilde: Heine’s “tone of caricature is quite unlike that of perverted horror which Wilde evokes.” (Thuleen)Perhaps the most direct and at the same time least famous setting of the Salome legend comes from an American author, a contemporary of Wilde named J.C. Heywood. A young Harvard graduate, his dramatic poem Salome was published in Massachusetts in 1862, and reprinted in London throughout the 1880’s. Wilde reviewed the piece in 1888, and seems to have drawn on it for some inspiration: Heywood’s setting is full of erotic nuances, and has a climactic scene of Herodias kissing John’s head following his execution.

Nonetheless, as Ellmann stresses, Heywood’s setting of the legend pales in comparison to Wilde: “to read Heywood … is to come to a greater admiration for Wilde’s ingenuity.” (Thuleen)It is important to note that Wildean charecters of Salome and Herodias are extremely vivid and very distinct while the roles of these two women are often confused in other legends.“Wilde appears to have written the bulk of Salomé while he was in Paris, late in 1891. He completed work on it in early 1892” (Gillespie 135) “Oscar Wilde began to write Salome still enjoying, but being frustrated by, the critical attention given to his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.” (Marcovitch, 88) “Wilde saw Salome as the representation of all the unspoken impulses and desires in Dorian Gray. Yet Wilde takes his character of Salome further than he does Dorian.

Not only does his Salome articulate the motivations that are kept concealed in Dorian Gray, but Wilde gives her a justification for her actions that he deliberately keeps ambiguous with Dorian.” (Marcovitch 89)Significantly, Wilde composed Salome, from the very beginning, in French. Some critics postulate that this fact may account for the simplistic, “phrase-book” language of the play; others vehemently defend Wilde’s fluency in his adopted tongue and prefer to see a Maeterlinck influence. The English edition of Salome was translated by Lord Alfred Douglas in 1893, although there was some contention at the time, as Wilde objected to the “schoolboy faults” of Douglas’ attempt.“Wilde’s choice of French places him in the interesting company of Beckford and Samuel Beckett, and in all three cases there is a correspondence between renunciation of the native language and the artist’s subject … All three write in French because to do so is to enlist the aid of language against nature … Style becomes its own subject.” (Thuleen)The character of Salome is central in the play.

The action develops around her: “But Salome is far more than a mere character in this play: she has become, for Wilde as for Moreau and Huysmans, an incarnation of seductive purity and power. She, like Moreau’s painting, blurs the line between creation and creator, between form and content, between image and word. She exists in legend far beyond the confines of drama or poetry, and in art beyond the borders of the stage. Her ability to create, in words, a painting of Jokanaan’s body is but one example of the power of her speech and of her being.” (Thuleen)  “Like Dorian, Salome is trapped in her persona–an aestheticized image of herself that she projects to the public–as an object of desire. Because Salome, like Dorian, can only function as an object of desire, she is afforded no psychic space to develop subjective desire. …In Salome, Wilde gives us direct access to the princess’s perverted desire. (And this intimate view of Salome paradoxically makes her less attractive than Dorian Gray but slightly more sympathetic.)”.

Already in the openning lines of the play we see a power of contrast. Wilde’s language, however childish and simplistic, is metaphoric and full of opposition, attempts to negate and to recreate, to prohibit and to encourage. The quiet, dream-like statements of Narraboth, countered by the urgency of the Page’s replies, are contrasted with the loud and rough jokes of soldiers, just as Salome’s high-pitched, passionate entreaties to Jokanaan meet with his solemn and deep rebukes. The entirety of sounds, of language as well as intonations, calls to mind a musical performance. (Thuleen)“The Symbolist nature of Salome is an issue that sharply divides literary critics, leading to some rather polemical debates.

A number of writers claim that Wilde was genuinely convinced of these poetic ideals, and that Salome is therefore a faithful “symbolist drama” – Quigley remarks, for example, on how Wilde seems interested “in exploring the outer margins of human experience, the margins at which the continuum of human experience makes contact at one end with religious transcendence and at the other with raw animality.” Other critics find that the tone and plot of the play undercut the symbolism, leading to the conclusion that Salome is “a brilliant pastiche of turn-of-the-century Decadent art,” or that, in another analysis, the drama displays a “humour which one can with difficulty believe to be unintentional, so much does Wilde’s play resemble a parody of the whole of the material used by the Decadents and of the stammering mannerism of Maeterlinck’s dramas.” (Thuleen)I am inclined to consider the play to have symbolist nature. Here is a brief analysis of some symbols used in the play.

Thus, the moon is a recurring leitmotif in the tragedy, and one of the most important symbolical referents for Wilde, and for the characters themselves. In the opening scene, the Page of Herodias and the Young Syrian discuss its appearance in metaphorical, symbolic language: the Page, in an ominous anticipation of events to come, fears that the moon seems “like a woman rising from a tomb,” “like a dead woman … looking for dead things,” while the Young Syrian, ever captivated by Salome, sees the moon instead as “a little princess who wears a yellow veil, and whose feet are of silver.” Upon her entrance, Salome is relieved to see the serene night and the moon, which she describes as “cold and chaste”.Then Herod, in yet another premonition of disaster, is distressed by the moon’s appearance and claims that “she is like a mad woman .. seeking everywhere for lovers … she reels through the clouds like a drunken woman.”

All of these metaphorical descriptions serve to suggest, in images as well as in words, the emotional state of each character, but they also reinforce the power of symbolism, its ability to connect and link the varied elements of the play. (Marcovitch 92) Salome can be considered as an incarnation of art. Born as she was out of a mixture of painting and literature, she incarnates the essence of art, and proves this on several occasions in the drama. When she dances and removes the seven veils, she is left not naked, but bejewelled, her body turning into a living work of art. Herod’s gaze is that of the spectator, the audience for whom she then dances and performs. Her ambiguity, her placement between eroticism and chastity, is that of the artwork itself: lifeless, yet infused with an artificial sensuality.

She is, as we have seen, an artist as well: she creates and destroys, but is in the end herself a creation who meets with destruction. Salome’s dance, too, becomes a symbolic representation of her power to seduce, a fascinating blend of chastity and erotic manipulation. (Thuleen) “Salome’s death, noted tersely in the play as a stage direction, ultimately points to the ambivalent light in which Wilde depicts her. Wilde portrays Salome as uncontrollable desire while also giving her motivation for such desire. In light of this ambivalence, Salome’s death appears to be less a punishment for her actions than the inevitable consequence of them.

Salome dies because, like Dorian Gray, a persona left unchecked cannot be sustained.And, as Dorian’s final hypocritical gesture towards Hetty seals his corrupt behavior, Salome’s final monologue brings the expression of her desire to completion. Yet, like Dorian, Salome realizes that unbounded desire literally means that it will never be satisfied. She concedes, “Neither the floods nor the great waters can quench my passion”.” (Marcovitch 97)  Many critics considered Salomé to be nothing but plagiarism. To my mind, Oscar Wilde rethought numerous legends, poems and paintings and managed to create brilliant, unforgettable characters of his plays. Numerous critic works only stress the genius of Wilde.

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Salome Oscar Wilde and Gospels of Matthew and Mark. (2019, Dec 07). Retrieved from

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