Connections Between Love, Sexual Desire and Power in Wilde's Play

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2191

On July 7, 1896, while Wilde was imprisoned in Reading Gaol, thirty-year-old Thomas Wooldridge, a trooper in the Royal Guards, was hanged for the murder of his twenty-three-year-old wife, of whom he was jealous. Wilde was greatly troubled by Wooldridge' s death, and the execution became the basis for the poem,"The Ballad of Reading Gaol,'' in which Wilde proposes that the emotions that led to Wooldridge's crime are, in fact universal:

Yet each man kills the thing he loves, / By each let this be heard, / Some do it with a bitter look / Some with a flattering word. / The coward does it with a kiss, / The brave man with a sword!

In ‘‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol,’’ love is intertwined with violence, inseparable from destruction.

In Salome, both Salome and Herod kill the thing they love or desire. Further on in "The Ballad of Reading Gaol,’’ Wilde makes the connection between love and desire clear when he mentions various ways that people kill those they love, one of which seems particularly appropriate to Salome: ‘‘Some strangle with the hands of Lust.’’ In other words, some kill the thing they love with their desire. Critic Norbert Kohl, in his book, Oscar Wilde: The Works of a Conformist Rebel, wrote of such desire in Salome, ‘‘Sex is the motivating force behind all the main characters but one,'' and in fact, sexual desire is the most obvious explanation for the behavior of Salome and Herod.

It seems, however, that another motivating factor is at work in the play. When Jokanaan refuses Salome's sexual advances, he is depriving her of much more than the satisfaction of her sexual desires. By rebuking Salome for her desire, he denies her power over him. Similarly, when Salome seems to give in to Herod's passion by dancing for him but then refuses his entreaties to spare Jokanaan's life, she shows that she does not reciprocate Herod's desire, that she only sought to gain something from him, and thus denies him power over her as well. It is this struggle for power, fought on the battlefield of sexual desire, that leads Salome and Herod to kill the thing they love.

From the beginning of the play, Salome is established as a woman who is both desirable and dangerous. The play's first line, in fact, focuses on her appearance, as the Young Syrian remarks,"How beautiful is the Princess Salome tonight.’’ As the play progresses, the Syrian continues to comment on Salome's beauty, and the Page of Herodias becomes alarmed. ‘‘You must not look at her,’’ he says. ‘‘Something terrible may happen.’’ When Salome comes onstage, she is again established as an object of desire, specifically Herod's desire, as she asks, "Why does the Tetrarch look at me.... It is strange that the husband of my mother looks at me like that.’’ Salome is distressed by Herod's gaze, and that seems to be her reason for leaving the feast. ‘‘I will not stay,’’ she says. ‘‘I cannot stay.’’

By looking at Salome in a sexually suggestive way, Herod has managed to assert some power over her. The only way she can re-establish her own power so far is by avoiding his sight. When Salome hears the voice of Jokanaan, however, she immediately identifies him in regard to the power he holds over Herod, as she asks if Jokanaan is "He of whom the Tetrarch is afraid.’’ It seems to be Jokanaan's power over Herod that first attracts Salome's interest. After hearing Jokanaan's voice, Salome herself asserts her own will over Herod when a...

(This entire section contains 2191 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

slave tells her that the Tetrarch wants her to return to the feast. Salome answers, ‘‘I will not go back.’’ When the Syrian tells her, "If you do not return some misfortune may happen,’’ she ignores his statement altogether as she asks more questions about Jokanaan. When she is told that "the Tetrarch does not wish anyone to speak to [Jokanaan],’’ Salome demands to speak to him.

Although the soldier and the Syrian initially refuse to obey Salome, she eventually gains the Syrian's compliance by using his desire for her to overpower him. ‘‘You will do this for me,’’ she says, ‘‘and to-morrow when I pass in my litter beneath the gateway of the idol-sellers I will let fall for you a little flower ... it may be I will smile at you.’’ Because the Syrian desires Salome, she easily gains control over him, and so he accedes to her wishes.

When Salome first sees Jokanaan, she steps back, away from him. At first she is repelled by him: "But he is terrible.... It is his eyes above all that are terrible.... How wasted he is!’’ But as Salome begins to focus on Jokanaan's body, she begins to speak of his appearance more positively, remarking that"He is like a moonbeam, like a shaft of silver. His flesh must be cool like ivory.’’ She becomes intrigued by the prophet and says, "I must look at him closer.’’ But it is only when Jokanaan, who has been decrying Herodias, turns the force of his words upon Salome that she blatantly expresses desire for him. When he calls her the "Daughter of Babylon'' and admonishes her to "Come not near the chosen of the Lord,’’ instead of responding with anger, she answers him with passion:"Speak again, Jokanaan. Thy voice is wine to me. ’’His refusal to defer to her power seems to inflame her desire. "Jokanaan," she says, ‘‘I am amorous of thy body!... Let me touch thy body.’’ When he again speaks against Salome, she briefly expresses a confused combination of revulsion and passion: "Thy body is hideous. ... It is thy hair that I am enamoured. . . . Thy hair is horrible.’’

Desire, however, wins out when she begins to focus on his mouth, saying,"There is nothing in the world so red as thy mouth. .. . Let me kiss thy mouth.’’ At this point, the Syrian, overcome with despair at Salome's desire for Jokanaan, kills himself, but his devotion to Salome has rendered him uninteresting to her. Salome is sure of her power over the Syrian and so she does not acknowledge, or even seem to notice, his death.

Jokanaan, however, continues to reject Salome. "Cursed be thou,'' he says."Daughter of an incestuous mother, be thou accursed!’’ Yet, no matter what he says to her, she responds with the same words again and again, ‘‘I will kiss thy mouth, Jokanaan.’’ He has made it clear that she has no power over him, and Salome cannot tolerate that, so she repeatedly says, not that she wants to kiss him but that she will kiss him. She tries to make it clear to him that he must give in to her. Finally, however, he leaves her sight as she left Herod's, but she continues to call after him, "I will kiss thy mouth.'' His refusal of her advances, in essence, his power over her, makes her more determined. When she insists that she will kiss his mouth, her sexual desire for him is inseparable from her desire for power over him.

As Salome desires Jokanaan, Herod desires Salome. When Herod comes on stage, his first words are ‘‘Where is Salome.... Why did she not return to the banquet as I commanded her.'' Thus he expresses his desire to see her as well as his desire for power over her. He is jealous of Salome and says over the Syrian's corpse, ‘‘Truly, I thought he looked too much at [Salome].’’ Herod asks Salome to drink wine with him, and she refuses. His sexual desire for her is suggested when he says, ‘‘Salome, come and eat fruit with me. I love to see in a fruit the mark of thy little teeth.’’ When she again refuses him, he makes an even more blatant sexual remark: ‘‘Salome, come and sit next to me. I will give thee the throne of thy mother.’’

Salome, however, stands fast in her refusal of Herod's advances. Herod expects Salome's obedience as his due and so complains to Herodias,"You see how you have brought up this daughter of yours.’’ Herod first asks, then commands, Salome to dance for him, but even though he is the Tetrarch, she does not obey. As Jokanaan's refusal of Salome gives him power over her, so Salome's refusal of Herod gives her power over him. When Salome will not obey his command, will not acknowledge his power, he tells her that he will give her anything, even half of his kingdom, if she will dance for him. In essence, he says that if she will give in to his passion—and thus give up her power over him—he will offer more power within his kingdom. She need only remain subordinate to him.

At first, Salome's dance seems a submission to the power of Herod. He has first asked, then demanded, then asked again, that she dance, and now she obeys. Herod's passion, however, has put him in a position of vulnerability. When Salome agrees to dance for him, he sees it as submission, but in actuality, her seeming submission gives her greater power over him. Because Herod has such a great desire for Salome, he agrees to submit his will to her. When he says he will give her anything she wants, he grants her almost unlimited power over him. When Salome then demands the head of Jokanaan, her power over him is complete. He is put into the position of begging her not to demand Jokanaan's head, of offering her the treasures of his kingdom, ‘‘great treasures above all price,’’ if she will not exercise her power over him.

At this point Herodias tries to claim that Salome has asked for Jokanaan's head because ‘‘she loves her mother well,’’ but Salome will give no one power over her. She says, ‘‘I do not heed my mother. It is for my own pleasure that I ask the head of Jokanaan.’’ She makes it clear that she will allow no one power over her.

By appearing to surrender to Herod, Salome finally triumphs over him and, she believes, Jokanaan. When she is given the head of the prophet, Salome speaks to it, emphasizing her own power: ‘‘Ah! thou wouldst not suffer me to kiss thy mouth Jokanaan! Well! I will kiss it now ... I will bite it with my teeth as one bites a ripe fruit.’’ She continues to talk to Jokanaan's head, speaking of her seeming triumph over him: "Thy head belongs to me. I can do with it what I will. I can throw it to the dogs and the birds of the air.’’ Salome believes she has achieved complete control over the man who once rebuked her.

The extent of Salome's real power over Jokanaan, however, is questionable. When he dies, he does not give Salome the satisfaction of showing fear or pain. "Why does he not cry out, this man?'' she asks. He never acknowledges that she has any power over him. And even though she has taken his life, he has still withheld his love. It is at this point that Salome speaks more of love than desire. I loved thee yet, Jokanaan,'' she says."I love thee only... I am athirst for thy beauty.’’ Because she loves Jokanaan, even though she has killed him, he retains his power over her.

Salome also seems to have lost her control over Herod. His talk of her shows no more desire: "She is monstrous . . . she is altogether monstrous.’’ But she has still deprived him of his power, and so he orders Salome's death as she ordered Jokanaan's. In this way Herod seems to gain control over her, but as with Salome, power, once lost, is not easily regained. Jokanaan is still dead. Herod cannot change that. And so Herod still suffers, and his power is compromised even more because the death of Jokanaan has brought him fear of an even greater power. ‘‘Surely some terrible thing will befall,’’ he says. ‘‘I began to be afraid.’’ The death of Salome does not change the result of her power over him, power created by his desire.

In ‘‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol,’’ Wilde wrote of Wooldridge, "The man had killed the thing he loved, / And so he had to die.’’ Wooldridge's passion for his wife led him to jealousy. Jealousy reveals a sense of powerlessness and a desire for control. The only way Wooldridge could achieve that control was by the murder of his wife. He paid for that murder, however, with his life.

For Salome, Jokanaan's rejection of her desire rendered her powerless. For Herod, Salome's use of his desire to achieve her own ends showed he had no power over her. Both Salome and Herod responded to this lack of power by killing the thing they loved. But the death of Jokanaan did not free Salome from his power over her, and the death of Salome could not fully restore Herod's power to him. Both are ultimately defeated by sexual desire as well as the desire for power.

Source: Clare Cross, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.

Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray and Salome

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1440

In late 1888 a murderer who came to be known as Jack the Ripper terrorized London prostitutes and captured the public's imagination through a series of violent crimes. Not only did he kill prostitutes with a knife but he also ripped and mutilated their bodies, so that the result was quite gruesome. By early 1890, when Oscar Wilde sat down to write The Picture of Dorian Gray, the figure of Jack the Ripper was still dominant in the public mind. My thesis here is that the influence of Jack the Ripper is discernible in some of Wilde's writings, specifically The Picture of Dorian Gray and Salome.

In his desire to experience all the sinful pleasure of the world, Dorian Gray in Wilde's novel seeks to go beyond anything the human race has experienced so far. Modeling himself largely on Huysmans's hero Des Esseintes, he seeks to go beyond Des Esseintes. But his relentless pursuit of evil beauty is threatened by Basil Hallward, to whom he reveals his secret. Impulsively, Dorian kills the painter, but he does so in a manner reminiscent of the Jack the Ripper murders:

Something glimmered on the top of the painted chest that faced him. His eye fell on it. He knew what it was. It was a knife that he had brought up, some days before, to cut a piece of cord, and had forgotten to take away with him. He moved slowly towards it, passing Hallward as he did so. As soon as he got behind him, he seized it, and turned round. Hallward stirred in his chair as if he was going to rise. He rushed at him, and dug the knife into the great vein that is behind the ear, crushing the man's head down to the table, and stabbing again and again.

There was a stifled groan, and the horrible sound of someone choking with blood. Three times the outstretched arms shot up convulsively, waving grotesque stiff-fingered hands in the air. He stabbed him twice more, but the man did not move. Something began to trickle on the floor. He waited for a moment, still pressing the head down. Then he threw the knife on the table, and listened.

Dorian not only uses a knife on Basil; he stabs again and again, mutilating the body. Nor does the matter end here. Jack the Ripper often disemboweled his victims and removed some inner organs. In like vein, Dorian decides to cut up the body and destroy it completely. Since he does not know how to do this, he resorts to Alan Campbell, who unwillingly performs the task for him and commits suicide as a consequence. Wilde wanted Dorian's act of murder to be seen as an exaggerated plunge into pure evil, and he sought to achieve this effect partly by associating him with Jack the Ripper. His readers in the early 1890s would not have failed to see the similarities between Dorian's act and the crimes of the dreaded Ripper. If anything, Dorian's act is at one level worse than the Ripper's, for he murders not prostitutes but a good man in the act of repentant prayer. Richard Ellmann has argued convincingly and at length that Wilde, after his first homosexual experience in 1886, regarded himself as a criminal and wrote as an artist-criminal. It should come as no surprise, then, that he was very interested in the most famous murderer of his day and sought to echo and reflect his crimes in his literature.

This is not to argue, of course, that Wilde engaged the Jack the Ripper murders in The Picture of Dorian Gray in order to interpret them or to add hidden meanings to the text. On the contrary, Wilde often used the environment around him in his literary works. For example, in The Decay of Lying the two speakers carry the names of his two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan. In The Importance of Being Earnest Jack Worthing's surname is the name of the town Wilde was in when he began the play, the butler is named Lane after his publisher, and Lady Bracknell carries the name of Lady Queensberry's house. There are many other examples of Wilde's use of his environment. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde used Jack the Ripper as a source in presenting the murder Dorian commits. Artistically, this source serves to deepen and intensify the horror of Dorian's act.

Soon afterward, in the autumn of 1891, the desire to write a dark and sinister work of literature caught Wilde's fancy again. Salome is a highly complex symbolist play that has many sources, from the Bible to Mallarme's "Herodiade" and Huysmans's A Rebours, but Jack the Ripper is also one of its sources; he quietly occupies a corner in the background of the play and forms a part of its intricate mosaic of multi-layered symbols. There are two reasons to assert that this is the case. The first is that only two dark, serious murders are dramatically portrayed in Wilde's mature oeuvre: Dorian's murder of Basil and Salome's killing of John the Baptist, and there are similarities between them. If Wilde used Jack the Ripper as a source for the first murder, it is probable that he also had him in mind for the second. But the second reason is much more compelling. Despite the fact that Salome's crime is an ancient one, it has strong affinities with those of the Ripper. Both criminals, for instance, commit ‘‘sex murders.’’ Both are so ferocious in their murders as to horrify people by their sheer savagery. And both mutilate the bodies of their victims in a similar manner. (One of the Ripper's victims was found with her head almost completely severed from her body; also, while the Ripper usually removed some of his victim's inner organs and took them with him, Salome takes John the Baptist's head.) These similarities would have been noticed in Wilde's day and the inevitable connection would have been made. Thematically, they help to connect the modern and ancient worlds and stress the constancy of human evil. Thus, the influence of the Ripper on Salome is more profound than on Dorian Gray, if perhaps less obvious.

Another difference is that while Dorian's crime is meant to suggest those of Jack the Ripper, Salome both reflects the Ripper and goes beyond him. Not only does she commit a savage sex murder, but she feasts lustfully on her victim's blood-soaked severed head. And her victim is none other than an exalted Christian saint. In Dorian Gray Wilde explored human evil and concluded that human nature is "gray." In Salome he wished to confront and explore the absolute blackness of human nature, much like Conrad soon after in Heart of Darkness. Salome the play goes beyond The Picture of Dorian Gray in its exploration of human evil—Dorian has a conscience, Salome has none—and Salome the character, in the crime she commits, goes beyond both Dorian and the Ripper, whose unobtrusive presence in this play, set in a distant land in biblical times, should not be ignored. In his day Jack the Ripper was regarded as the ultimate criminal, a demented slasher with a twisted sense of morality who was the very embodiment of evil. By the end of Wilde's play, however. Salome has exceeded even the Ripper in evil; she emerges as a completely amoral and pleasure-seeking headhuntress:

SALOME: ... Tetratch. Tetratch, command your soldiers that they bring me the head of Jokanaan. A huge black arm, the arm of the EXECUTIONER, comes forth from the cistern, bearing on a silver shield the head of JOKANAAN. SALOME seizes it. HEROD hides his face with his cloak. HERODIAS smiles and fans herself.The NAZARENES fall on their knees and begin to pray. SALOME: Ah! thou wouldst not suffer me to kiss thy mouth, Jokanaan. Well! I will kiss it now. I will bite it with my teeth as one bites a ripe fruit.... Ah! I have kissed thy mouth, Jokanaan. I have kissed thy mouth. There was a bitter taste on thy lips. Was it the taste of blood...? But perchance it is the taste of love.

Salome is devoid of any moral sense. Hers is the ultimate crime. Even the depraved and lustful Herod, who murdered his own brother and robbed him of his wife, finds her crime abominable and orders her killed. In Salome, Wilde finally reached the heart of darkness, going beyond Dorian, Huysmans, Paler, Mallarmé, and even Jack the Ripper within the framework of literature. Source: Christopher S. Nassaar. ‘‘Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray and Salome’’ in the Explicator Vol. 53, no. 4, Summer, 1995, pp. 217-20.

Wilde's Salome

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 880

Ever since Oscar Wilde first saw them, Aubrey Beardsley's illustrations for Salomé have caused controversy. Wilde worried that the drawings, which he believed did not capture the spirit of the play, would reduce the text to the role of ‘‘illustrating Aubrey's illustrations.’’ Beardsley's audacious visual objectifications of depravity, looking even more "decadent" than his typical caricatures, may not match the deliberately crafted metaphors of remote, cold beauty that sustain Wilde's tragedy, yet the drawings transcend time and circumstance in much the same way that the dialogue does. Illustrator and author shared a similar sort of satirical vision. Beardsley, eager to translate or illustrate the play, commented that he ‘‘thoroughly understood’’ its spirit, and indeed, his drawings can augment our understanding of the play. The anachronistic drawings, like the text, strike a pose of seriousness while slyly satirizing the human folly of self-centered possessiveness by no means absent in their own society. Herod's court may be seen as a parody of the world of physical voraciousness and moral lethargy in Dorian Gray (itself a parody of sorts). Satire by definition involves social criticism, toward which Wilde and Beardsley gravitated, despite their association with ‘‘art for art's sake.’’

Beardsley caricatures Wilde in several illustrations. The resemblance of the chubby face in "The Eyes of Herod,’ ' ‘'The Woman in the Moon,'' and "A Platonic Lament'' to the playwright's own has been noticed from the illustrations' very first appearance. In these drawings, Wilde appears in the guise of the monstrous Herod, a central character (not an alter ego but, after all, still a projection from the author's imagination), and as the moon which may be the prime mover or merely a dispassionate observer of the action, depending on one's perspective.

The fullest depiction of Wilde appears in "Enter Herodias,’’ a complex iconographic interpretation of Wilde's craft—and Beardsley's. Herodias, in resplendent hideousness, stands in a doorway; a smug-looking Wilde appears in the foreground, outside of the "frame," gesturing languidly toward his creation. Unlike the roly-poly presence in the other drawings, he is not a caricature, but resembles the Wilde seen in contemporary photographs. The portrait could be called flattering—except that Wilde wears ajester's costume, with an owl cap; while he gestures toward Herodias with one hand, he holds in the other a copy of the play and a curious-looking scepter which resembles nothing so much as the caduceus—the rod entwined with two serpents which the god Mercury carries and which is also a symbol of the medical profession.

This magic wand conjures up a number of associations, all concerning the reconciliation of opposites into a healing synthesis:

The wings symbolize transcendence; the air; the wand is power, the double serpent is the opposites in dualism, ultimately to be united; they are also the serpents of healing and poison, illness and health; they are hermetic and homeopathic; ‘‘nature can overcome nature’’; the complementary nature of the two forces operative in the universe and the union of the sexes.

In handing Wilde this symbolic staff, Beardsley portrays him as a godlike jester-alchemist, creating images of folly to convey insight.

Wilde's role as magician appears more clearly in Salomé than does his equally important one as physician. The drama's elaborate play of parallel metaphors both profound and absurd traps and bedazzles the characters caught in their own conceits. Salomé's admirers address her in a series of vapid metaphors that shroud her more completely than seven veils; even she cannot penetrate their opacity and find her true identity. A creature of paradox, she resembles both her mother and Iokanaan, a double likeness which Beardsley captures. She is both destroyer and victim. Her request for Iokanaan's head represents for her both epiphany and apocalypse. Wilde points proudly to the elaborate, paradoxical geste he has created.

But Oscar Wilde as a physician of society through this drama? Wilde and Beardsley both had contradictory natures. Both flaunted the conventions of art, propriety, and morality, and yet, did so through the medium of satire, which at least ostensibly attempts to correct. (Even Beardsley's unfinished novel Under the Hill has been identified by Linda C. Dowling as a satire on his contemporaries.)

Both men converted to Catholicism later in life. If Beardsley had at this time more than a passing acquaintance with scripture, he might have had in mind the caduceus which Moses makes in Numbers XXI, 4-9, after the Lord sends a plague of serpents to punish the disobedient Jewish people. When Moses appeals to the Lord, he is told to fashion a bronze serpent and mount it on a pole. Whoever looks upon the effigy is healed. This parable might be applied metaphorically to the drama.

Salomé, an inquisitive soul incubated in a decadent society, looks for transcendence but, like the other characters, she fails to find it, refusing to listen to a message she does not want to hear. In the tragic fates of the characters limned by Wilde and Beardsley, the audience might perceive its own illness and draw, if not healing, at least greater self-awareness. Although both playwright and artist probably would have winced at being called "moralists," they consciously placed before their contemporaries a bizarre yet reflective mirror.

Source: Maureen T. Kravec. ‘‘Wilde's Salome’’ in the Explicator, Vol. 42, no. 1, Fall, 1983, pp. 30-32.


Critical Overview