Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1531
A number of kinds of religions—pagan, Jewish, and Christian—are represented in Salome. From the beginning of the play, the nature of God or the gods is a subject of dispute. The pagans believe in numerous gods, but their gods are dissatisfying to them. The Nubian describes the gods of his country as ‘‘fond of blood.’’ His countrymen sacrifice fifty young men and one hundred maidens twice a year, but the Nubian says that even this is not enough for the gods of his country, whom he describes as "very harsh to us.’’ The Cappodocian says that he has sought the gods of his country in the mountains, where they are said to have been driven by the Romans, but that the gods are not there. The Cappodocian therefore concludes that the gods of his country must be dead. Thus the religions of the pagans in the play are no longer valid for them. Yet they retain their beliefs, and when they are told that the Jews worship a god who cannot be seen, they do not think that the existence of such a god is possible. The Cappadocian describes the beliefs of the Jews as ''altogether ridiculous.’’
While Wilde is not critical of the concept of a God that can't be seen, the religion of the Jews is not satisfactory either. The Jews of the play are a divided people. The second soldier says of the Jews' arguing, ‘‘They are always like that. They are disputing their religion.’’ The Pharisees insist that angels exist, while the Sadducees are equally insistent that they do not. One Jew says that no one has seen God since the prophet Elias, while a second argues that even Elias may not have seen God, and a third states that ‘‘God is at no time hidden.’’ The Jews agree on only one thing—they want Jokanaan released to them, but the implication is that the Jews will harm Jokanaan, whom most of Wilde's audience would consider a prophet of God.
In considering Wilde's depiction of the Jews, it is important to remember the social context of the play. Wilde wrote at a time when and in a country where Jews were second-class citizens, marginalized in Victorian culture, often hated and feared, and at times called "Christ-killers'' because many Christians blamed the Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus. It should also be noted, however, that in the play, Wilde's Jews are not evil and that Wilde is not necessarily critical of the Jewish religion but of those who have turned their religious beliefs into a series of arguments about seemingly trivial issues. In either case, Judaism, as presented in the play, is not a sustaining meaningful religion.
This, of course, leaves Christianity, and it may at first appear that it is this religion, the religion of most of his contemporaries, that Wilde supports. The Nazarenes speak of Jesus healing the lepers and the blind and raising the dead. In addition, the representative of Christianity in the play is Jokanaan, whose prophecies of destruction in the palace of Herod do come true. The Christianity of Jokanaan, however, is angry and hateful. He promises redemption to those who follow Jesus, but most of his preaching is of punishment and the evil of those around him.
It is Salome who points out the missing element in Jokanaan's Christianity in a statement that seems to veer away from her previous focus on sexual desire. Speaking to the head of Jokanaan, she says, ‘‘If thou hadst looked at me thou hadst loved me. Well I know that thou wouldst have loved me, and the mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death. Love only should one consider.’’ It is Salome, just before her death, who is able to transcend the particulars of various religions, none of which, as presented in Wilde's play, seem to present a meaningful answer to the question of the nature of God.
In many Christian traditions, sexual desire is seen as a source of evil. Lust, sexual desire without love, is even one of the seven deadly sins. But Western traditions regarding the evil of sexual desire do not treat male and female desire equally. Historically, female sexual desire has often been seen as more suspect than that of the male. Traditionally, a woman is not really supposed to have sexual desires of her own, but to satisfy the sexual needs of her husband. Women have often been dichotomized as either good girls or bad, virgins or whores. In Salome, sexual desire seems to be, at least to some extent, evil, but the sexual desires of the women are treated much more harshly than those of the men.
In the play, Jokanaan is the primary spokesperson against the evil of sexual sin. His focus through most of the play is on Herodias, whom he says will be punished for evil. He describes Herodias as "she who gave herself to the Captains of Assyria'' and ‘‘she who hath given herself to the young men of Egypt." "Bid her rise up from the bed of her abominations—from the bed of her incestuousness,’’ he commands. The marriage of Herodias and Herod, her husband's brother, is indeed considered incestuous, but only Herodias is called to task for the their sexual sin.
In the time period in which the play takes place, women were severely punished for adultery, but their male partners received no such punishment. Such an attitude is reflected in the words of Jokanaan. Herod expresses guilt over his marriage to Herodias, Stratford Johns as Herod and Glenda Jackson as Herodias in a scene from director Ken Russell's film adaptation of Wilde's play titled Salome's Last Dance and he is afraid of a supernatural punishment. Yet when Herodias at the end of the play says that she approves of Salome's actions, Herod replies, ‘‘There speaks the incestuous wife.’’ Like Jokanaan, he seems to blame Herodias for the evil he believes will come of their marriage.
While Herodias seems to be blamed for her marriage and for other possible sexual indiscretions as well, it is Salome who is truly punished for her sexual desires. Herod and the Young Syrian gaze at Salome to the point that it is noticed by other characters and that does seem unacceptable within the context of the play, but Salome's expression of sexual desire is extremely blatant. She looks at Jokanaan's body and longs to touch his skin, his hair. She says again and again that she will kiss his mouth. The more he rebukes her, the more she seems to desire him.
Salome's intense desire for Jokanaan is unmistakably evil, as she turns to violence to satisfy her needs. After having the object of her desire executed, she says she will not just kiss his mouth but bite it"as one bites a ripe fruit.'' The play suggests that hidden beneath female sexual desire is the desire to overcome and to destroy. And Wilde, although he often wrote of women who were wrongly accused of immorality, chose the ultimate punishment for Salome's violent sexual desires. Her insistence on the satisfaction of those desires leads to her destruction.
It is true that Herod and the Young Syrian are both punished for their desire for Salome. Herod suffers the death of Jokanaan, and the Syrian commits suicide when his desire for Salome leads him to give in to her wish to see Jokanaan. But their desire for Salome is portrayed as much more innocuous. Both only gaze at Salome. It even seems as if the Syrian may love her, for he obeys Salome when she says that she may smile at him, beneath her veil, when she passes by. Their desire for her is neither as blatant nor as violent as her desire for Jokanaan, and their punishment is not as severe.
There is a hint of another, possibly sexual, relationship in Salome, which does have its basis in love. This is the "friendship'' between the Young Syrian and the Page of Herodias. When the Syrian kills himself, the Page's speech about his relationship with the Syrian seems to reveal a deep relationship between the two: "He has slain himself who was my friend. I gave him a little box of perfumes and ear-rings wrought in silver, and now he has killed himself . .. why did I not hide him from the moon?’’ Here the Page shows love for the Syrian, but the possible sexual nature of the relationship is unclear.
If Wilde meant the relationship to be homosexual in nature, he could not have made that explicit in the text at the time, so Wilde's purpose here can never be known for sure. It is interesting to note, however, that the one relationship in the text that seems to be based on real love is that between two men. Considering that Wilde was involved in a relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas at the time, it is quite possible that the relationship between the Syrian and the Page reflects that between Douglas and the playwright. In that case, true love is distinctly separate from the evil of female sexual desire.