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Salome | Context

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Biblical Origins

In Salome Oscar Wilde retells a well-known biblical story of an icon of revenge—the daughter of Herodias. In the King James Bible, the story appears three times, in Matthew 14:1–12, Mark 6:14–29, and Luke 9:7–9, but the young princess who dances for Herod is never named. Most significant in the biblical version is that Herodias's daughter exacts revenge upon John the Baptist on behalf of her mother. The mother hates the prophet for declaring her marriage to Herod an incestuous sin: she marries her husband's brother while her first husband is still alive. However, in Wilde's much darker, elaborated version Salome's revenge pleases and may benefit her mother, but the motive is Salome's unbridled—and overt—lust and personal vendetta against the prophet for rejecting her.

Victorian Morality and Artistic Expression

At the time of the publication of Salome, Queen Victoria had ruled for decades, leading England down a path of strict and oppressive morality. Stifling social rules, laws, and unspoken assumptions about propriety made life difficult for a writer like Oscar Wilde. His artistic philosophy, aestheticism, was dedicated to beauty for its own sake rather than to social or political issues. Also influenced by the Decadent Movement, Wilde delighted in artificiality and excess, particularly evident in Salome. The play was rejected by the British censors who believed it was improper to use a biblical story as the basis for what was thought of as a decadent, or immoral, play. The poetic language of Salome's interactions with Iokanaan did not save the play from being forbidden onstage.

The sexual content of much of Wilde's writing and his own thinly closeted homosexuality were also in direct opposition to the attitudes of the times. However, despite the buttoned-up appearance of British men and women of the Victorian era, they were fascinated by the bawdy, the bizarre, and the grotesque. Their forms of entertainment were public and profuse. Wax museums showed murder scenes, circuses shot people out of cannons, and singers and street performers sang lyrics that were the exact opposite of genteel. English illustrator and author Aubrey Beardsley's illustrations for Salome reflect how the grotesque was rendered in late Victorian art and are an ideal companion for Wilde's text.

Literary and Artistic Influences

In the beginning of his writing career, Oscar Wilde was accused of writing derivative poetry, directly traceable to English writers such as William Shakespeare, John Milton, and the Romantic poets, especially George Gordon Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley. However, as he became well-known, Wilde gravitated toward the works of the French novelist Gustave Flaubert and of Symbolist writers and artists (who used symbols to represent absolute truths) such as the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, the playwright Maurice Maeterlinck, and the painter Gustave Moreau. Moreau's representations of biblical and mythical scenes, particularly two images of Salome dancing, influenced Wilde's play, which relies heavily on the biblical story of Herod's stepdaughter. The spelling of Iokanaan's name is taken directly from Flaubert's story "Hérodias" (1877), and Mallarmé's early drafts of a poem of the same name may also have steered Wilde in the direction of this tale.

Some aspects of Symbolist works are present in Salome. The reliance upon symbols such as the moon and the veil to direct the puppet-like behavior of some characters reflects the influence of Symbolist writers, but neither Salome nor Herodias pays attention to symbols. Both are controlled by their emotions and perceived needs. The subversive words and actions of the main character—in particular, her uncontrolled passions and behavior—place the play squarely in the realm of the French Decadent movement for some critics. However, Wilde's own views of art and beauty—art for art's sake, beauty above all, and overt sexuality—more closely connect the work with British aestheticism.

Critical Reception

Salome generated particularly negative reviews in England, along with more controversy for the already embattled Wilde. He originally wrote Salome in French, wanting to use the language to see what additional beauty it would give his writing. Wilde had Lord Alfred Douglas, his lover, translate the play into English, although Wilde is said to have thought the quality of the translation was not good. The first edition of the play was illustrated by the artist Aubrey Beardsley, who did not like Wilde. He created his illustrations without necessarily attaching them to actual events in the play, using the opportunity to create some of his best-known work.

However, it was Wilde's topic, desire taken to its most awful end, that met with difficulty in England. The play transformed the biblical story of Herod's stepdaughter and John the Baptist into what censors considered profane. Actors, on the other hand, loved Salome, and when Wilde read the play to the famous actress Sarah Bernhardt, she wanted to play the title role. British censors refused to allow the play to be performed in the United Kingdom, claiming that it was improper to perform a biblical story onstage and that the sexualization of the story was immoral. Reviewers, many of them failed dramatists such as Robert Ross, ridiculed this dark and graphic play, criticizing everything from the correctness of the French to the likability of the author. Salome was performed in several European countries to more appreciative audiences than Wilde found at home.

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