Religion vs. Sensuality
Salomé and Jokanaan represent two human impulses—sensuality and religion. Salomé has been brought up as a Princess in Herod's court, given all the luxuries she could want. She expects to get whatever she wants, to have her whims fulfilled, and to pursue her pleasure wherever it leads her. This is obvious in her attitude at the banquet, where she has everyone's attention because of her beauty and youth, especially Herod's attention. An ambitious woman might use all this to her own advantage. Herod seems smitten with Salomé, ready to give in to her requests, even hinting in the play, he would give her her mother's throne. Salomé, however, does not like Herod's attention. Bored by the drunken revelry at the banquet, she wanders off to find something more diverting. On the terrace, the Syrian Captain of the Guard is in love with her and displays his chivalry and devotion. Salomé heartlessly uses him to get to the prophet. Although the Syrian is handsome and available, Salomé turns her attention to Jokanaan in the cistern, whose voice she hears denouncing the corruption of the court. This is something more interesting. The scene between Salomé and Jokanaan is central to a topic Wilde has explored elsewhere in his work—the competing power of pleasure and virtue.
In front of the Princess, Jokanaan criticizes the court, especially implicating Herod and Herodias for following their own ambitions and pleasures instead of following the commandments of the Lord: “where is he whose cup of abominations is now full?” (p. 10). In the Bible, various “abominations” are named that are offensive to God, such as shedding innocent blood, sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, drunkenness, jealousy, lying, slander, idolatry, dissensions, and sorcery. Jokanaan speaks of the abominations of the Tetrarch Herod and his Queen. Princess Salomé is called by Jokanaan a daughter of adultery and incest. She does not mind but keeps baiting Jokanaan to speak and tell her more. She loves the sound of his voice, she says. She asks what she should do, and he advises her to become religious, to repent: “cover thy face with a veil, and scatter ashes upon thine head, and get thee to the desert and seek out the Son of Man (Christ)” (p. 12). Covering her face with a veil would mean to live a more humble and ascetic life, as he does. This is the opposite of the life she has been living.
The prophet's warnings have no effect on Salomé except to make her desire him as a sexual conquest. No doubt she is driven by the desire to defile his religious purity, and this is sexually exciting to her. She begins with a long litany of praise to his body, comparing it to lilies and roses and spices. When he repulses her advance, she reverses her praise, describing the vileness of his body, like snakes and scorpions. She sees his hair at first like vine-trees, then it is hideously covered in mire. His mouth is a pomegranate, but also bitter when she kisses the dead face. Salomé works herself up with both desire and repulsion for Jokanaan's wasted and dirty body, making the prophet a strange, forbidden, and therefore desirable love object. Her final kiss on his severed head is an act of necrophilia (making love to a dead body) performed in front of the whole court. It appears that Salomé wins, but Jokanaan puts a curse on her. The curse of a prophet was not a personal act but a call to God to remove something evil, which Salomé has revealed herself to be. She demonstrates the pleasure principle out of control until it becomes totally destructive.
The virtue of restraint or discipline is illustrated almost by its absence in this play, for almost every character is given up to some excess or passion. Soldiers, for instance, are an image of control and restraint, yet Herod's soldiers cannot resist the whims of Salomé and violate their orders. The Young Syrian is the Captain of the Guard and goes against his duty to bring forth the prisoner when Salomé offers him her favors. The Page of Herodias indulges in a lavish lament on the Captain's death, revealing his love affair with him. Herodias bursts out with her desire to silence the prophet and control the visible passion between her husband and daughter, Salomé. Herod is only a shade less terrible than Salomé, a man of sudden whims and lack of self-control in this play. The soldiers explain Herod's cruelty towards his elder brother whom he imprisoned in the cistern for twelve years and then strangled, stealing his wife and throne.
Herod is shown to be unstable. He keeps repeating how happy he is at his birthday party, secure in the knowledge that he has the favor of Rome, but he worries about the Cappadocian king, his rival, and he keeps staring at Salomé as he gets drunker and drunker. While he tells the company he is completely happy, the soldiers whisper how somber he looks. There is tension. Everyone feels something terrible will happen in the palace that night. The Angel of Death is rustling his wings. Herod is drunk with wine and the sight of Salomé. His wife asks him repeatedly to stop looking at her but he is unable to and finally demands that she dance for him. His passion for her dance is so great he offers half his kingdom. Salomé makes much of the fact that she is a virgin and identifies with the virgin moon. But she is a cruel virgin, like the moon, said to be seeking death.
Even the righteous are full of passion. The Jews can be heard in the hall arguing loudly about their religion. Jokanaan speaks passionately about the end of the world and the need to repent. Herodias says he speaks like a drunken man, and Herod claims, “It may be that he is drunk with the wine of God” (p. 26). Wilde is skillful in creating a tension from the unrestrained passions of characters building to a climax which ends in Herod's command, “Kill that woman!” (p. 41) Like Salomé's passion, Herod's ends on a note of violence and death.
The New Force of Christianity
The Roman Empire controlled a fourth of the people of the world at the time of the play during the life of Christ, including countries of Europe, North Africa, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and Asia. It had a vast array of pagan gods and rituals, with many local deities. Rome was fairly tolerant of the religions in its client states and allowed local worship along with the Roman gods. The Romans believed themselves pious, though they were more interested in ritual than dogma and faith. Theirs was a state religion. The religious persecution of Jews and Christians generally occurred with the rise of radical sects that threatened Roman control. John the Baptist (Jokanaan) had a large following that criticized the Jewish puppets like Herod and preached the coming of the Messiah who would liberate the Jews. The Messiah was generally believed to be a military leader.
The men at Herod's feast are from different countries and sects. When Herod's Syrian Captain of the Guard kills himself, Herod discusses with his Roman guest, Tigellinus, the Stoic philosophy that allowed suicide if a man could not live a virtuous life. Stoicism was a Hellenic philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium, in the 3rd century, BCE. Stoics lived a disciplined and ascetic life of moral perfection to avoid the destructive qualities of emotion. This is contrary to the unbridled passions of Herod's court. Herod and Tigellinus make fun of Stoics, mentioning that Caesar has written a satire on them. Nevertheless, the later and great Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, was a Stoic. This noble philosophy had some influence on early Christianity.
The many arguing Jewish sects are represented in the play by Pharisees who believe in angels and Sadducees who do not. There is also a scene where Herod tells the Jewish guests that he will not give them Jokanaan. The Orthodox Jews see Jokanaan as a heretic and want to stop him. They argue with Herod about his claims. Herod says Jokanaan is a holy man who has seen God. The Jews take different positions on that, arguing whether God exists and if someone could see Him. These Jewish scholars have reduced religion to an unsatisfying intellectual argument that could not have much meaning for the common suffering person. Jokanaan, on the other hand, speaks of the miracles of Christ's healing and the personal forgiveness of sins. He demonstrates the magnitude of this new doctrine by telling Salomé even she can be forgiven.
The play represents a dramatic moment in history where Herod's ineffective attempts to stop the new religious force represented by Jokanaan, the one who has come to prepare the way for Christ, is made symbolically clear. The royal house is swept away by its own sin, as prophesied: Salomé is killed, and Herod will be dishonored and eaten by worms. When Jokanaan says from the cistern that “the Saviour of the world” is coming to Judea (p. 22), Herod asks what that means. Tigellinus says “Saviour of the world” is a title that Caesar adopts. Herod knows it cannot mean Caesar, for he is afflicted with gout in Rome. A Nazarene then says it means the Messiah who is working miracles in the countryside. Christ's democratic religion of love spread like wildfire throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean world until the 4th century CE when it became the official religion of the Roman Empire.