Tuesday, November 06, 2007

You make me feel like (not) dancing: early modern Salome

I was spending an idle but contented hour this last Sunday afternoon looking at YouTube clips of Rita Hayworth dancing, and singing (I mean, gosh, chaps), sometimes with Fred Astaire, sometimes solo. I do not think I have ever seen her as Salome in the 1953 film, and maybe this is one of those things that will always be better in one’s imagination, for all that inimitable Hollywood style surely turned cheesy when historical or biblical subjects were attempted.

But I was led back to the early modern versions: mainly, and predictably they disapprove mightily. Salome as a name doesn’t have its later resonance: she is generally referred to as either ‘Herodias’s daughter’, or simply as ‘Herodias’. She crops up with regularity in general dispraises of women, and stars in that most woman-hating of early modern plays, Elizabeth Cary’s Mariam. But for the early modern stage-hating Puritan (John Rainolds, and William Prynne, and to an extent in Thomas Beard) Salome is the great Bible instance of the wickedness of performance. Prynne is apoplectic (and silent about David dancing before the Lord):

“All these, with sundry others, unanimously condemne all mixt, effeminate, lascivious, amorous dancing, (the epidemicall pastime of our dancing, loytring age) as sinfull, hurtfull, unlawfull to all chaste, all sober Christians, as the reasons they alleage against it will more plainely evidence. For first, (say they) as there is no allowance, no approved example of any such dancing in the Scriptures, the Primitive Church, the Fathers, or in the lives and practice of the Saints of God in former ages, (who as appeares by the fore-quoted Councels and Fathers have alwayes censured and exploded Dancing:) (Prynne here supplies dozens of bible citations) doe either absolutely in expresse tearmes, or else by way of necessary consequence, condemne such dancing as Idolatrous, Heathenish, carnall, worldly, sensuall, and misbeseeming Christians.

Prynne now moves on to the revelation, derived from various fathers of the church, that the girl who danced before the leering Herod was in fact the multi-talented Devil himself:

“Secondly, the very Devill himselfe (write they) who danced in the Daughter of Herodias Math. 14 6. 7. (as Chrysostome, Fulgentius, Theophylact. and others write) was the originall Author of this dancing, the onely instrument who excites men to it; the onely person that is present at it, that is honored, pleased, and delighted with it; (he being ever-more present and president where such dancing is) as Chrysostome, Basil, with the other Marginall Authors have plentifully recorded.

I wonder in what church father or rabbinical tradition the death of Salome was first invented? Joseph Beaumont had something of a specialism in writing disapproving poems about the bible’s best dancing girl (so we can imagine he was particularly susceptible to these things). So his (for him) short poem about John the Baptist ends with a vehement account of her fate:

One Dance for Thee is still behind
By which Revenge thy Crime will find:
The Ice perfidious to Thee,
But unto Justice true shall be,
When it shall catch
Thy neck, & snatch
Its Head away,
Which there shall play
And dance a tragik Measure on
That fatall Pavement: then shall John
Wth greater glory view Thee from his Sphear,
Then Herod at his Feast beheld Thee heere.

Here we see that her command of a performance space leads to appropriate retribution: the thin moral ice on which she fandangoed was literalised into ice which broke beneath her, and as she went through, visited on her the decollation she’d inveigled out of Herod. All positions having changed, the Baptist is now the gloating spectator. Henry Vaughan has a similar poem, which also alludes to this, and here it is with his marginal note:

‘The Daughter of Herodias

Vain, sinful Art! who first did fit
Thy lewd loath'd Motions unto sounds,
And made grave Musique like wilde wit
Erre in loose airs beyond her bounds?

What fires hath he heap'd on his head?
Since to his sins (as needs it must,)
His Art adds still (though he be dead,)
New fresh accounts of blood and lust.

Leave then yong Sorceress; the Ice*
Will those coy spirits cast asleep,
Which teach thee now to please his eyes
Who doth thy lothsome mother keep.

But thou hast pleas'd so well, he swears,
And gratifies thy sin with vows:
His shameless lust in publick wears,
And to thy soft arts strongly bows.

Skilful Inchantress and true bred!
Who out of evil can bring forth good?
Thy mothers nets in thee were spred,
She tempts to Incest, thou to blood.

*Her name was Salome; in passing over a frozen river, the ice broke under her, and chopt off her head.

My image is taken from the impressive collection assembled over in Bucharest by the owner of this weblog:


It is by Guido Reni, and shows a fabulously demure Salome receiving the Baptist’s head. I chose this from Mihai’s scholarly collection of these things because I thought it was latently self-subverting. Surely, here, there is some kind of contamination from memories of David with the head of Goliath? The boy staggering under the weight of the Baptist’s severed bonce giganticises the prophet: Salome is so modest, that she becomes saintly, a Judith.

But, of course, appearances are deceptive, and I must remember that Mr Prynne has let me know that she is really the devil. All change places now.

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