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Salome, an Obsessive Compulsive Myth, from Oscar Wilde to Richard Strauss

Jacques Coulardeau
p. 131-146


No female character, more than Salome, carries in herself so much power to debunk and rebut any establishment. Salome is deranged by an obsessive compulsive disorder that leads her to touch everything she desires, repeat things over and over again and count things around her. Oscar Wilde uses these elements to create in French, and then in English in his own translation of the play, a style conveying and expressing these traits. Salome is the archetypical monster in Christianity. She provokes Herod, John himself and everyone else around her and pushes them to the extreme limits of decency. And yet she is killed like a plain outlaw by some soldier on Herod’s order. This exploration of the relation between Salome and John the Baptist leads to a deep reflection on the value of life when it is entirely dominated by obsessive carnal desires. That also leads to an end that looks like some form of expiatory justice. Richard Strauss amplifies the text and the subject with his music and his German libretto.

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1Oscar Wilde wrote this play in French, for Sarah Bernhardt. It was created in Paris in French in 1896. The French text is easily available since it is in the public domain. The English translation attributed to Lord Alfred Douglas is included in Collins’ Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Another translation, which is essentially a corrected version of Lord Alfred Douglas’s exists under the sole name of Oscar Wilde. The differences are essential and we will use them to show the conscious work of Oscar Wilde on his text in English as compared to Lord Alfred Douglas’s, and with a reference back to the French text when the two English versions show clear and significant differences.

2Then the opera by Richard Strauss (created on December 9, 1915) appears essential because Richard Strauss knew the original play he supposedly discovered in French. He had it translated and reduced in German. Strauss is also using the real music of the text to transpose it into his own music.

3Yet the music of a text is not only creating sound patterns and rhythmic patterns. It can have a wider understanding: syntactic music, semantic music and hence symbolical music. Then all musical elements come together. Strauss uses these patterns to create a comprehensive musical world.

4Oscar Wilde’s version is extremely brutal, bestial maybe even cruel, even though the poetry of the text is extremely refined. It is that dimension we found fully realized in Philip Jordan and David McVicar’s Covent Garden, London, 2008 production of the opera.

Salome’s Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: the Need to Touch

5Salome does not only stand in herself but she is also defined by the way people look at her. Herodias’s page, from the very start of the play, by using the moon metaphor attached to Salome, is the announcer of a very bad ending. He is the absolute pessimist who submits to the authorities and respects all rules and laws. He constantly advises the Young Syrian to stop looking at Salome.

6Jokanaan is a voice, except when he is retrieved from the cistern on Salome’s request. He is the divine voice that tells us this world will come to an end in a catastrophe. In the play Jokanaan may embody Salome’s father who spent twelve years in the cistern and was strangled there. This is mentioned by the soldiers before Salome’s arrival. This episode is totally taken out by Strauss. But this becomes a cultural ellipse to the play. We can assume Salome knows about her father. That makes Jokanaan an incestuous sexual object. Both for Salome who desires Jokanaan and for Jokanaan who rejects her with the clear mention of the daughter of Babylon and the daughter of Sodom. She is the daughter of Sodom offered like Lot’s daughter by her own father haunting the cistern given to the first man available, the man who has taken her father’s place in the cistern.

7Salome is suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). An OCD personality needs to touch, to count and to balance objects by placing them in a space that can be both spatial and temporal, meaning time and space are of the same nature.

  • 1 Oscar Wilde, Salome, Boston, Branden Publishing Company, 1996, p. 6–7. This edition will be referre (...)

8The need to touch is absolutely obvious from the very start. She hears the voice of Jokanaan. She wants to see him and see the man in connection with that voice. Not immediately. After Jokanaan’s first call she asks: “Salome: Who was that who cried out?. . . Ah, the prophet! He of whom the Tetrach is afraid?. . . He says terrible things about my mother, does he not?. . . Yes; he says terrible things about her. . . . Is he an old man, this prophet?. . .This prophet. . . is he an old man?. . .Who is Elias?”1

9It is only after Jokanaan’s second call that she gets into her first obsession with three repetitions of her desire. “Salome: What a strange voice! I would speak with him. . . . I desire to speak with him. . . . I will speak with him”
(W’s Salome, 7).

10At first a vague desire, rather an impulse. Then this impulse develops into a real desire. Finally it becomes a resolve expressed with “will”. It is stronger than “want”: it does not express what she wants other people to do but her resolve to do something, what she is going to require the soldiers, and particularly the Young Syrian to do, to bring the Prophet out of the cistern. As soon as she lays her eyes on him, she systematically asks Jokanaan for permission to touch him. Note we have 3 “suffer” + 3 “will kiss” + 3 “suffer” +3 “will kiss,” a perfect and multiple blending of Semitic and diabolical symbols (3 + 3), (3 x 3), [(3 + 3) + (3 + 3)].

Salome: Suffer me to touch thy body. . . . Suffer me to touch thy hair. . . . Suffer me to kiss thy mouth. . . . I will kiss thy mouth, Jokanaan. I will kiss thy mouth. . . . I will kiss thy mouth. . . . Suffer me to kiss thy mouth. . . . Suffer me to kiss thy mouth. . . . Suffer me to kiss thy mouth. . . . I will kiss thy mouth, Jokanaan. . . . I will kiss thy mouth, Jokanaan. I will kiss thy mouth. (W’s Salome, 11–14)

11At the end of the play when she finally has the head she will touch it, caress it, hug it, in many ways make love with it and to it and she will of course jubilate in her victory: “Salome: I have kissed thy mouth, Jokanaan, I have kissed thy mouth. . . . I have kissed thy mouth” (W’s Salome, 36). Lord Alfred Douglas’s translation adds “Jokanaan” after the third repetition. Note that the French version uses four times the verb “ai baisé” that is a lot less ambiguous about the sexual content of that kiss.

12And this kiss is identified to four “taste,” just as it is identified to four “saveur” in the French version.

Salome’s Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: the Need to Count

13She has to count. Her language is obsessed by numerical elements. The dance of course is of the seven veils. It could refer to the Holy Week, like an echo of the Prophet’s prediction. But the direct situation makes it symbolical of sexual intercourse with Herod in Wilde and in Strauss, which is then a reference to the “seventh heaven” of the semitic tradition and to the “septième ciel” in the French love and erotic tradition. In the Covent Garden production she dances on a stage that turns from left to right and she visually goes from right to left through moving doors and other objects, a direct visual representation of her having sex with Herod, being initiated to and penetrating in the realm of adult sex. But her language is a lot richer than just that one symbolical reference.

14I am going to study the encounter with Jokanaan at the beginning and the kissing scene at the end. When Jokanaan comes out Salome describes him in three successive steps, the first two addressed to the Young Syrian in the third person and the last to Jokanaan in the second person. The first element is the eyes that are captured through three comparisons in Oscar Wilde’s English translation. “Salome: . . .They are like black holes burned by torches in a tapestry of Tyre. They are like the black caverns of Egypt in which the dragons make their lairs. They are like black lakes troubled by fantastic moons” (W’s Salome, 10).

15The parallelism of the three sentences is increased by the repetition of some elements: “They are like. . . black” that brings up three images, “holes,” “caverns,” “lakes,” all of them deep entities. Each one has a negative dimension. The first is the result of a destructive human action. The second represents a danger embodied in what it contains, “dragons”. The third does not reveal the danger inside, but the disruption that comes from outside, the moons. Note the three disruptive elements are in the plural, “torches,” “dragons” that normally are solitary animals and the “moons” normally unique. If you bring together the three “they are,” the three “black” and the three disturbing elements, you reach the diabolical number 9. In the French version the ternary structure is expanded at the level of its second element by a mere repetition which doubles the dragons up and gives them more power. Lord Alfred Douglas’s translation kept the repetition, reinforced dragons, and the quaternary rhythmic structure. Oscar Wilde corrected that translation to make it more efficient in its ternary structure generating 9.

16The second element Salome captures is the unnamed body, only through its most outer characteristics. “Salome: How wasted he is! He is like a thin ivory statue. He is like an image of silver. I am sure he is chaste as the moon is. He is like a moonbeam, like a shaft of silver. . . . I would look closer at him. . . . I must look at him closer” (W’s Salome, 10).

17The ternary music is multiplied and amplified. First the “comparative” elements: “how,” “like,” “like,” “as,” “like,” “like,” 4 “like” expanded to the pagan 5 with “as,” the pentacle, and to the Semitic 6 with “how,” Solomon’s number and David’s star. Then the 5 repetitions of “he is” and the 5 singular articles organized in some kind of symmetry: “a,” “an,” “the,” “a,” “a”. This recurrence of the number 5 points at pagan sensuality (Bacchus or Dionysus). But note the last two sentences build Salome’s resolution or obsession and are built on an inversion in the second line creating a cataphoric ternary rhythm in the first line (initially binary):

│I would look │closer│ at him│
│I must look│ at him│ closer│

18A beautiful realization of Solomon’s number in an inversion that reminds us of David’s Star, the two cups, man’s upside up open to the heavens and God’s upside down pouring His light into man’s.

  • 2 Oscar Wilde, Salomé, Toulouse, Petite Bibliothèque Ombres, 1996, p. 32. This edition will be referr (...)

19If we go to the French original it is the same but in a less pure, more complex form. Salomé: Comme il est maigre aussi! Il ressemble à une mince image d’ivoire. On dirait une image d’argent. Je suis sûre qu’il est chaste, autant que la lune. Il ressemble à un rayon d’argent. Sa chair doit être très froide, comme de l’ivoire. . . Je veux le regarder de près.”2

20The rhythmic 5 is an essential architectural element in this small section founded on the symmetry of “ivoire,” “argent,” “argent,” “ivoire,” reinforced by the two “il ressemble,” though the parallelism of “on dirait” and “doit être” is less obvious, less perfect.

│Comme il est maigre aussi│
│Il ressemble. . . image. . . ivoire│
│On dirait. . . image. . . argent│
│Je suis sûre qu’il est chaste, comme la lune│
│Il ressemble. . . rayon. . . argent│
│Sa chair doit être. . . froide. . . ivoire│

21The first element, │comme il est maigre aussi│ does not have the same structure, though it is ternary like the five others, building thus a sextuple structure, each line being ternary, hence a total rhythmic count of eighteen, 666, the number of the Beast in the Book of Revelation, though it misses the final star of David of Oscar Wilde’s translation in the seventh ternary element │Je veux│ le regarder│ de près │.

22But once again Oscar Wilde moved from a rather not totally perfect structure translated “word for word” by Lord Alfred Douglas to the perfection I have identified in his English translation.

23The third element of Salome’s description of Jokanaan is prompted by Jokanaan himself: “Jokanaan: Who is this woman who is looking at me? I will not have her look at me. Wherefore doth she look at me with her golden eyes under her gilded eyelids. I know not who she is. I do not desire to know who she is. Bid her begone. It is not to her that I would speak” (W’s Salome, 10).

24At first sight the whole discourse is a sequence of dual elements, but this dualism is at once expanded to three: “I . . . her . . . me,” “looking . . . look . . . look” and “at me. . . at me. . . at me” coming to 9 the devil. But this section ends on “with her golden eyes under her gilded eyelids,” a pure evocation of Jesus through the eyes of John the Evangelist: the golden eyes of the Beast, five syllables, three rhythmic feet (-’│ ’-│ ’) under the eyes of the whore or Babylon, seven syllables, three rhythmic feet (- -’│ ’-│ ’-), from the fifth day of the crucifixion to the seventh day of the resurrection and the promise of a final punishment on Doomsday. We have the same rhythmic pattern in the French version (“avec ses yeux d’or (5) sous ses paupières dorées (7)”) but then “Je ne sais pas qui c’est” (W’s Salomé, 33) is far from “I know not who she is” with the strong displaced negation and the feminine pronoun. And the French “Ce n’est pas à elle que je veux parler” (W’s Salomé, 33) is weaker than the English “It is not to her that I would speak.” The power of “would” has nothing in common with the weak banal “veux”. He would rather speak to the Son of Man, but he cannot “want” that because the Son of Man will come to him when He sees fit, and Jokanaan of course submits to that divine will, which is not conveyed by “veux”. The comparison shows the meaning targeted by Oscar Wilde.

25Salome answers Jokanaan by telling him who she is in a ternary period: “Salome: I am Salome, daughter of Herodias, Princess of Judea” (W’s Salome, 10).

26This direct address brings up a rejection: “Jakonaan: Back, daughter of Babylon” (W’s Salome, 10).

27Salome now reaches the full power of her OCD and ternary elements are going to multiply.

Salome: Speak again, Jokanaan. Thy voice is like music to mine ear.
[The Young Syrian: Princess! Princess! Princess!]
Salome: Speak again! Speak again, Jokanaan, and tell me what I must do. (W’s Salome, 10)

28The three “speak again” expanded to five by two “Jokanaan” are echoed by the three “princess!” The French version is perfectly parallel with only one change in the translation from wine (Lord Alfred Douglas) to Oscar Wilde’s “music”. The text is music and the music of the text is signifying.

29Let us now turn to the second rejection from Jokanaan: “Jokanaan: Daughter of Sodom, come not near me” (W’s Salome, 10).

30But this meeting has a second part, after these three positive “eyes,” “body,” “voice,” three positive turning negative “body,” “hair” and “mouth” are coming, Solomon’s number in that double inverted ternarism (in fact 3+3+3=9, the devil in Jewish attire). Salome’s direct address to Jokanaan is no longer abstract or unphysical, it becomes totally sensual, purely sensual and sexual. But let us get into the numerical structure of her discourse.

31First Salome says “I am amorous of thy body,” second “it is thy hair that I am enamoured of, Jokanaan,” and third “It is thy mouth that I desire”. Each time Jokanaan rejects her, these three rejections and the two antecedent ones being:

Jokanaan: [Back! Daughter of Babylon! (previous rejection)]
[Daughter of Sodom, come not near me! (previous rejection)]
Back! Daughter of Babylon! (after the body)
Back, daughter of Sodom! Touch me not. (after the hair)
Never! Daughter of Babylon! Daughter of Sodom! Never! (after the mouth) (W’s Salome, 10–12)

32Three “daughter of Babylon,” three “daughter of Sodom,” alternating and the last two together in the fifth rejection embraced by two “never”. Jokanaan is the perfect Jew, the perfect Zealot he was and the perfect Christian he is announcing. Jokanaan’s rejection causes a strange reaction in Salome from sexual attraction for the body and the hair to rejection: “Thy body is hideous,” “thy hair is horrible”. With the mouth and lips Salome will react differently, blocked in her desire.

Let’s start with Jokanaan’s body.
Salome: Thy body is white like the lilies of a field
that the mower hath never mowed.
Thy body is white like the snows
that lie on the mountains of Judea and come down into the valleys.
The roses of the garden of the Queen of Arabia are not so white as thy body
Neither the roses of the garden of the Queen of Arabia
the garden of spices of the Queen of Arabia
nor the feet of the dawn when they light the leaves
nor the breast of the moon when she lies on the breast of the sea
There is nothing in the world as white as thy body. (W’s Salome, 11)

33Two comparisons “thy body is white like,” both expanded by some doubled constructions (“mower. . . mowed,” “that lie on. . . and come down”). Two comparisons “not so white as thy body” and “nothing. . . as white as thy body” with an inversion in the place of “thy body” in the first couple and in the last couple. The first element of the second couple is expanded to five elements and more subtle rhythmic structures: three “the garden. . . of the Queen of Arabia” and four negations “not. . . neither. . . nor. . . nor” that are expanded to five with the next “nothing”. The seven comparisons contain four comparatives (two “white like” and two [negation] “so/as white as”) and two groups of five elements (the five elements in the third comparison and the five negations in second couple). Seven refers to the seven veils and the holy week with five like the crucifixion and pagan sensual enjoyment of the flesh, these very pagan sensual pleasures Salome is requiring: “Suffer me to touch thy body” as we have seen earlier: 3 “suffer”+3 “will kiss”+ 3 “suffer”+ 3 “will kiss,” a perfect and multiple blending of Semitic and diabolical symbols (3+3), (3x3), [(3+3) + (3+3)]. The last numerical pattern is used, among many others of the same type, by Fritz Lang in Metropolis, always with the same meaning of the association of a diabolical monster and the Semitic number of Solomon.

34Jokanaan’s rejection provokes another description of Jokanaan’s body, negative this time:

Salome: Thy body is hideous.
It is like the body of a leper.
It is like a plastered wall
where vipers have crawled
like a plastered wall
where the scorpions have made their nest
It is like a whitened sepulchre
full of loathsome things
It is horrible,
thy body is horrible. (W’s Salome, 11)

35The rhythm is:
[thy body is hideous] it is like | it is like│ where│ like│ where│ it is like│ [it is horrible thy body is horrible]

36Two “thy body” framing the whole passage, two “horrible” closing the sequence as a ternary echo of one “hideous”. Two “[thy body] is” expanded to six by four “it is” and six “is,” and they contain three “it is like” expanded to four “like” with a ternary structure embracing a binary structure that contains six elements altogether: | it is like | it is like || where | like || where || it is like. We can note that the ternary mapping of this “it is like” is the inversion of the other ternary structure that embraces this one (two+one vs. One+two). We can then see that complex building of Solomon’s number mapped as a star of David.

37And then Salome shifts to the positive vision of Jokanaan’s hair. The positive vision is more complex or maybe more chaotic or perverted. I will pass to remain within the limits of this article. I will make one remark on one element, a syntactic aside in this description: “Salome: when the moon hides her face, when the stars are afraid” (W’s Salome, 12). We find a similar use of the moon (vastly expanded in the first part by the Page as noted) or other celestial objects in “Pierrot Lunaire,” Schœnberg (1912) for one example contemporary to Strauss’ use of this text. But Frank Wedekind had also used the moon and other entities in a similar way in the Lulu plays (1891, 1895, 1903). The same metaphorical “rhythmic music” of an object (the portrait of Lulu as a Pierrot Lunaire) is later used by Alban Berg, borrowed from Frank Wedekind.

38Then the negative description of the hair after Jokanaan’s rejection leads to another yet similar rhythm.

Salome: Thy hair is horrible
It is covered with mire and dust
It is like a knot of serpents coiled round thy neck.
I love not thy hair (W’s Salome, 12).

39Two “thy hair” expanded to three by “thy” in “thy neck”. The double “mire and dust”. Two “it is” expanded to three by the initial “is”. We get to six by adding these three double elements, but we also get to six by counting the two double elements expanded to three, which then brings the total to eight, the second coming, the apocalypse that Jokanaan represents and preaches. Two groups of six elements reached from either three times two or twice three are a double reference to Solomon’s number and David’s star. Note the two binary structures expanded to three contain the single double that is not expanded. But note the inversion of the two ternary groupings, one + two versus two + one, and even a greater parallelism with the reduced expansion (“is” and “thy (neck)” preceding the first and second full element respectively.

thy hair│is│ it is│ [mire and dust] │it is │neck hair│

40Salome then jumps into the description of Jokanaan’s mouth that I will pass here.
We come to the concluding sentence of this third positive description (“body,” “hair,” “mouth”): “There is nothing in the world so red as thy mouth.” echoing the previous two “There is nothing in the world as white as thy body” and “There is nothing in the world that is so black as thy hair”. And the fifth mention of “thy mouth”. This fifth mention will be brought to six by the challenge: “Suffer me to kiss thy mouth” but that challenge is a clear break if not divide in Salome’s attitude.
Jokanaan’s rejection that brings “daughter of Babylon” and “daughter of Sodom” to three each reveals the full extent of Salome’s OCD. She does not reject the mouth but becomes obsessed by her desire, her compulsive impulse and her obsessive resolution.

Salome: I will kiss thy mouth, Jokanaan
I will kiss thy mouth (W’s Salome, 13)

41The Young Syrian interrupts her (p. 13) with two “Princess” first and then one extra “Princess” before killing himself, which are all three together the echo of the three “Princess” he used before when Salome started speaking to Jokanaan (p. 10)

Salome: I will kiss thy mouth, Jokanaan. (W’s Salome, 13)

The Young Syrian kills himself after that third assertion.

Salome: Suffer me to kiss your mouth, Jokanaan. (W’s Salome, 13)

Jokanaan rejects her with “daughter of Herodias”.

Salome: Suffer me to kiss your mouth. (W’s Salome, 13)

42Jokanaan rejects her with “daughter of adultery”.

Salome: Suffer me to kiss thy mouth.
Jokanaan: Cursed be thou! Daughter of an incestuous mother, be thou accursed.
Salome: I will kiss thy mouth, Jokanaan.
Jokanaan: I will not look at thee, thou art accursed, Salome, thou art accursed.
Salome: I will kiss thy mouth, Jokanaan.
I will kiss thy mouth. (W’s Salome, 13–14)

43Note Jokanaan’s rejections bring up three “daughter of. . .”. Before cursing her, Jokanaan evokes Jesus Christ in his role of sin-redeemer, and then Jokanaan curses her four times in two pairs. “cursed be thou. . . be thou accursed” which is a phatic curse cast on Salome, and then “thou art accursed. . . thou art accursed,” the curse is effectively cast. Four, especially twice two is a perfect reference to the cross, hence to Jesus’ sacrifice. Note also that altogether Jokanaan will have identified Salome as a daughter nine times (the number of the devil), three times of Babylon, three times of Sodom and three times of “Herodias. . . adultery. . . and incestuous mother,” hence of her real mother definitely seen as incestuous and adulterous. She is the perverted woman par excellence for Jokanaan and Salome could only get redeemed by Jesus.

44This is the direct allusion to the Beast the way it is defined in John’s Book of Revelation (13: 18, and both 13 and 18 are not gratuitous in this highly symbolical biblical book) as being 666. That makes 18, just like 9+9.

Salome’s Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: the Need to Balance

45Let us consider the very last retort from Salome, the famous kissing scene.

Salome: Ah! I have kissed thy mouth, Jokanaan.
I have kissed thy mouth.
There was a bitter taste on my lips.
Was it the taste of blood?
Nay: but perchance it was the taste of love
They say that love hath a bitter taste.
But what matter? what matter?
I have kissed thy mouth. (W’s Salome, 36) [Lord Alfred Douglas adds: Jokanaan]

46Three (two+one) “I have kissed thy mouth” embracing two “bitter,” one “blood,” two “love,” four “taste,” hence nine elements. She repeats “what matter?” twice as an echo of the first two “I have kissed thy mouth,” and ends with a last “I have kissed thy mouth”. A condensed and extremely balanced closing discourse. She has satisfied her OCD and feels satiated. But nine evokes the satiation of some beast. Herod’s decision to have her killed is just fair. She deserves it. That all-inclusive decision will bring the final meaning.

Let us consider what Richard Strauss makes of this small scene.

  • 3 Richard Strauss, livret de l’édition Rouge Opéra, Decca, 1967/1997, ISBN: 028-94587-222-3.

Salome: Ah! Ich habe deinen Mund geküsst, Jochanaan.
Ah! Ich habe ihn geküsst, deinen Mund.
Es war ein bitterer Geschmack auf deinen Lippen.
Hat es nach Blut geschmeckt?
Nein! Doch es schmeckte vielleicht nach Liebe. . .
Sie sagen, dass die Liebe bitter schmecke. . .
Allein, was tut’s? Was tut’s?
Ich habe deinen Mund geküsst, Jochanaan,
Ich habe ihn geküsst, deinen Mund.3

47The two extractions of “deinen Mund” create at the beginning and at the end two stars of David: Ich habe deinen Mund geküsst Jochanaan Ich habe ihn geküsst deinen Mund , with “geküsst” as the bottom angle of each cup, upside up and upside down. This inversion is emphasized by the ambiguous accusative “ihn” that could both refer to Jochanaan and “deinen Mund,” creating a shift from second to third person applied to Jochanaan, hence some shifting ground in those two couples of sentences. In between these two patterns we have a motif of five elements: two “deinen Mund,” one “deinen Lippen,” two “deinen Mund” that are unified by their personal reference, semantic reference and exterior form, though we have an accusative with “Mund” and a dative with “Lippen,” respectively singular and plural. We also find two “bitter[er],” two “nach [Blut/Liebe],” two “Liebe,” which makes six elements. We also have the same pattern with the elements referring to taste:

Ge-schmack[- -][- -] ge-schmeck-t[- -] [- -]schmeck-t-e [- -]schmeck[- -]e.

48The rich cluster these four words build is based on the presence and absence of the common elements that are appearing in pairs: three present (2 ge-, 2 -t-, 2 -e) and of course three absent that are identified by contrast with the three particular positions of those present (2 ge-, 2 –t-, 2 –e).

But I would like to show how this is translated in music.

49We can see the music reinforces the text by making two words ternary in themselves (“Mund” and “geküsst”) and making them stand out which shifts the regularity of the text (12 and then 9 feet) to the regularity of the singing of two words (3 and 6) and of the whole (twice 14).

50But the whole scene is punctuated by a solo clarinet that plays a musical jingle with two short notes and then three or four long notes. This rhythm can be received in two different ways. Either you capture the time intervals between the notes, which makes three notes that are very close plus two or three that seem to be more distant. Or you capture the length of the notes and you have two short notes and three or four long ones. The two ways to receive that sort of detached jingle lead to the feeling of five as being 2+3 or 3+2 and six as being 2+4 or 3+3. We are thus in perfect line with Salome’s OCD and this clear sounding jingle expresses she is like a beast satisfied in her hunger and thirst, an echo of her tasting Jokanaan’s mouth and lips.

51We do not have to elaborate a lot more on the third symptom of Salome’s OCD. Every single element we have analyzed here shows how she is constantly balancing her numerical elements and the semantic and lexical elements that carry and convey them. We can easily conclude Oscar Wilde and after him Richard Strauss set up Salome as having an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder personality.


52Salome is presented in the Covent Garden production in the most sexual way because she is so obsessive compulsive that she is unable to live in society. Herod’s order is logical. Get rid of that beast. The reference to the father by the stage-director of the Covent Garden production in his “making of” could explain that derangement. But for the play, and especially the opera, I do not think this figure of the father in the background (real in the play, elliptic in the opera) is the essential meaning providing element. The texture of the play at both the linguistic and semiotic levels, and the texture of the music and stage direction (in Covent Garden) lead us to another interpretation.

53Systematically Salome’s pagan sensuous desires run across the Jewish and Christian (anachronistic in Salome’s time but perfectly relevant in Oscar Wilde’s and our times) teachings and principles. Solomon’s wisdom and David’s star are used to show and depict a vision that is upside down. At the same time the strong reference to Jesus and Christianity, including the Apocalypse, turns the last kiss into a direct allusion to another kiss that will bring Jesus’ crucifixion and eventually the second coming, the apocalypse, the beast or rather the two beasts of the Book of Revelation. We are not then surprised by the constant intertwining of quadruple elements in a general texture that is based on a double ternary structure that becomes a reference to the beast of the apocalypse, but also to the quintuple structure of the pagan Bacchus, another embodiment of the beast. This allusion to Doomsday is permanent and ever present.

54In Oscar Wilde’s time, and probably in his mind since his English version most of the time strengthens these elements, this intertwining of references seems to be a discourse against the establishment, Jewish as well as Christian, “What matter? What matter?” (W’s Salome, 64) It is all gathered up, put in one unique and sole bag, and thrown overboard into the sea, to drown once and for all. The long scene of the arguments of the Jews of various tendencies and trends and of the Nazarenes who are Jews too, shows how Oscar Wilde was a lot more than critical of that moral and ethical heritage only based on personal if not clannish or tribal beliefs and interests. What’s more Oscar Wilde has a pessimistic vision of the future: death, death and death again, this Judeo-Christian society is leading us to a catastrophe. Could he already feel, think of or imagine the drastic, tragic and dramatic period from 1914 to 1945? Oscar Wilde maybe not, except as a subliminal and sublimated desire of justice, vengeance or liberation, but Richard Strauss definitely yes, since his premiere night was in Dresden on December 9, 1915.

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Recent Personal Articles on Dramatic Works

Coulardeau Jacques, “The music of love or Juno’s capriccios,” dans ed. Maurice Abiteboul, Lectures d’une œuvre As You Like It de William Skakespeare, Paris, Éditions du temps, 1997, p. 154–174.

Coulardeau Jacques. “In the Flowery Hands of Flamboyant Aphrodite,” dans ed. Maurice Abiteboul, Lectures d’une œuvre, Venus and Adonis de William Shakespeare, Paris, Éditions du Temps, 1998, p. 121–138.

Coulardeau Jacques. “A stylus on a Plotter or the Style of Plotting,” dans ed. Maurice Abiteboul, Lectures d’une oeuvre Richard III de William Shakespeare, Paris, Éditions du Temps, 1999, p. 151–180.

Coulardeau Jacques. “Le silence à demi-mots, le cri à pleines notes, De l’art liturgique à l’art vidéo et cinématographique,” Theâtres du Monde, no11, Avignon, Université d’Avignon, ARIAS, 2001, p. 275–306.

Coulardeau Jacques. “Rêve et Cauchemar, Les créatures de la Nuit,” Théâtre du Monde, no12, Avignon, Université d’Avignon, ARIAS, 2002, p. 231–292.

Coulardeau Jacques. “La mort grande organisatrice de la vie,” Cercles, no6, Rouen, Université de Rouen, Internet, 2003.

Coulardeau Jacques. “Les sorcières sont parmi nous: de Shakespeare et Purcell à Arthur Miller,” Théâtres du Monde, no13, Avignon, Université d’Avignon, ARIAS, 2003, p. 137–150.

Coulardeau Jacques. “A Streetcar Named Desire: the media are stepping on our toes”, in Cercles, no10, Rouen, Université de Rouen, Internet, 2004, p. 33–64.

Coulardeau Jacques. “Régénérer la tradition ou Traditions Are Very Hot Potatoes”, Théâtres du Monde, no14, Avignon, Université d’Avignon, ARIAS, 2004, p. 253–284.

Coulardeau Jacques. “De Highlander à Beowulf ou The Warrior’s Blood is the Sword’s Sweat,” Duels en Scène, no2, Avignon, Université d’Avignon, CERIEAS, 2004, p. 203–224.

Coulardeau Jacques. “Le Destin de Faust de Marlowe et Gœthe à Berlioz et Gounod” (extraits d’une étude plus vaste inédite), Théâtres du Monde, no15, Avignon, Université d’Avignon, ARIAS, 2005, p. 97–110.

Coulardeau Jacques. “Théâtre dans la pierre en Livradois bénédictin: L’épée, symbole du verbe créateur”, illust. Michel Thénot, photographe, Duels en Scène, no3, Avignon, Université d’Avignon, CERIEAS, 2006, p. 39–53.

Coulardeau Jacques. “La femme en épicentre, “Epicene” de Ben Jonson (1609)”, Théâtres du Monde, no16, Avignon, Université d’Avignon, ARIAS en partenariat avec le laboratoire “Théâtre, Langue, Identité”, 2006, p. 95–109.

Coulardeau Jacques. “The Discourse of the Vision of the Bible,” ed. David Banks, La Langue, la linguistique et le texte religieux, ERLA, Université de Bretagne Occidentale, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2008, p. 45–60.

Coulardeau Jacques. “De la folie suicidaire à la folie destructrice”, Théâtres du Monde no17, Avignon, Université d’Avignon, ARIAS, 2007, p. 163–196.

Coulardeau Jacques. “The Vision of Religion in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” ed. John S. Bak, Post/Modern Dracula, From Victorian Themes to Postmodern Praxis, Newcastle, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, UK, 2007, p. 123–139.

Coulardeau Jacques. “Amour, Armes et Alliance matrimoniale ou Chaucer et l’inutile épée dans Le Conte du Chevalier (1387),” Duels en Scène, no4, Avignon, Université d’Avignon, CERIEAS, 2007, p. 189–210.

Coulardeau Jacques. “Thomas Becket et Thomas Stearns Eliot ou peut-on avoir foi en l’histoire?,” Théâtres du Monde, no18, Avignon, Université d’Avignon, ARIAS, 2008, p. 165–190.

Works Studied in this Article

Douglas Lord Alfred, Salome, English translation, London, Chancellor Press, 1986.

Strauss Richard, Salomé, Covent Garden, Philippe Jordan conductor, David McVicar stage director, Royal Opera House, Opus Arte, London, 2008.

Strauss Richard Salomé, Sir Georg Solti, conductor, The Decca Record Company Limited, London, 1997.

Wilde Oscar, Salomé, Toulouse, Petite Bibliothèque Ombres, 1992.

Wilde Oscar. Salome, Branden Publishing Company, Boston, MA, 1996.

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1 Oscar Wilde, Salome, Boston, Branden Publishing Company, 1996, p. 6–7. This edition will be referred to as W’s Salome.

2 Oscar Wilde, Salomé, Toulouse, Petite Bibliothèque Ombres, 1996, p. 32. This edition will be referred to as W’s Salomé.

3 Richard Strauss, livret de l’édition Rouge Opéra, Decca, 1967/1997, ISBN: 028-94587-222-3.

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Référence papier

Jacques Coulardeau, « Salome, an Obsessive Compulsive Myth, from Oscar Wilde to Richard Strauss », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 72 Automne | 2010, 131-146.

Référence électronique

Jacques Coulardeau, « Salome, an Obsessive Compulsive Myth, from Oscar Wilde to Richard Strauss », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 72 Automne | 2010, mis en ligne le 29 août 2016, consulté le 17 janvier 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/cve.2730

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Jacques Coulardeau

Université Paris I, Panthéon-Sorbonne.
Jacques Coulardeau in his research deals, in the present period, with ancient “Indo”-Aryan languages, especially Pali, the canonical language of Buddhism; with many spiritualities, Semitic, Christian and Asian; with all the arts of the stage or the screens from the opera to the cinema, from the Middle Ages to the 21st century; English, American and other English-language literature. His didactic practice leads him to question the needs of students in English at both ends of the spectrum: students having encountered failure in secondary education and having to get back on tracks in an emergency procedure, and students who are (self)-selecting themselves in the top specializations that require perfect and fluent both oral and written English. He is publishing in various countries, France, Great Britain, the USA, New Zealand, Germany and Austria, and is taking part in international conferences both in France and abroad.

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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