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XLIVe Congrès de la S.A.E.S., à l'université de Versailles, St Quentin (14-16 mai 2004) « Parcours et détours »

Biblical Turns of Phrase, Repetition and Circularity in Oscar Wilde’s Salome

Sébastien Salbayre


Written in French and translated into English by Lord Alfred Douglas with the help of the author himself at a time when novelists, poets and playwrights celebrated artifice and started revolutionising the forms of their art, Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1893) created a new language and located radical representational possibilities. If the play was considered outrageous in Victorian Britain it was obviously because of the author’s use, appropriation and transformation of Biblical sources. Indeed, in Salome, the extremely short accounts of the beheading of John the Baptist that can be found in the Gospels turn into a sexual tragedy in which lust, perversity and frustration are the main motivating forces behind the characters’ actions. But Wilde’s impertinent originality does not only lie in his departure from the factual biblical accounts of the events and the presence of a sexual subtext. It also rests upon his linguistic use of the Authorized Version of the Bible the style, rhythm and cadence of which are resorted to in the play. Among the main linguistic and stylistic features that are reminiscent of biblical language, obsessive repetitions produce a narcissistic text in which words neither reproduce nor refer to anything but themselves. Oscar Wilde’s tragedy of repetition reflects the cultural change that is associated with the transition from Victorianism to Modernism, the text pointing up the incapacity of language to transcend itself.

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1In February 1893, when Salome was first published in Paris by the Librairie de l’Art Indépendant and in London by John Lane, the play was so different from the late nineteenth-century West End repertoire that many ferocious criticisms were levelled at the author. For instance, on February 23rd, The Times even described it as ‘an arrangement in blood and ferocity, morbid, bizarre, repulsive, and very offensive in its adaptation of the scriptural phraseology to situations the reverse of sacred’ (quoted by Donohue 123). If the play was considered outrageous when it was released in Victorian Britain, it was obviously because of the playwright’s use, appropriation and transformation of biblical sources. Indeed, in Salome, the extremely short accounts of the beheading of John the Baptist that can be found in the gospels (Matthew 14: 1–12 and Mark 6: 14–29) turn into a sexual tragedy in which lust, perversion and frustration are the main motivating forces behind the character’s actions. In the very brief biblical sketches, the young woman that was to become a wildean heroine remains unnamed—she is indeed merely referred to as ‘the daughter of Herodias’ and ‘the damsel’—and asks for the Baptist’s head only at her mother’s bidding:

But when Herod’s birthday was kept, the daughter of Herodias danced before them, and pleased Herod.
Whereupon he promised with an oath to give her whatsoever she would ask. And she, being before instructed of her mother, said, Give me here John Baptist’s head in a charger. (Matthew 14: 6–8)
And when the daughter of the said Herodias came in, and danced, and pleased Herod and them that sat with him, the king said unto the damsel, Ask of me whatever thou wilt, and I will give
it thee.
And he sware unto her, Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, I will give
it thee, unto the half of my kingdom.
she went forth and said unto her mother, What shall I ask? And she said, The head of John the Baptist. (Mark 6: 22–4)

2Oscar Wilde considers the sequence from a radically new perspective since in his one-act play—which nonetheless carefully respects the structure of the classical five-act tragedy and which adheres to the unities of time, place and action—Herodias’s daughter is no longer nameless and no longer acts on behalf of her mother:

Salome.—It is not my mother’s voice that I heed. It is for mine own pleasure that I ask the head of Iokanaan in a silver charger. (Salomé 146)

3Therefore Wilde’s Symbolist princess, who is only motivated by her unquenchable physical desire for the Baptist, is responsible for his death. As for Herod, the Tetrarch, he accepts to have Iokanaan sentenced to death only because he is driven by his incestuous lust for his stepdaughter Salome. But Wilde’s impertinent originality does not only lie in his outrageous departure from the factual biblical accounts of the events and the presence of a sexual subtext in the play. It also rests upon his linguistic use of the Authorized Version of the Bible the words, style, rhythm and cadence of which are resorted to in the tragedy. Consequently, as Karl Toepfer shows in The Voice of Rapture. A Symbolist System of Ecstatic Speech in Oscar Wilde’s Salome, the biblical voice, which ‘consists of language comprised of particular elements or conditions which assume a ritualistic function,’ is ‘embedded within a discourse that functions on more than a ritualistic level, such as occurs in drama, where language assumes aesthetic and analytical as well as ritualistic functions’ (63).

4The biblical voice can be heard throughout the text since Wilde borrows words and whole sentences from the Old and New Testament books. By way of example, Iokanaan’s prophecies (e.g. ‘The eyes of the blind shall see the day, and the ears of the deaf shall be opened’, 54) are taken form the Book of Isaiah and the Book of Ezekiel; his references to the harlot (e.g. ‘Where is she who hath given herself to the young men of the Egyptians [. . .]?’, 74) is borrowed from the Book of Ezekiel and from the book of Revelation; Salome’s descriptions of Iokanaan’s body (82–84) are taken from the Song of Solomon and the Gospel According to Matthew. Among the main linguistic and stylistic features that are reminiscent of biblical language and that play a prominent role in the construction, representation and articulation of identity and desire, repetition is worth analysing, not only because Oscar Wilde declared that ‘[t]he recurring phrases of Salome, that bind it together like a piece of music with recurring motifs, are, and were to me, the artistic equivalent of the refrains of old ballads’ (letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, Letters 590) but also because it always indicates how imprisoned in their own sexual and other obsessions the biblical characters can be. Besides, the device underlines the protagonists’ tragic incapacity to take part in any genuine conversation and highlights the disappearance of the communicative function of language in Salome. Because he denies any possibility of communication, as he also does in The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde, who was deeply influenced by both Symbolist drama and the European avant-garde theatre, refuses the referentiality of realism and naturalism. In this way, he can be said to be a precursor of Modernism in that he anticipates the evolution of experimental twentieth-century drama, the Theatre of Cruelty in particular, and prepares the ground for an aesthetic that characterizes the works of such later dramatists as Artaud, Jarry and Beckett.

5From the opening scene to the closing monologue, Salome is characterized by repetitions that really function as leitmotivs. The play can even be defined as a tragedy of repetition, the text simultaneously reproducing the characters’ obsessions ad infinitum and echoing their own obsession with repetition. In the third chapter of the above-mentioned critical study of Oscar Wilde’s Salome, ‘The system of communal speech’ (63–140), Karl Toepfer highlights the necessary connection that exists between repetition, replication and reproduction on the one hand and referential ambiguity on the other hand, and defines the repetition of words and phrases in terms of enunciative strategy:

Repetition of words and phrases ambiguates identity insofar as repeated words and phrases cannot mean exactly the same thing in different contexts or time parameters. A voice which repeats phrases can alter their meanings by even very subtle shifts in tone, inflexion, volume, rhythm, timbre and gender. These alterations of meaning are simply revised perceptions of enunciated identities. But even if the speaker reduces vocal variations to minimum . . ., the repetition of phrases still indicates a doubt or skepticism regarding the significance of a particular identity, because the repetition defines an identity which is in need of affirmation; and things are affirmed through their reproduction. The need for powers of replication and reproduction arises from a craving for stability of perception and identity. (64)

6From a chiefly formal point of view, repetition can be considered to be ‘[a]n essential unifying element in nearly all poetry and much prose’ that ‘may consist of sounds, particular syllables and words, phrases and stanzas, metrical patterns, ideas, allusions and shapes’ (Cuddon 787), but Karl Toepfer makes it clear that

Repetition also involves the repetition of abstract categories of signification, such as rhetorical devices, which, with each repetition, do not necessarily use the same combination of words. Through abstract categories, repetition may occur without either the speaker or the listener being aware of it. . . . Repetition involves more than the reappearance of words, more than what is said—it involves the reappearance of identities which disguise themselves behind different words or sounds, as for example the case of a speaker who uses metaphor constantly but never repeats any one metaphor; or the case of a speaker who repeatedly adopts particular strategies (of, say, questioning) in relation to particular listeners. (65–6)

7Thus, added to the repetition of sounds, nouns, biblical and non biblical pronouns, verbs, phrases and syntactic units, the iteration of rhetorical devices and modes of address in Salome contributes to creating a compelling hypnotic effect and is part of a strategy that not only seduces the heroine’s listeners and prevents them from behaving in a personal way, but also mesmerizes the audience.

8Throughout the play, repeated similes and metaphors and the repetition of structures involving the preposition like rest upon a compelling mental oscillation between the reality of the compared element and the powerfully suggestive meaning of the comparing element, so that the other characters’ and the spectators’ attention is inevitably focused on the comparing entity which is poetic, exotic and dangerously erotic. The very mundane negation of the comparison can make the latter even more suggestive:

Herod.—The moon has a strange look tonight. Has she not a strange look? She is like a mad woman, a mad woman who is seeking everywhere for lovers. She is naked too. She is quite naked. The clouds are seeking to clothe her nakedness, but she will not let them. She shows herself naked in the sky. She reels through the clouds like a drunken woman . . . I am sure she is looking for lovers. Does she not reel like a drunken woman? She is like a mad woman, is she not?
Herodias.—No the moon is like the moon, that is all. (94)

9The use of negatives is another strategy that is repeated throughout Wilde’s tragedy. Indeed, Salome features several logical figures that define a particular relationship between the characters and language, namely disapprobation, contestation, refutation, refusal, denial, retraction and repudiation. The protagonists keep verbalizing the impossibility of their unbecoming desire, differentiation, otherness, emptiness and nothingness, and express the tragedy of their repressed sexual urges. Paradoxically enough, the negativity of Salome’s enunciative strategy and figures of speech enables her to convey the unutterable in an oblique way, showing that she is in a paroxysm of desire:

Salome.— . . . The roses in 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 on the leaves, nor the breast of the moon when she lies on the breast of the sea . . . There is nothing in the world so white as thy body. Suffer me to touch thy body. (82)

10Among the other recurrent enunciative strategies and modes of address that are to be found in Salome, commands reveal the main characters’ undeniable desire to subject her listeners to her wishes, and plunges the audience into the realm of erotic fantasies. Salome’s repeated commands produce a highly hypnotic effect and put the young Syrian under her total control:

Salome, smiling.—Thou wilt do this for me, Narraboth. Thou knowest that thou wilt do this thing for me. And on the morrow when I shall pass in my litter by the bridge of the idol-buyers, I will look at thee through the muslin veils, I will look at thee, Narraboth, it may be I will look at thee. Look at me, Narraboth, look at me. Ah! thou knowest that thou wilt do what I ask of thee. Thou knowest it . . . I know that thou wilt do this thing. (70)

11Repetition serves a variety of purposes in Oscar Wilde’s tragedy, and of course, it is also of paramount importance in the creation of an atmosphere of doom and constraint. In the opening scene the page of Herodias keeps reminding the young Syrian that yielding to Salome’s visible sexual charms cannot but lead to fatal destruction:

The young Syrian.How beautiful is the Princess Salome tonight!
The page of Herodias.—You are always looking at her. You look at her too much. It is dangerous to look at people in such fashion. Something terrible may happen. (46)
he young Syrian.The Princess has hidden her face behind her fan! Her little white hands are fluttering like doves that fly to their dove-cots. They are like white butterflies. They are just like white butterflies.
he page of Herodias.—What is that to you? Why do you look at her? You must not look at her . . . Something terrible may happen. (56)
he young Syrian.Will you be seated, Princess.
The page of Herodias.—Why do you speak to her? Oh! Something terrible will happen. Why do you look at her? (62)

12Looking at the eponymous heroine, who is the focus for both the other characters and the audience, is dangerous. The tragedy, which puts permanent emphasis on the different ways of seeing the moon, Salome and Iokanaan, not only dramatizes the dangers in desiring but also the dangers in gazing at one’s object of desire.

13Throughout the play, Salome’s sexual longing for Iokanaan is articulated by extremely evocative, sensuous expressions and similes that phrase the text. The more intense her destructive passion, as she is enthralled by the prophet’s sensual mouth, the more iterative and obsessive her remarks. In addition, the more Iokanaan refuses to give himself to her and the more humiliated she feels, the more insistent her repetitions. Her voluptuous eroticism and insatiable desire for the Baptist are underlined by iterations that show that, just as the latter is literally imprisoned in the ‘old cistern surrounded by a wall of green bronze’ (44), the princess is a prey to her own fantasies, which prevents her from lending an ear to her co-speaker’s discourse, however repetitive it itself may be, and inevitably leads to death—the young Syrian’s, Iokanaan’s and her own. The circularity of her speech based upon the obsessive repetition of the same nouns, adjectives, phrases and similes translates the destructive passion arising from a desire that is locked away in an inaccessible object:

Salome.— . . . It is thy mouth that I desire, Iokanaan. Thy mouth is like a band of scarlet on a tower of ivory. It is like a pomegranate cut in twain with a knife of ivory. The pomegranate flowers that blossom in the gardens of Tyre, and are redder than roses, are not so red. The red blasts of trumpets that herald the approach of kings, and make afraid the enemy, and are not so red. Thy mouth is redder than the feet of those who tread the wine in the wine-press. It is redder than the feet of the doves who inhabit the temples and are fed by the priests. It is redder than the feet of him who cometh from a forest where he hath slain a lion, and seen gilded tigers. Thy mouth is like a branch of coral that they keep for the kings! . . . It is like the vermilion that the Moabites find in the mines of Moab, the vermilion that the kings take from them. It is like the bow of the king of the Persians, that is painted with vermilion, and tipped with coral. There is nothing in the world so red as thy mouth . . . Suffer me to kiss thy mouth.
Iokanaan.—Never! daughter of Babylon! Daughter of Sodom! never!
Salome.I will kiss thy mouth, Iokanaan. I will kiss thy mouth.
The Young Syrian.—Princess, princess, thou art like a garden of myrrh, thou who art the dove of all doves, look not at this man, look not at him! Do not speak such words to him. I cannot endure it . . . Princess, do not speak these things.
Salome.I will kiss thy mouth, Iokanaan.
he Young Syrian.—Ah!
He kills himself, and falls between Salome and Iokanaan. (84–6)

14In Salome the dialogues go round in circles, the characters doing nothing but endlessly repeating the same wishes, petitions, commands and curses. This reminds the audience of the circularity that characterizes the whole play and whose most obsessive recurring motif is that of the moon. In all the key passages of the play, systematic repetition emphasizes Salome’s incapacity to take her listener’s discourse into account, for she is absorbed in her own obsessive longing to appropriate the object of her sexual desire and to have it at her disposal for all eternity. The princess, who has become enslaved to a fascinating being that will not even look at her and that keeps despising her craving for sexual satisfaction, pesters him with her attentions and recites the same repetitive phrases in a drone, cannot hear the voice of reason and, in the end, seems to have lost her hold on common sense. After dancing for her stepfather, Salome shows further evidence of her destructive hysteria and monomania by repeating her request endlessly:

Salome.The head of Iokanaan . . . I ask the head of Iokanaan in a silver charger. . . . I ask of you the head of Iokanaan. . . . I demand the head of Iokanaan. . . . The head of Iokanaan! . . . Give me the head of Iokanaan! . . . Give me the head of Iokanaan! . . . Give me the head of Iokanaan! (14254)

15As for Herodias, she cannot but repeatedly approve of her daughter’s decision:

Herodias.Ah! That is well said, my daughter. . . . Yes, you have sworn an oath. . . . My daughter has done well to ask the head of Iokanaan. . . . He has sworn an oath, he has sworn an oath. . . . Well said, my daughter! . . . My daughter has done well. . . . I am well pleased with my daughter. She has done well. (142–62)

16The Tetrarch sets his calmness against Salome’s requirements and Herodias’s invectives, gives an absolute, repeated refusal to his stepdaughter’s request, but eventually gives in out of weakness, tiredness or fascination:

Herod.—No, no! . . . No, no, Salome. . . . No, no, I will not give it thee. . . . Thou art not listening. Thou art not listening. . . . No, no, thou wouldst not have that. . . . Ah! thou art not listening to me. . . . Let her be given what she asks! Of a truth she is her mother’s child! (142–56)

17Salome’s voice seems to have an almost hypnotic effect on Herod for the latter holds his attention so strongly that he is unable to look away. His mind is filled with the same thoughts because Salome’s iterative speech puts any of her listeners in a nearly unconscious state so that they are influenced to follow her commands. But the Tetrarch’s final acceptance does not put an end to her rhetoric of irrepressible desire and language of repressed erotic feeling, for in the very last lines the princess utters before she is most violently killed, not only does repetition sustain the dramatic intensity of a scene that is already dramatised by a play of lights and shadows, it also shows that the heroine is unable to ‘[leave] the confines of her voluptuous eroticism’ (Kohl 186). Salome’s closing monologue, which is framed by the repetition of a repetition—‘I have kissed thy mouth Iokanaan, I have kissed thy mouth’ (164)—stresses the link between the visual dramatisation of the scene and verbal repetition. The spectator is all the more compelled to pay attention to Salome’s iterative discourse as, before she is crushed beneath the soldiers’ shields, the princess is not to be seen. She is only to be heard, and logically enough, the last words that the audience hear are repeated over and over again:

Herod.—She is monstrous, thy daughter; I tell thee she is monstrous. In truth, what she has done is a great crime. I am sure that it is a crime against some unknown God. . . .
The slaves put out the torches. The stars disappear. A great cloud crosses the moon and conceals it completely. The stage becomes quite dark. The Tetrarch begins to climb the staircase.
The voice of Salome.—Ah, I have kissed thy mouth, Iokanaan, I have kissed thy mouth. There was a bitter taste on thy 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, Iokanaan, I have kissed thy mouth.
A ray of moonlight falls on Salome and illuminates her.
Herod, turning round and seeing Salome.—Kill that woman!
The soldiers rush forward and crush beneath their shields Salome, daughter of Herodias, Princess of Judœa.
Curtain (164)

18But Salome’s ‘monstrous’ urge is inconsistent and indefinable since the tangible object of her desire is now praised to the skies, now most vehemently denigrated. Indeed, the young heroine is a prey to conflicting feelings and the words she repeats are successively modified by adjectives, noun phrases and clauses that contradict one another. In a long description that is borrowed from the Song of Songs, she confesses that she is ‘amorous’ of Iokanaan’s body and then asserts that she finds it ‘hideous’; she compares it either to ‘the lilies of a field that the mower hath never mowed’ or to ‘the body of a leper’; she is ‘enamoured’ of the Baptist’s hair, which is now ‘like the great cedars of Lebanon that give their shade to the lions’, now ‘like a knot of serpents coiled round thy neck’ and finds it ‘horrible’ (82–4). Like the other characters in the play, Salome wallows in the repetition of words the referents of which hardly matter. What really matters is the sensual, voluptuous pleasure repetition affords her and the narcissistic presence of words in her discourse, words referring to nothing but themselves, language referring to nothing but language and repetition leading to deadly climax. Therefore, the Wildean biblical characters’ repetitions of words and rhetorical and enunciative strategies produce a language of eroticism and erotic feeling that is self-centred in that it neither reproduces nor refers to anything but itself. As Karl Toepfer shows, this language

negates communication, negates, indeed, the community or speech-world which formed the language. In the end, it is language, as signifier of the cosmos, and not the speech-world, not pressures to ‘communicate’, which, by its ambiguity, constructs emotion, and it is aesthetic feeling, emotion cultivated for its own sake rather than some Other sake, which produces difference, the sense of being other (78).

19In Salome Oscar Wilde combines the language of the Authorized Version of the Bible with Symbolist style, which is of paramount importance in the construction, representation, performance and articulation of gender and sexuality, and resorts to hypnotic repetition, a key stylistic device which enables the biblical characters to express their repressed sexual urges and their craving for the sexually ‘abnormal’. Written in French and translated into English at a time when novelists, poets and playwrights celebrated the artificial and started revolutionising the forms of their art, Wilde’s one-act tragedy creates a new language and locates radical representational possibilities. Oscar Wilde thus questions conventional categorical distinctions and the sense of Western morality and respectability, and with Salome, the stage becomes a highly productive space in which to inscribe destructive desire and dissident identity. By a contradiction of normative language, Oscar Wilde sees identity and desire from a new perspective and creates a play that both reflects and produces the cultural change that is associated with the transition from Victorianism to Modernism, the narcissistic text pointing up the incapacity of language to transcend itself.

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The Bible. Authorized King James Version. With an introduction and notes by Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett. Oxford: OUP, 1997.

Cuddon, J. A. Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory (1976). Third edition. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991.

Donohue, Joseph. ‘Distance, Death and Desire in Salome’. The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde. Ed. Peter Raby. Cambridge: CUP, 1997. 118–42.

Hart-Davis, Rupert, Ed. The Letters of Oscar Wilde. London: Harcourt, Brace, 1962.

Toepfer, Karl. The Voice of Rapture. A Symbolist System of Ecstatic Speech in Oscar Wilde’s Salome. New York and San Francisco: Peter Lang, 1991.

Wilde, Oscar. Salomé. 1893. Paris: Flammarion, 1993.

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Sébastien Salbayre, « Biblical Turns of Phrase, Repetition and Circularity in Oscar Wilde’s Salome »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 63 Printemps | 2006, mis en ligne le 27 mars 2023, consulté le 16 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Sébastien Salbayre

Sébastien Salbayre est Maître de conférences à l’Université de Tours François Rabelais où il enseigne la littérature anglaise. Auteur d’une thèse intitulée ‘Analyse stylistique des œuvres de fiction d’Oscar Wilde. Approche énonciative’, il a publié plusieurs articles consacrés au théâtre et aux œuvres narratives d’Oscar Wilde.

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