According to Sarah Bernhardt, who was set to play the title role in the ill-fated 1893 production of Salomé, Wilde claimed that the moon was the real star of the show (Ellmann 371). No word on how that made Sarah B. feel.
While it's hard to take Wilde at his word—he once wrote that "[l]ying and poetry are arts," after all—there's definitely some truth to the statement (The Decay of Lying, Works 1073). The moon is a big player in Salomé…and a player with many roles. You see, she's a bit of a Rorschach test: characters tend to see in her what they want. She's a dead woman and a mad woman, a virgin and a drunk.
The moon is so loaded with meaning that it's easy to get confused. Here are the first few lines of the play:
The moon is shining very brightly.
THE YOUNG SYRIAN: How beautiful is the Princess Salome to-night!
THE PAGE OF HERODIAS: Look at the moon. How strange the moon seems! She is like a woman rising from a tomb. She is like a dead woman. One might fancy she was looking for dead things.
THE YOUNG SYRIAN: She has a strange look. She is like a little princess who wears a yellow veil, and whose feet are of silver. She is like a princess who has little white doves for feet. One might fancy she was dancing.
THE PAGE OF HERODIAS: She is like a woman who is dead. She moves very slowly. (1-5)
It seems pretty self-explanatory, right? The moon is shining brightly. The young Syrian is staring at Salomé. The Page of Herodias is staring at the moon. They're talking to themselves.
It's not that simple, though. Take a look at that third line. The young Syrian has indeed turned his attention to the moon…but he's still got princesses on the brain. The moon has become a princess like Salomé, and Salomé has become connected with the moon.
Later on, the Syrian will talk of Salomé in silver terms, comparing her to "the shadow of a white rose in a mirror of silver," and her hands to "fluttering doves" (25; 49).
This is the beginning of a complex relationship. So, if the Page compares the moon to a dead woman and the Syrian compares her to a princess, we're set up to associate the princess (yup: Salomé) with death too. Who knows, we think, maybe the princess is the dead woman. It's one of those, "if A equals B and C equals B, then A must equal C" situations.
Now, before you accuse us of jumping to conclusions, let's take a look at another moony moment. When Salomé enters, one of the first things she does is look at the moon.
SALOME: How good to see the moon! She is like a little piece of money, a little silver flower. She is cold and chaste. I am sure she is a virgin. Yes, she is a virgin. She has never defiled herself. She has never abandoned herself to men, like the other goddesses. (73)
It's worth mentioning that Salomé's statements are grounded classical mythology. The Greek goddess Artemis and her Roman counterpart Diana were associated with the moon; and Artemis was totally noted for her chastity.
If we look to the very end of the play, we get a super-clear indication of that Salomé is associated with the moon, and that she's associated via chastity. Just before kissing Jokanaan's bloody head, she says:
SALOME: I was a virgin and thou didst take my virginity from me. I was chaste, and thou didst fill my veins with fire. (373)
Taking all of this into consideration, Wilde's statement that Salomé = moon doesn't seem so ridiculous after all.
You might be wondering why Wilde goes to such lengths to associate Salomé with the moon. As with many other things in the play, the answer lies in Biblical imagery. In the Book of Revelation, a change in the moon's appearance is a powerful and sinister omen, a sign of the Apocalypse and the coming of Judgment Day.
And actually, Wilde lifts language directly from the Bible in order to make the connection. And so we have Jokanaan prophesying:
JOKANAAN: In that day the sun shall become black like sackcloth of hair, and the moon shall become like blood, and the stars of the heaven shall fall upon the earth like unripe figs that fall from the fig-tree, and the kings of the earth shall be afraid. (282)
The same exact language appears in Chapter 6, Verses 12 and 13: the sun becomes "black like sackcloth of hair," the moon "like blood;" the stars fall from the sky like "unripe figs" (Revelation 6:12-13).
Herod claims to this change occur when Salomé steps in blood while preparing for dance; it is her preparation that brings about this change.
Salomé is so crazy-dense with this imagery that it is hard to make perfect sense of every reference, and yet the various interpretations of the moon do seem to trace Salomé's path to destruction. The young Syrian calls her a princess. The Page sees her looking for death—and blames her for the Syrian's suicide. Salomé confirms her association with the moon. Herod, entering just after Salomé's seduction attempt, compares her to "a mad woman, looking everywhere for lovers," and in the moments before Salomé's dance, the very thing that will ensure her destruction, he sees the moon turn red.
Yup. You'll never look at the moon the same way again…unless you watch Moonstruck. Seeing a young Cher and a younger Nicholas Cage talking about how pretty the moon is might just cleanse your palate. Maybe.