Historical Context

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The 1890s in Britain were a time of changing values, a time when traditional conceptions of the world were being called into question. One of the major issues of the day revolved around what was called ‘‘the woman question’’—the debate over a woman's place in society.' 'The Angel in the House,'' a popular Victorian poem later made famous in an essay by Virginia Woolf, presented the perfect woman as one who always sacrificed her own comfort for the sake of others, whose major purpose in life was to care for her home and family, who deferred to her husband at all times, and who had no desires, sexual or otherwise, of her own.

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It was also at this time, however, that the term ' 'new woman,'' probably coined in 1894, came into prominence. The new woman was a member of a more liberated generation. She sought suffrage (the right to vote) for women, which was not achieved in Britain until 1926. She also believed in education for women and the end of the sexual double standard, which allowed men considerable sexual freedom, while insisting that women remain chaste until marriage. Wilde's character Salome could hardly be more directly opposed to the concept of' 'The Angel in the House.’’ She seeks power over men and has strong sexual desires of her own. Salome, however, is punished for her transgressions with death, and her punishment resembles that of women presented in some Victorian novels, in which virtuous women are rewarded and the putative immoral women are destroyed.

In contemporary society, it is common to assume that such novels are representative of Victorian society as a whole. The Victorian period, however, was in reality much more complicated. Although Wilde's homosexual acts resulted in his imprisonment and almost complete public ostracism, there seem to have also been a fair number of homosexual men who were more successful at concealing the nature of their sexual identities. The 1890s were also the time of the phenomenon of Decadence, an artistic movement began in France and embraced by Wilde as well as other English artists, whose adherents sought to question Victorian respectability with work that was at time overtly sexual and indulged in the depiction of general excess. It should be noted, however, that a backlash against Decadence followed Wilde's trial.

In Victorian England, Christianity predominated. Adherents of other religions, such as Judaism, suffered suspicion and persecution. Nonetheless, Christianity lost some of the influence it had in earlier times. The publication in 1859 of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species, in which he presented his theories of natural selection and evolution, shocked and angered Victorians because it called into question the belief that humans were created by God. For the Victorian, such scientific progress seemed at times to threaten religious beliefs. Fears of such a threat were not entirely unfounded. The late-nineteenth century also saw arise in agnosticism, a term coined by Thomas Huxley in 1869 to represent the belief that it was impossible to know if God even existed.

Another changing area in Britain at the time involved the structure of the society itself. Previously, the poor and powerless had been blamed for their lot, but some were beginning to see poverty as the result, not of laziness, but of a lack of appropriate employment. The government began to take more responsibility for the problems of the poor. Nonetheless, great gaps between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless, continued to exist.

Salome was written at a time when British culture was undergoing great changes, and in some ways the play seems representative of those changes. Salome raises the issues of the status of women, of sexuality and morality, of the meaning of religious belief, of wealth and power. Wilde's portrayal of such issues shocked and angered many of his contemporaries, but others embraced his ideas.

Literary Style

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Protagonist
The principal character of a play is called the protagonist. It is he or she around whom the play mostly revolves. Often, readers assume that the protagonist of Salome is the princess. She is, after all, the title character, and the play focuses to a great extent on her actions and the results of her actions. Her desire for Jokanaan is central to the story. The identity of the protagonist, however, is not always as clear as one would think. When asked, Wilde himself said, though probably in jest, that the principal character in Salome is the moon. It is true that the moon is an important part of the play, and it is not static—the appearance of the moon changes throughout the play, so one could argue that it is not an entirely inanimate object. Still, it seems difficult to offer much support for Wilde's statement. What is certainly worth examination, however, is the possibility that Herod, as some critics have argued, is Salome's true protagonist.

In many ways Herod resembles the traditional tragic hero of classical literature, whose fatal flaw, in this case his desire for Salome, leads to his downfall. Herod's character is complex, arguably more so than Salome's, and the large percentage of the lines in the play that are Herod's focus audience attention on him.

But such arguments for Herod as protagonist still do not negate the arguments that could be made in favor of Salome having that role. The reader of the text of Salome could certainly see either character as the protagonist. For a production of Salome to work, however, the director would have to make a definite decision as to whether the protagonist is Salome or Herod, and that decision would serve to focus the play's direction. More audience attention could be directed toward one character or the other. If the production were successful, the director's decision about the identity of the protagonist would be clear to the audience.

Lyrical Theater
Salome is often described as a lyrical work, in other words, a play that reads similar to a poem. There are a number of poetic aspects to Salome. Perhaps the most obvious is Wilde's use of poetic imagery and language, which is particularly evident in the characters' description of the moon. The Young Syrian says that the moon is ‘‘like a little princess who wears a yellow veil, and whose feet are of silver.... You would fancy she was dancing.’’ Herod says of the moon, ‘‘The clouds are seeking to hide her nakedness.’’

The use of imagery and poetic language is also notable in Salome's description of Jokanaan: ‘‘Thy mouth is like a band of scarlet on a tower of ivory. It is like a pomegranate cut with a knife of ivory.’’ Repetition is also common in poetry, whether it be repetition of symbols, as in the recurring descriptions of the moon, or the repetition of words, as when Salome repeatedly says to Jokanaan, ' 'I will kiss thy mouth.’’ In addition, the use of music in a production would contribute to the lyrical nature of the play. Such music could be used throughout, as there are frequent references to the feast offstage, which could certainly involve music. In addition, a production could make much use of music when Salome dances the dance of the seven veils for Herod. The motion of the dance would contribute to the lyrical feel of the play as well.

Symbolism
In literature, a symbol stands for something other than itself. Symbols are used throughout the play, but perhaps the most obvious symbol in Salome is the moon. Each character sees the moon as something different. At times it seems to stand for variations of the character's visions of the nature of Salome. The Young Syrian, who admires Salome, sees the moon as a dancing princess. The Page of Herodias, concerned that the Syrian's desire for Salome will lead to his destruction, says that the moon resembles a dead woman. For Salome herself, the moon is a virgin, undefiled by men. For Herod, who lusts after Salome, the moon is a naked, drunken woman. In addition, the moon is the traditional symbol of the Greek goddess Artemis or Diana, a strong and independent virgin who demanded chastity from both male and female followers. Jokanaan predicts that the moon will turn to blood, and it does turn red, symbolizing the destruction of both Jokanaan and Salome.

Another symbolic element of Salome lies in the use of color. The colors red, white, and black are used repeatedly. Red is used for wine, blood, and the mouth of Jokanaan, and seems to indicate a connection between passion and violence. White is used for the feet of Salome and the body of Jokanaan. It can indicate the innocence and purity or be the color of a lifeless body. Black often symbolizes death as well. Jokanaan's hair is black, and at the end of the play, ' 'a great black cloud crosses the moon and conceals it completely.’’ Black, like red, seems to indicate destruction. A number of other colors in the play may be seen as symbolic as well.

In the late-nineteenth century, symbolism came to mean not just the use of single symbols but a particular art form, a reaction against the realism that predominated on stage. Playwright Maurice Maeterlinck, whom Wilde admired and whose work seems to have provided some of the inspiration for Salome, is largely credited with bringing symbolism into theater. Salome is considered by many critics to be an important symbolist work.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Beckson, Karl. Oscar Wilde: The Critical Heritage, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970, pp. 133-42.

Kohl, Norbert. Oscar Wilde: The Works of a Conformist Rebel, translated by David Henry Wilson, Cambridge University Press, 1980. p. 182.

Wilde, Oscar. ‘‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’’ in Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, Harper & Row, 1966.

Worth, Katharine. Oscar Wilde, Grove, 1983, p. 73.

Further Reading
Briggs, Asa. A Social History of England, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1994.
This provides information about English society from prehistoric times to the present. It contains a lengthy chapter on the Victorian period.

Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde, Vintage Books, 1987.
This book is one of the most recent and complete biographies of Wilde.

Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1969.
This book contains a number of essays and poems about Wilde, many written by those who knew him.

Hoare, Philip. Oscar Wilde's Last Stand: Decadence, Conspiracy, and the Most Outrageous Trial of the Century, Arcade, 1997.
This book concerns a 1918 production of Salome that led to a trial, when Maud Allan, playing Salome, was denounced by a right-wing Member of Parliament, whom she sued for libel. Hoare contends that the trial became a trial of Wilde himself and all he was believed to represent.

Raby, Peter. Oscar Wilde, Cambridge University Press, 1988. This book provides background for many of Wilde's essays, stories, poems, and plays, including a chapter on Salome.

Worth, Katherine. Oscar Wilde, Grove, 1983.
This is a good basic introduction to Wilde's plays and includes a chapter on Salome.

Compare and Contrast

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30 A.D.: Segregation based on gender is rigid. In some cases, wives are little better than slaves. Recent scholarship has uncovered evidence of individual women who did have some power in their society, but such women were rare.

1893: The status of women is in flux. Some embrace the concept of the perfect submissive woman, while others embrace the idea of the "new woman,'' educated and more free than her predecessors.

Today: Women have achieved many opportunities unimaginable by previous generations. Much discrimination against women, previously considered acceptable, has ended through custom or law, though women still face difficulties in many areas.

30 A.D.: The Romans allow communities within their empire a modicum of religious freedom, unless said religions threaten the peace of the empire. Numerous religions are represented in Roman society.

1893: Christianity predominates in Victorian culture, and adherents of other religions are often treated with suspicion. Atheism and agnosticism gain popularity among those seeking alternatives.

Today: Although there continue to be a large number of people practicing a variety of faiths, many do not see religion as part of their day-today lives. Many are agnostics or atheists.

30 A.D.:Rules against sexual misconduct are applied unequally. Polygamy is accepted among the wealthy. Adultery by women can be punished with death while adulterous men receive no such punishment.

1893: Society has rigid rules regarding sexual morality, but many question such rules, acting in opposition to them. Homosexuality is punishable by imprisonment.

Today: Variations in sexual activity are more acceptable. Homosexuals are not subject to the legal restrictions of former times, but gays still suffer from prejudice and even violence at the hands of others.

Media Adaptations

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Salome was adapted as a silent film in 1923. This version was directed by Charles Bryant. It was produced by Alla Nazimova and also starred Nazimova as Salome and Mitchell Lewis as Herod.

A 1970 Spanish version of Salome was directed by Rafael Gassent.

Another film version was produced and directed by Carmelo Bene in 1972.

A 1986 film, directed by Claude d'Anna, stars Jo Champa as Salome and Tomas Milian as Herod.

The 1988 film Salome's Last Dance, directed by Ken Russell and produced by Penny Corke, features Nickolas Grace as Oscar Wilde watching a production of his play staged in a brothel by the proprietor. Imogen Millaid-Scott plays Salome as well as a woman named Rose. Stratford Johns plays both Herod and Alfred Taylor. Douglas Hodge plays Jokanaan and Lord Alfred Douglas.

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