As a teenager, I discovered Oscar Wilde’s “one-act play, Salome”, a retelling of the story of John the Baptist’s beheading by Herod Antipas. I was intrigued to discover that Wilde’s play is a Gospel story.
In the Gospel account, Herod’s wife, Herodias, is angry at the prophet because he has preached against her marriage to the king. The union violated Jewish law since both parties were divorced and because Herodias’ prior husband was Herod’s brother.
Incidentally, the historian Josephus records that, for worry that his foe was becoming too popular and might lead to a rebellion against him, Herod Antipas killed John.
In the Gospel story, the scene is a banquet. Herod and his officers lounge about, feasting and drinking wine. The queen’s daughter dances for them. Delighted by her performance, Herod tells Salome she can ask for whatever she wants, and it will be hers. At her mother’s instigation, the princess asks for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. According to the Gospel, Herod is distressed at this request, believing John to be a holy man. Nevertheless he must fulfill his promise. So the prophet is murdered and his head brought to Salome, who in turn gives it to her mother.
As the forerunner of Jesus, John represents a world opposite to that of Herod’s court; a world in which no one, not even the wealthy, not even the king himself, is above the law of God.
“He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,” sang Mary of Nazareth, the mother of Jesus, during her visit to John’s mother, Elizabeth. “He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich sent empty away.”
Thirty years later, in Herod’s court, the mighty have clearly not yet been cast down.
None of this comes through in Wilde’s disturbing and brilliant play. In his version, the story is all about illicit desire, the conflict between the decadent and the ascetic. Salome, encountering Jokannan (John) as he disrupts the banquet with his harsh denunciations from his prison cell, immediately becomes obsessed with him. His emaciated beauty, even his ascetic scorn of her, enthralls her. And the more vehement his railings, the more obsessed Salome becomes. She desires to kiss his mouth; the same mouth that calls her a whore, an abomination, a daughter of Sodom and Babylon; that calls on the people to stone her.
“I will kiss your mouth,” she repeats.
The Baptist, as Wilde depicts him, seems angry; not at injustice but at the body itself, especially the bodies of women. He and Salome are opposites on a dualistic binary — voluptuousness on one hand and asceticism on the other. Each is doomed in their own way.
When Herod convinces the princess to dance for him, Salome, not her mother, demands the head of the prophet. As in the Gospel, Herod is appalled but keeps his promise. When John’s head is brought to Salome, she passionately kisses his dead lips.
Herod is horrified. “Kill that woman!” he commands, and his guards turn on Salome, crushing her beneath their shields. The end.
The liberties Wilde takes with the Gospel story indicate interest in the theme of forbidden or illicit love and the contrast between the sensuous and the ascetic. In his version, Salome is also a victim; not only of her own desires but of those who punish her for her “monstrousness.”
Readers might guess that Oscar Wilde turned the story of the beheading of John the Baptist into a story about forbidden passion, because he too was regarded as “monstrous” by the society in which he lived. Only four years after he wrote this play, Wilde was jailed for “gross indecency with men.” His only crime was that he was a gay man in a society where LGBTQ persons were harassed and persecuted. Under the same laws, Alan Turing, the father of computer science, would also be prosecuted and subjected to chemical castration. These cruel laws were created and enforced in a civilization that called itself Christian.
If Wilde turned the story of John the Baptist into a story about illicit desire, perhaps this was because generations had already twisted the message of the Gospel — the good news that John heralded — into something cruel and repressive.
John’s denunciation of Herod and Herodias was ultimately directed at their arrogance in placing themselves above God’s law. Herod had a habit of ignoring Jewish tradition, offending devout Jews by doing such things as building his capital atop a graveyard. He was also a “client king,” meaning he wielded power on behalf of Rome. To pious Jews, Herod was an outsider, a minion of the oppressive imperial authority. It is likely that many feared to stand up to him, but John did not.
The story of John the Baptist in the Gospel is not about asceticism versus sensuousness. It is about justice, about a man who gave his life speaking truth to power. Today, when many who claim to be followers of Jesus simultaneously promote injustice, bigotry and hatred, John the Baptist is an inspiring patron. And because his story shows the perils that may await if we decide to follow Jesus instead of bowing to the powers of the world, it is a sobering one.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rebecca Bratten Weiss is a writer and academic residing in rural Ohio. She is the digital editor for U.S. Catholic magazine, and can be found at rebeccabrattenweiss.com.