Literature

Biblical Influences on Oscar Wilde’s Salome

Oscar Wilde’s style of writing is usually very lyrical, descriptive, luscious and decadent. He revels in the descriptions of beautiful things and beautiful people. This is most evident in his poetry and prose, but even his works of drama feature such descriptions, if not in the stage directions, then at least in the characters’ opinions of others and of society as a whole. Salome is unlike most of Wilde’s plays. It is much shorter and it is the only one that depicts a Biblical scene. The writing is not purely Wilde, but has been shaped by the Bible and by the works of other writers, both historical and contemporary. This, however, does not undercut Wilde trademark style and wit. It inspires him and helps him craft the story of Salome as only he could. In this article we’ll have a look at the influence of Biblical text on both the content and style of the play.

Salome

The story as told by Wilde is about Salome, the daughter of Herodias. Her mother has married Herod the Tetrarch, Salome’s uncle and the man who had her father – his own brother – killed. Salome becomes fascinated by the prophet Jokanaan (Greek for John the Baptist), who has been imprisoned by Herod. From his prison cell, Jokanaan loudly proclaims his prophecies and his disagreement with the relationship between Herod and Herodias, and the way in which it came to be. Salome persuades the young captain of the guard to let her see the prophet. When she finally meets the man, she falls in love with him. He, however, rejects and curses her and goes back to his cell. Despite his rejection, Salome asserts that she will kiss his lips. Later, Herod, who cannot keep his eyes off her, asks Salome to dance for him. Only when he promises to give her anything she wants does she comply with his wishes. After she has danced the dance of the seven veils she asks for the head of Jokanaan, this to the satisfaction of Herodias and the discontentment of Herod. He tries to dissuade her, offering her all sorts of gifts, but she remains steadfast. He finally gives in and Herodias takes the ring of death (symbol for the death penalty) from his hand and gives it to a soldier, who in turn gives it to the executioner. After he has performed his duty, Salome receives the head of Jokanaan. She can finally kiss the lips of the one she loves. As a last act of reprisal, Herod orders his soldiers to kill Salome, and the play ends with the deaths of the two “lovers”.

Illustration by Aubrey Beardsley

Evolution of the Legend

There are many variations of the legend. The most well-known do not even mention Salome by name. They are of course the versions written in the Bible, in the Gospels according to Matthew 14:3-11 and Mark 6:17-28. Others, like ancient Jewish historian Flavius Josephus in his Antiquities of the Jews, have placed the story in a historical context and have given the daughter of Herodias the name of Salome. Other 19th century writers have also written their takes on the story (for more, see “Contemporary Influences” at the bottom of the article).

When Wilde wrote Salome, he did not create the story; he created a version of the story. His contribution to the ever-evolving legend is to take the existing versions of Salome, combine them, and take them one step further to make her at once innocent and evil, victim and victimiser. He makes her a girl who is both the object of lust as well as the one overcome by a perverted passion, which culminates in her demanding the beheading of the one she claims to love so that he is punished for rejecting her. When she kisses the lips of the severed head it is testimony to her depravity and it also seals her own doom. Apart from this, Wilde injects the play with some humour and a lot of symbolism, as well as a typical use of words, phrases and repetition.

The Bible influenced Wilde in terms of style and word choice. There are many phrases and passages which are lifted from Bible verses, most adapted freely, some almost literally. Most of these are taken from the Gospels and from the prophet Isaiah. There are also many single words, images and symbols that are used to remind us of the Biblical nature of the story. Most of these are taken from the Song of Solomon and the Book of Revelation (for the purpose of this article, the King James Bible is used).

Song of Solomon

Though there are no examples of text in which Wilde copied exact phrases from the Song of Solomon, its choice of words pervades the play.

This is especially evident in the parts where Salome describes Jokanaan’s body lovingly. She uses words and phrases like “ivory”, “silver”, “lilies”, “a column of ivory” and “a tower of silver decked with shields of ivory”. These words are also used in the Song of Solomon and some of the phrases are similar. Compare, for instance, with “pillars thereof of silver” (3:10), “[t]hy neck is like the tower of David builded for an armoury, whereon there hang a thousand bucklers, all shields of mighty men” (4:4), “[h]is legs are as pillars of marble” (5:15) and “[t]hy neck is as a tower of ivory” (7:4). When Salome describes his hair she uses attributes such as “black”, “clusters of grapes” and “the great cedars of Lebanon that give their shade to the lions and the robbers who would hide themselves by day”. These can all be found in some form within the Song, though often in a different context. Such as “the lions’ dens” (4:8), “his locks are bushy, and black as a raven” (5:11), “excellent as the cedars” (5:15) and “thy breasts [like] to clusters of grapes” (7:7), the last two of which refer to completely different body parts, and the first of which is taken completely out of context. Lastly, she refers to his mouth as “a band of scarlet on a tower of ivory” and “a pomegranate cut with a knife of ivory” and many other examples of how red she thinks it is, referring to wine, blood and coral. In the Song we find “[t]hy lips are like a thread of scarlet” (4:3) and “thy temples are like a piece of a pomegranate within thy locks” (4:3). The first of these is very similar to the first phrase lifted from Wilde’s work, but the second one refers, again, to a different part of the body. At the end, Salome says that “[n]either the floods nor the great waters can quench my passion”. This is the closest Wilde comes to copying the Song, for it says, “[m]any waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it” (8:7).

Salome is not the only one to use this kind of language. The young captain of the guard employs it as well when he describes Salome. He compares the moon to a princess (i.e. Salome) who has “little white doves for feet”. His persistence in comparing Salome with the moon recalls the phrase “fair as the moon” (6:10), and his continual use of the dove the phrase “my dove” (5:2). Just before his suicide he describes her as “thou who art like a garden of myrrh, thou who art the dove of all doves”. Not only is the image of the dove, but also of myrrh reflected here, most notably from “[a] bundle of myrrh is my wellbeloved unto me (1:13)”.

Even king Herod, who, during most of the play, speaks in quite common language, sometimes makes use of the stylistics of the Song of Solomon. Especially near the end when he offers Salome half of his kingdom, his white peacocks, and “jewels that your mother even has never seen” he uses words and comparisons that are quite similar to some used in the Song. References to ivory, gold, the moon and other precious things abound. When he tells Salome that the jewels will make her “fair as a queen” we are reminded of a passage in the Song which says pretty much the same thing, “[t]hy cheeks are comely with rows of jewels, thy neck with chains of gold” (1:10).

Illustration by Aubrey Beardsley

Book of Isaiah

The Jokanaan as portrayed in this play is meant to resemble John the Baptist, but also the countless other prophets which walked this earth. His speech therefore recalls the prophecies John the Baptist made, but also that of prophets in general. The most notable and obvious of these other prophets is Isaiah. Maybe Wilde mainly used him because he was the first, and arguably the most important, of the great prophets, but maybe it was simply because the things Isaiah said were most suitable for Wilde’s play. It could also be that Wilde recognised that Isaiah had a great influence on John the Baptist, hence Luke 3:4, “[a]s it is written in the book of the words of Esaias (Isaiah) the prophet, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (refers to Isaiah 40:3). Whatever the reason, there are a couple of passages in Salome which are very similar to the verses in the book of Isaiah. They are, without exception, used in Jokanaan’s prophecies and his descriptions of the subjects of his prophecies, being Herod, Herodias and Salome.

Book of Revelation

References to Revelation are mainly used when Jokanaan speaks of the subjects of his prophecies, namely the three members of the royal family. He compares Herodias with Jezebel and, more obviously, the whore of Babylon, thereby proclaiming her to be an untrustworthy woman, one who uses her sexual wiles to corrupt men and bring about their downfall. His accusation of her incestuousness is valid, and she can also be blamed for her first husband’s death. In Wilde’s vision, though, she does not turn out to be the one who causes the prophet’s beheading. This is the work of Salome, who Jokanaan repeatedly calls “[d]aughter of Babylon”, linking the mother and daughter both biologically and morally. He even uses a reference to Revelation to describe Herod, “he whose cup of abominations is now full”. The symbol of this cup is taken out of context and actually refers to the whore. In a way, he makes the three family members equal parts of one corrupt entity, and by doing so, makes them equally responsible for his coming death.

The Gospels

As explained before, the Gospels according to Matthew and Mark provide us with the best known, and maybe earliest, versions of the Salome legend. There are some differences between the two, most of which can be attributed to the fact that Mark’s version is more elaborate and clarifies some issues which Matthew’s does not. For instance, in Mark 6:17 a clarification is added, “for he had married her”, making the relationship between Herod and Herodias clearer and the following actions more understandable. Other elaborations and clarifications tell us that Herodias wanted John the Baptist dead (Mk 6:19) while Herod liked listening to the prophet (Mk 6:20) and that Herod promised Herodias’ daughter up to half his kingdom (Mk 6:23). There are also two instances where the stories actually differ. In Matthew 14:5 it is said that Herod did not kill John the Baptist because “he feared the multitude, because they counted him as a prophet”, while Mark claims that “Herod feared John” (Mk 6:20).

Wilde’s version of the story is closer to that of Mark than to that of Matthew. In Salome, Herod too is interested in hearing what the prophet has to say while at the same time he is afraid of the man, and not so much of the people who had followed him. Here too Herod promises up to half his kingdom to his stepdaughter. There are also differences. Wilde makes the daughter much more of an independent character, not just a pawn of her mother, and gives her, in accordance to previous versions of the story, the name Salome. It is Salome herself who, according to Wilde, wants the head of John the Baptist (here called Jokanaan). The reasons for her demand are lust and retribution. She wanted Jokanaan and when he rejected her she wanted him dead. Then she can finally have him and do with him as she pleases, for in death he can no longer deny her. The play ends with maybe the biggest difference with the Gospels, Salome’s death at the hands of the guards, commanded by Herod.

Despite the similarities, Wilde probably did not use the Gospels as the main sources for his version of the story. There are simply too many differences, and too many other possible sources, to warrant that theory. Wilde undoubtedly did consult them and he certainly did borrow some phrases from them. These, however, have nothing to do with the story about the beheading of John the Baptist, but instead with his appearance and his prophecies. There are also stylistic comparisons to be made with the Gospels according to Luke and John, where the story of Salome is not even told.

All in all, there are many influences on Wilde’s take on the Salome legend, not just in the content of the story but also in the style it was written in. In the way he frequently paraphrases scripture and uses Biblical symbolism, Wilde acknowledges the importance of the Bible as the source of the legend. He tries to put the story in its proper literary setting by using appropriate language. And in this he succeeds quite well.

Oscar Wilde, illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley

 

Contemporary Influences

There are many other writers who reworked the Salome legend, especially in the 19th century. At first, there was no distinction between Herodias and her daughter, and most of the works based on the legend carried her name instead.

Hérodiade, a play by Silvio Pellico from 1832 is one of these. It combines the legend with the tale of Sephora, the first wife of Herod, and changes Salome to a prepubescent girl who faints at the sight of the prophet’s bloody head.

In Heinrich Heine’s Atta Troll (1841) the Salome figure is featured (although here she is more like her mother Herodias) as alternately kissing the severed head of John the Baptist and throwing it in the air. This is very similar to Wilde’s Salome, who kisses the head, but also threatens to throw it to the dogs and the birds of the air.

Stephane Mallarmé’s attempt is also called Hérodiade. He started working on it in 1864 but never completed it. In his work the Salome figure is a capricious and destructive woman. These elements can also be found in Wilde’s work.

Gustave Flaubert’s Herodias (1877) uses the name Iaokanann for the prophet, which is based on the Greek transcript of the name. That Wilde used a variation of this version of the name shows that he very likely was inspired by that portrayal of the character.

In Joris Karl Huysmans’ À Rebours (1884), the protagonist Jean des Esseintes sees Salome as a true femme fatale, a combination of beauty and the beast.

Maurice Maeterlinck’s La Princesse Maleine (1889) is also about a passionate but doomed young woman. Wilde was probably also influenced by Maeterlinck’s work in respect to the characteristic diction, in particular the many repetitions. As one anonymous critic said it, “[h]e borrows from Maeterlinck his trick of repeating stupid phrases until a glimpse of meaning seems almost a flash of genius”.