Symbols and Interpretation in Salomé

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As he attempts to persuade Salomé to dance for him, Herod lapses into a moment of commentary on reading and interpretation: “It is not wise to find symbols in everything that one sees. It makes life too full of terrors. It were better to say that stains of blood are as lovely as rose petals. It were better far to say that…. But we will not speak of this” (225). Despite his view that the interpretation of textual “symbols” is dangerous, Herod’s remark simultaneously invites interpretation of its meaning and metaphors. This push-and-pull effect can be found throughout Salomé, making the analogous activities of interpretation and reading subjects of serious inquiry.

The concept of textual interpretation is enmeshed in Salomé’s structure and plot. On a linguistic level, individual words and even full sentences recur with only slight changes, spoken by a variety of characters; as a result, they seem to transcend their immediate contexts and take on symbolic meanings, calling for analysis in order to be understood. The images of doves (195), flowers (200), and “a woman who is dead” (195) reappear throughout the text, referring both to Salomé and to other characters and entities (for instance, the moon); likewise, the various characters’ admonitions to one another “not to look at” Salomé are repeated so often that they are nearly hypnotic (200). To match this writing style that seems to beg for interpretation, many episodes within the play can be viewed as exercises in literary analysis, seeking to interpret yet never achieving consensus or clear understanding. One example is that of the Jews, who fail to reach an agreement on whether “God is…hidden” and “how God worketh,” instead offering multiple conflicting “readings” of an opaque, text-like deity (215).

The play’s characters likewise serve as symbols to be interpreted and artistic objects to be analyzed, doubling as independent texts situated within the larger text of Wilde’s play. Like Wilde’s language itself, they both demand interpretation and push it away; other characters clamor for an almost authorial knowledge of these character-symbols, seeking to understand their words and “see” them fully (199), while the character-symbols recognize their allure as textual objects and manipulate it in their interactions with others. Jokanaan represents the unreadable written word, the enigmatic symbol that deliberately rejects attempts at interpretation. The First Soldier notes early in the play that “it is impossible to understand what [Jokanaan] says” (199), quickly establishing Jokanaan as an object of failed analysis; later, Jokanaan himself rejects his potential “reader” Salomé’s efforts to understand his words, stating that “[i]t is not to her that [he] would speak” (206). Yet if Jokanaan denies the possibility of a reader understanding a symbol, Salomé deliberately tempts her prospective “reader” with the false promise of knowledge. Playing on her position as an eternal object of sight, she persuades Narraboth to do her bidding by assuring him that she “will look at [him] through the muslin veils,” bridging the gap between symbol and interpreter and offering him the personal understanding he seeks (203).

If these characters, linguistic features, and plot events typically demand interpretation only to reject it, I wonder if it might be possible to link the protagonist’s death at the end of the play to her upending of this paradigm. Although Jokanaan refuses to provide his potential “readers” with the ability to interpret or comprehend his language, his death grants Salomé full power over his body. Consequently, she gains a nearly authorial control over this previously inscrutable textual symbol. Not only can she “do with it what [she] will” (234), but she can project her own thoughts and predictions onto it: “If thou hadst looked at me thou hadst loved me. Well I know that thou wouldst have loved me” (236). In doing so, she usurps Jokanaan’s intentionality as a “writer” of his own symbolic self and gains an unprecedented level of power as a reader and writer within the play. I’m curious whether it might be this new power that makes her “monstrous” in Herod’s eyes, and which leads him to order her death (236).


Works Cited

Wilde, Oscar. Salomé. Trans. Lord Alfred Douglas. 1894. Aesthetes and Decadents of the 1890s: An Anthology of British Poetry and Prose. Ed. Karl E. Beckson. 2nd ed. Chicago: Academy Chicago, 1981. 194-237.


Word Count: 678

Salomé: The Shockingly Willful Princess (Presentation)

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The Moon as a Mirror of Salomé

The presence of the moon in Salomé is hard to ignore: Oscar Wilde is basically hitting you over the head with it. The importance and meaning of it; however, are much more subtle. In the fascinating article, “Salomé, the Moon and Oscar Wilde’s Aesthetics: A Reading of the Play,” the authors, Joost and Court, posit that the moon in Salomé is a Wildean creation and that it effectively works as a mirror of the eponymous character, reflecting back to each character (including herself) their subjective idealized version of her. To Herod, for example, the moon appears as “quite naked” and “reeling like a drunken woman,” which is precisely how he wishes Salomé to be. Salomé, on the other hand, sees the moon as white and chaste which is the way she wishes to think of herself– it represents the idealized version she has of herself. The authors also argue that it is the threat that Jokanaan poses to this idealized version of herself that  compelled Wilde to change the story from that of the Bible and have Salomé ask for the head out of her own will as opposed to at the behest of her mother. Wilde wanted to show that Salomé, herself, wanted to end Jokanaan due to this threat. She is the femme fatale (96-102.)

The Difference between Wilde’s Salomé and the Salomé of the Bible

Dierkes-Thrun points out this agency and independence on the part of Salomé in the Introduction to her book, Salomés Modernity (1-2.) In his article, “Distance, Death and Desire in Salomé,” Donohue points out another important difference between Wilde’s play and the Bible’s account of the story. In the Bible, Salomé agrees to dance for Herod and he then offers her anything she’d like. In Wilde’s play; however, Herod asks her to dance for him and offers to give her anything she’d like and then Salomé agrees to dance with him (125.) In my opinion, this change in sequence was made with the purpose of showing that Salomé was conniving– she danced knowing full well what she would get and then actually asked for it. The fact that, in contrast to the Bible, Wilde’s Salomé asks for the head under her own steam and not at the behest of her mother also serves to illustrate this willfulness and adds to this willful characterization the agency needed to carry out her caprices.

Reception and Controversy around Salomé 

Unfortunately, many people did not see these two marked differences as proof of an original undertaking. Donohue also points out that many people, particularly in Britain, accused Wilde of plagiarism (123.) More importantly, however, Lord Chamberlain’s Examiner of Plays, E.F.S. Pigott, denied a license for performance on the basis of a prohibition against Biblical characters on the stage (118.) As Dierkes-Thrun points out, however, this was a law from the 16th Century that was rarely enforced. Furthermore, Pigott privately admitted in a letter that he was much opposed to the mixture of female sexuality and Biblical blasphemy calling the work, “half biblical, half pornographic” (4.) Unfortunately, this had sad consequences for Wilde. Due to the ban, the actress he wanted to play Salomé and who had originally agreed to do so, Sarah Bernhardt, backed out ( Donohue118.) The play was finally put on in 1896 in Paris while Wilde was serving for his conviction on “acts of gross indecency” (Donohue 119.) The play became well known on the continent and was especially well received in France by the public and by the intellectualls but the British kept ignoring it (Donohue 119-122.) It is this difference in reception, in the understanding of his work that compelled Oscar Wilde to declare that he would much rather be a French citizen (Dierkes-Thrun 5.)

Aubrey Beardsleys’ Climax, for Salomé (1894.) 


Discussion Questions

1. Joost and Court point out that the moon is not only a mirror of Salomé, it shows people her mask.They cite the Tetrarch who says “Only in mirrors is it well to look, for mirrors do but show us masks” (98.) In this play we see an added layer of illusions: mirrors. Do they allow us to see the truth better or do they simply allow us to see the truth of how we perceive the person? In other words, do they infringe on our access to objective perceptions about others but give us access to our true subjective perceptions of them? Sometimes, the way we see a person or the way we want a person to be is hard to come to terms with. Does the added layers of the mirror that reflects some of us back to us but also shows us the masks of others in this light allow us to come to terms with these facts?

2. Throughout the play, the moon and Salomé are referred to almost interchangeably. This has the effect of ambiguity: in some cases it is really not clear which of the two a particular character is referring to. In the French, this ambiguity would have been further reinforced by the use of the gendered pronoun “elle” which could refer to both Salomé or the moon, as it is a feminine noun. Even in the English this ambiguity can be observed to some extent. The moon, for example, is personified, she is referred to as a dancing princess (583, 588) and as a woman in various instances. The Princess, on the other hand, is described as pale (584, 593) and as rising (585.) How does this contribute the idea that the moon is a mirror or mask of Salomé? Does the excessive similarities between the two weaken or strengthen this thesis? How does it influence our understanding of Salomé?

3. Joost and Court also point out that Salomé is literally a lunatic play in which its characters, including Salomé, are driven mad by the moon (99.) I would posit, however, that Salomé drives every other character mad and that the moon only drives her mad. This can be evidenced by the fact that the Young Syrian has the first line in the play in which he looks at Salomé before the moon is mentioned (583) and by the fact that Herod calls for Salomé before he sees the moon (586.) Salomé, on the other hand, first observes the moon and the idealized version of herself she sees reflected in it and then starts acting strangely (586.) What significance does this have for the influence of the moon in the play? Does it only affect the other characters indirectly, through the influence of Salomé? Or does the influence it has on Salomé parallel (mirror) the influence Salomé has on the other characters?

4. Following from this influence she has on the different characters, Salomé definitely is a femme fatale. She causes the death of two men (one who was feared even by the king) and manages to make the king act completely against his will. She doesn’t have the same influence over her mother, for example, a female character. Joost and Court point out that Herodias is the only character who does not reflect her perception of Salomé onto the moon because she knows who she really is (98.) Is Salomé able to become a femme fatale and wreak the havoc she does because of the masking effect the moon has, because the male characters are able to lie themselves into ignoring her true nature simply by reflecting the qualities they want of her onto the moon?

5. The biographer Richard Ellman, in his book Oscar Wilde, theorizes that there is an autobiographical element to be found in Herod (90.) Although this is not a theory I think I can pursue with my limited knowledge of Wilde’s life, I would like to use this idea to explore the possibility of seeing Herod as a sympathetic character. Yes, Herod is a lusty old man that blatantly desires to sleep with the young daughter of his wife. But he can also be see as a man that is bewitched by a desire that is not allowed to him by society. He can be seen as a man that is so bewitched that he gives up his agency to see the desire fulfilled to a very small degree. He is also a man that then has the unattainable object of his desire cause him to destroy her. Seen in this light, the misfortunes that befall Herod in this play are tragic. Can he be seen as a sympathetic character? Do you feel sympathetic for him?


Dierkes-Thrun, Petra. Salome’s Modernity : Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetics of Transgression. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011.

Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. 1st American ed. New York: Knopf , 1988.

Joost, Nicholas and Franklin E. Court. “Salomé, the Moon and Oscar Wilde’s Aesthetics: A Reading of the Play. PLL 8 Suppl. (1972): 96-111.

Raby, Peter. The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Wilde, Oscar. Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. 5th ed. Glasgow: HarperCollins, 2003.