Salomè is a tragedy, written in 1891 by Oscar Wilde; it was first published in French in 1893 and only one year later translated into English.
Wilde spent part of his life in France, becoming friend of many members of symbolist and decadent movements. He frequented a lot of intellectual circles in Paris where a lot of artists were deeply interested in Oriental princess’s legends. He wrote the bulk of the play entirely in one night, buti t was impossible to perform ita t the theater because of a law which forbade the theatrical depiction of biblical characters. The drama was dedicated to the most famous actress of that period, Sarah Bernhardt, who first staged it.
The legend of Salomè begins in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. Herod, the Tetrarch of Judaea, had John the Baptist beheaded at the instigation of Herodias, wife of Herod, who was angered by John’s charge that her marriage was incestuous. John the Baptist was arrested and Herodias used her daughter, known to tradition as Salomè, to exact the prophet’s execution. On his birthday Herod made a supper to his lords. When the daughter of herodias came in and danced, the king said unto the damsel to ask her what she wanted to pleased them in such a beautiful way. But she didn’t know what to answer and she asked her mother for a piece of advice. Herodias suggested she should require the head of John the Baptist. The king was really sorry, but he couldn’t break his word, therefore he sent for an executioner, and commanded his head to be cut. The executioner obeyed, went to the prison and beheaded John the Baptist.
Without any doubts Wilde was influenced by many writers of his time: he probably read the novels of Gustave Flaubert, in particular the short story ‘Hérodias’, published in 1877. Flaubert’s setting of the Salomè legend, however, bears only a superficial resemblance to Wilde’s tragedy were the paintings of Gustave Moreau, whose strange and mystical themes laid the groundwork for later expressionist painting as well as for the poetry and art of the Decadents. In particular, Moreau’s ‘Salomè dancing before Herod’(1876) played a vital role for Salomè’s interpreters.
It’s important to note how in several literary works the role of each woman, Herodias and Salomè, was confused, whereas in Wilde’s drama they are well distinct. In most cases, Salomè was considered only a young girl, a subservient of the wishes of her mother, with almost no imortance, whereas under Wilde’s pen instead of Herodias, she is the true seducer. The Salomè legend is organized in all its forms around the seductive play of exhibitionism and the transgression of visual taboos on the body.
Salomè plays the main role. Her image fatally captures the male gaze: for looking on her too much, the Syrian will die. The other forbidden gaze in the play is Herod’s. Herod’s look upon salomè is incestuous, lascivious, and grotesque and it was the cause of John’s execution, because he denounced the incest of marriage.