La Sainte Courtisane by Oscar Wilde. Dramatic Oxymoron and Saintly Pursuits

Rita Severi

This article was first published in The Journal of Drama Studies January 2007, pp.57-71, and is republished here by kind permission.



rom Holloway prison on 9 April 1895 Oscar Wilde was particularly concerned about the lack of books, nothing to smoke, the difficulty of getting some sleep and the safety of ‘a type-written manuscript, part of my blank-verse tragedy, also a black book containing La Sainte Courtisane in bedroom’[1]. The play, of which he talked about as if it had been completed, is mentioned twice in De Profundis along with The Florentine Tragedy and Salomé[2], dramas completely different from his successful society comedies, but which gave him the intense satisfaction of producing what he called ‘beautiful coloured, musical things’[3]. Again, from Reading prison, in a letter to More Adey, dated 7 April 1897, Wilde remembers that ‘The Sphinx (i.e. Ada Leverson) has 1) The Duchess of Padua. 2) The manuscript of La Sainte Courtisane. 3) a bundle of A. D.’s (Alfred Douglas) letters’[4], and that all this material should be sent to Robert Ross. It seems that Ada Leverson went to Paris on purpose to return the text of La Sainte Courtisane to Wilde when he came out of prison and that he immediately lost it by forgetting it in a cab. Somehow the text was recovered and published by Robert Ross in 1908, in volume XIV, Miscellanies, the last volume of The Uniform Edition of Oscar Wilde’s Authentic Works (Methuen).  


La Sainte Courtisane[5] tells the story of a prostitute of unparalleled beauty, covered with jewels, who makes a pilgrimage to the desert to seek out a handsome young hermit, a very holy man, who lives a life of prayer and never looks women in the face. The prostitute Myrrhina appears to Honorius in all her glory and, while he tries to convince her to mend her ways and to follow the path of holiness, he makes the mistake of raising up his eyes to look into her lovely face. At that point the hermit decides to leave his lonely cavern and go to Alexandria, the city of pleasure where Myrrhina had lived and where he can ‘taste of the seven sins’. Myrrhina, after listening to the holy man, decides, instead, to stay in the desert and live the life of the hermit. At the end, the two characters realize that one has come to replace the other, according to some kind of divine plan:


Honorius: You talk as a child, Myrrhina, and without knowledge. Loosen your hands. Why didst thou come to this valley in thy beauty?

Myrrhina: The God whom thou worshipped led me here that I might repent of my iniquities and know Him as the Lord.

Honorius: Why didst thou tempt me with words?

Myrrhina: That thou shouldst see Sin in its painted mask and look on Death in its robe of Shame.


Wilde in this brief Symbolist moralité (in the sense attributed to this sub-genre by Jules Laforgue) shows how the hermit who converts the prostitute looses his faith. The art of persuasion, which Honorius exercises successfully, draws his attention on his old beliefs while, at the same time, it forces him to see the hidden face of reality represented by Myrrhina’s stunning beauty. What he had avoided to know, now faces him, and is so tempting that he cannot resist it. In three simple tableaux-- Myrrhina and the two men on stage that describe her appearance and make conjectures about her identity; Myrrhina questioning the first man about the life of the hermit; Myrrhina and Honorius exchanging views and practically converting each other to the life they despised before --  Wilde exemplifies the truth of the body searching for its soul and likewise the soul going forth to look for its body.


Honorius, who has limited himself to experiencing only the spiritual side of life, the life of the soul, craves, at the end of the scenario, for a life of the senses, whereas Myrrhina, who has ‘been courting new impressions’[6] and all the material pleasures of life, the life of the body, feels the need to nourish her soul, obtain forgiveness for the sins of her dissolute ways and live the plain life of the person who shuns all worldly enticements. In this way both Honorius and Myrrhina will live a whole life, complete of spiritual and bodily needs.


With the oxymoron of ‘the holy harlot’ Wilde dramatizes once again the body-soul dichotomy which had deeply engaged his imagination in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890).  In the second chapter of the novel, while Dorian is modelling for his almost completed portrait, he is warned by the painter Basil of the bad influence that Lord Henry Wotton has over all his friends. Dorian asks Lord Wotton, a dandy in speech and manners, if his influence is really so bad. Wotton replies: ‘There is no such thing as a good influence (…) All influence is immoral (…) Because to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul’[7]. Wotton then reveals his thoughts about what he calls the ‘Hellenic ideal (…), to live out (…) life fully and completely’, never to suppress any impulse because ‘that which we strive to strangle broods in the mind and poisons it’ (p. 29). Therefore ‘to cure the soul by means of the senses, and the senses by means of the soul’ (p. 31) for Lord Henry Wotton is the secret of living a life of fulfilment, and he paradoxically adds: ‘the true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible’ (p.32). Dorian then sees his portrait.  ‘The sense of his own beauty came as a revelation’ and he realizes that ‘the life that was to make his soul would mar his body’. The very idea drives him to express the wish to be always young and to let the portrait age. In order to achieve his aim he’s prepared to give up everything else, even to ‘give his soul’ (p.34). For the wish to come true, he will lose his soul.


In chapter four Lord Henry Wotton, who is accompanying Dorian to see Sybil Vane perform,  is again musing on ‘soul and body, body and soul—how mysterious they were! (…) Was the soul a shadow seated in the house of sin? Or was the body really in the soul, as Giordano Bruno thought?’(p.56) [8]. At the end of chapter eight it is Dorian who, like Narcissus, looks on the portrait as ‘the most magical of mirrors’ that observes: ‘as it had revealed to him his own body, so it would reveal to him his own soul’ (p.88). Also, in the fatal book that Lord Henry Wotton had lent him, the work of some sophisticated representative ‘of the French school of the Symbolistes’, he notices that ‘the life of the senses was described in the terms of mystical philosophy’[9]. Furthermore, as his rakish life progresses from one hedonistic experience to the next, ‘he grew more and more enamoured of his own beauty, more and more interested in the corruption of his soul’ which ‘he would examine with minute care’ (p.103). Until, at the end, when Dorian perceives that ‘his soul was sick to death’ (p.141) and that there is nothing that will atone for what he has done, he is surprisingly questioned by Lord Henry Wotton who quotes the Gospel to him ‘what does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose(…) his own soul?’ (p.161).


When Wilde composed the draft of La Sainte Courtisane he was aware that he was dramatizing part of the allegorical content, the soul-body dichotomy, that pervades the whole novel. In chapter eight of The Picture of Dorian Gray when the protagonist decides to take a close look at the portrait that has altered, he locks himself in the room in order ‘to be alone when he looked upon the mask of his shame’ (p.80). Myrrhina in La Sainte Courtisane echoes, with a more elaborate emphasis, the same words: ‘That thou shouldst see Sin in its painted mask and look on Death in its robe of Shame’.


In 1891, in the same year as the novel, Wilde published the short story The Fisherman and his Soul in which the protagonist falls in love with a little mermaid who tells him that they can live together only if he will ‘send away his Soul’[10]. The Fisherman declares that ‘for her body I would give my soul, and for her love I would surrender heaven’[11]. A witch instructs him on how to lose his soul, but as soon as the soul leaves his body it also demands to have his heart. The fisherman, though, refuses to give his heart away for then how would he be able to love? Once every year the soul returns to see if the fisherman needs him and to try to get back into his body. The fisherman refuses him twice. The third time the soul allures him by evoking the image of a girl dancing with naked feet ‘like little white pigeons’. The fisherman, being reminded that his little mermaid has no dancing feet, holds out his arms to his soul and ‘his soul entered into him’ and he ‘saw  stretched before him upon the sand that shadow of the body that is the body of the soul’ (p. 265) and together they start on a journey to find the little dancer. Soon the fisherman realizes that his soul with no heart is evil and that he also has given in to an evil force when he abandoned his true love, the little mermaid. His soul tempts him with the pleasure and  pain of the world, but the fisherman thinks only of recovering his little mermaid. When he finally does, he drowns with her and their bodies are washed upon the shore and buried by a priest. 


In his first French Symbolist play, Salomé, which Wilde had started composing in Paris in 1891, he allegorized the struggle of the body and the soul by making Salome a solipsistic, totally profane, sexually-driven princess who desires the sacred body of Iokanaan[12]. In Salomé the nymphet is indeed profaning the body of the saint, Iokanaan, by praising his captivating beauty, his hair, his white skin, his mouth, that she wants to kiss and will kiss on his truncated head, before being crushed by the shields of Herod’s soldiers. The beautiful body, in Salomé, the male body, and, in particular, the sainted body of Iokanaan, becomes an instrument of pleasure in the eyes of a young woman[13]. Iokanaan is recast as a pagan, Hellenic ideal of the beautiful male body, re-contextualized as the mythical sacrificial body. Iokanaan’s body becomes the possession of the woman who wants it dismembered. In the play, Iokanaan is invested with the same drama (action) that is ritualized in the myth of Dionysus. Just as the frenzied Bacchantes tear to pieces the body of the Greek god (sparagmos), so Salome with her dance of the seven veils, prepares herself to partake of the carnal communion. The body of Iokanaan, just like the body of Dionysus, is to be sacrificed. Iokanaan is also like the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden which produces the fall, the ultimate tragedy. Iokanaan as all tragic heroes paradoxically is a scapegoat[14] and his body represents an oxymoron: ‘spiritualized’ flesh, untouchable. But, in Salomé, the will of the body is absolute, until it is crushed at the end[15].


La Sainte Courtisane certainly belongs to Wilde’s Parisian, Symbolist phase. On December 3 1895, Henry Bauër writing in defence of Oscar Wilde from the pages of ‘L’Écho de Paris’ remembers when just four years before ‘Oscar Wilde fut le great event de la saison de Paris. On vantait son talent, son esprit, on le recherchait, on le choyait dans les salons; des littérateurs organisaient des repas en son honneur’[16].  After Salomé, written in French, staged, during Wilde’s lifetime, only in Paris in 1896 by Lugné Poe[17], Wilde was considered a Symbolist writer by his French friends, along with such eminent authors as Mallarmé, Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, Maurice Maeterlinck[18], Paul Roux (called Saint-Pol Roux), Pierre Quillard[19], Pierre Louÿs.


La Sainte Courtisane was to develop a step further the allegory of the battle between the body and the soul, a Symbolist rendition of the old Medieval Morality plays which stemmed from the Mystery and Miracle plays. La Sainte Courtisane , always mentioned by Wilde with the French title shows a close kinship not only to Salomé but also to Dorian Gray. In chapter eleven of the novel Dorian is so entranced by the study of jewels and precious stones that he goes to a costume ball disguised as ‘Anne de Joyeuse, Admiral of France, in a dress covered with five hundred and sixty pearls’[20], a veritable ‘woman covered with jewels’.


Therefore it seems probable that from 1891 onwards Wilde conceived the idea of La Sainte Courtisane and, as it was his habit, narrated the story to his friends to gauge their reaction before writing it down in dramatic form (see appendix). Christopher S. Nassaar has appropriately defined La Sainte Courtisane ‘a minor jeux d’esprit’[21], but he arbitrarily concludes that, ‘written in 1894, after Salome and before The Importance of Being Earnest, it constitutes a thematic bridge between those two plays’ and  ‘begins and ends in religious confusion (…) the clash between flesh and spirit is trivialized and treated comically’.


La Sainte Courtisane is neither a comedy nor a parody. It contains all the elements of  the Symbolist Mystery play: symbolic characters that embody ethical, philosophical, spiritual ideas; one main action (drama) that unfolds in three macro-sequences or tableaux and around which the whole play revolves, in some unidentified space (the desert) and time ( a timeless past); highly metaphoric, repetitive language that reverberates in the rhythmic dialogue like a music of words or, as Wilde had said of the language of Salomé, like the sound of a pearl that falls on a silver basin. Elaborate speech patterns that unfold a double meaning, an  allegory.   It is quite evident then that Wilde was pursuing his own idea of a Symbolist theatre along the lines of what the French Théâtre de l’Art of Paul Fort[22] had introduced. One of the earliest plays staged by Paul Fort was La fille aux mains coupées (1891)[23] by Pierre Quillard who represented the Medieval story of Saint Uliva[24], a beautiful virgin, incestuously loved by the King her father who ‘brûle ses mains de caresses’. In defiance of her evil parent, she convinces a faithful servant to amputate her hands. Her guilty father then has her brought on board a ship and abandons her to her fate. But the ship mercifully arrives in the land of the Poet-King who falls in love with her.


Another production, during the same year, was Théodat[25] by Rémy de Gourmont where the protagonist is a bishop who has left his beautiful young bride in order to pursue an ecclesiastical career. Théodat, to maintain his bishopric, must take a vow of chastity, a virtue that he recommends also to his priests, to whom he says: ‘Craignez la femme’. An old woman suddenly knocks at his door asking to see the bishop. When he appears, she takes off her mantle and he recognizes his lovely wife who starts to beguile him with her charms. He resists for a while but then he beckons her to come close to him and undresses her and wraps her naked body in his bishop’s robe.


Sometime in 1893 Hroswitha’s play Paphnutius was staged with Ranson’s marionettes[26] at the house of Ferdinand Hérold, one of Wilde’s Parisian friends[27]. Hroswitha was a Benedictine nun who lived in the tenth century and wrote tragedies in Latin, influenced by the dramas of Terence. Paphnutius dramatizes the story of  saint Thais, the holy harlot who is converted to Christianity by the hermit Paphnutius. The tale of saint Thais is closely related to the story of another holy harlot, saint Pelagia. Pelagia was a stunning beauty, an actress and dancer who was converted to Christianity by Nonnus and thereafter led a life of piety disguised as a man with the name of Pelagius[28]. Upon meeting Pelagia, Nonnus is sexually aroused, but he promptly controls himself. In these stories the Roman ‘courtesan with a golden heart’ makes a new debut as the holy harlot. The lives of saint Thais[29] and saint Pelagia, of saint Mary the Egyptian[30] and of saint Mary Magdalen[31], all holy prostitutes, are the sources of Wilde’s La Sainte Courtisane which also owes part of its representation to the Queen of Sheba, who was certainly a woman covered with jewels, especially when she met King Solomon[32]. The double conversion instead is found in the Christianized Indian legend of Barlaam and Josaphat. Prince Josaphat, son of a pagan king in India, is converted to Christianity by Barlaam, a hermit from the Sinai desert. Josaphat converts the king who himself becomes a hermit[33].       


But, perhaps, this is going too far. Undoubtedly, Oscar Wilde, with his light touch and sprezzatura was more interested in staging the oxymoron- body/soul, courtisane/sainte- and lending a new twist to some old stories.




Robert Ross in his Preface to La Sainte Courtisane wrote:

‘Honorius the hermit, so far as I recollect the story, falls in love with the courtesan who has come to tempt him and he reveals to her the secret of the love of God. She immediately becomes a Christian, and is murdered by robbers. Honorius the hermit goes back to Alexandria to pursue a life of pleasure.’


Guillot De Saix, Le Chant du Cygne. Conte parlé d’Oscar Wilde, Paris, Mercure de France, 1942, pp. 154-55, reported the following version:

La Femme Habillée de Joyaux

En ce temps-là, vivait dans le désert, tout près d’Alexandrie, un jeune et bel ascète qui n’avait jamais volou voir un visage de femme. Les nomades qui passaient près de la caverne où il demeurait le prenaient pour un fou et le respectaient à cause de sa folie même.

Un jour, la plus belle et la plus riche courtisane d’Alexandrie entendit parler du jeune et bel ascète qui n’avait jamais voulu voir un visage de femme, et comme elle était sûre du pouvoir du sein, elle résolut de le tenter.

Myrrhina—elle s’appelait Myrrhina—se fit donc porter en litière et parée de tous ses joyaux jusqu’à la caverne du solitaire. Et les nomades, en la voyant passer, la prenaient pour une déesse, ou pour la fille de l’Empereur.

La femme couverte de joyaux appela l’homme qui était en prière et lui parla. Elle lui dit quels étaient ses plaisirs, ses richesses, ses charmes, mais en vain. Le jeune et bel ascète, gardant les yeux baissés, lui révéla le secret de l’amour de Dieu. Il l’entretint longuement de celui-là qui a dit : ’ Donne tous tes biens aux pauvres, et suis-moi ’, puis il se retira pour prier. Mais, en se retirant, il regarda imprudemment le visage de Myrrhina.

Et tandis que celle-ci ne songeait plus déjà qu’à l’amour de Dieu, il ne songeait plus, lui, dans l’ombre de sa caverne, qu’à l’amour de cette femme tombée à genoux et priant.

Poussé par le désir, il revint auprès d’elle et voulut la posséder, mais elle se refusa, car elle était devenue chrétienne de cœur et d’esprit. Alors, désespéré, le jeune et bel ascète courut vers Alexandrie pour goûter aux joies que Myrrhina lui avait fait entrevoir.

Et la femme couverte de joyaux s’en dépouilla, puis ayant distribué tous ses bijoux aux pauvres nomades, demeura dans la caverne à prier pour celui qui lui avait révélé le secret de l’Amour de Dieu.


v  Rita Severi teaches English Literature and Translation Studies at the University of Verona, Italy. She has published ‘La Biblioteca di Oscar Wilde’, Palermo, Novecento, 2005 and is currently preparing a bi-lingual edition of Maurice Hewlett's novella, ‘Madonna of the Peach Tree’ (out in 2007).  Dr Severi is an Associate Editor of THE OSCHOLARS.

[1] The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, edited by M. Holland and R. Hart-Davis, New York 2000, p. 642

[2] The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, cit., pp. 687 and 759.

[3] Ibidem, p. 759. The three Symbolist plays, Salomé, A Florentine Tragedy and La Sainte Courtisane were set to music, respectively by  R. Strauss in 1905, Alexander Zemlinsky in 1917 and Rudolf Wagner-Regeny in 1930, cf. F. Serpa, Oscar Wilde in musica, in La vita come arte. Oscar Wilde, le arti e l’Italia, edited by M. D’Amico and R. Severi, Palermo, 2001, pp. 41-49.

[4] Ibid., p. 797.

[5] La Sainte Courtisane or The Woman Covered with Jewels, in Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, Introduced by M. Holland, Glasgow, 2003, pp. 734-738. All quotations are taken from this edition.

[6] W. Pater, Conclusion (1868) to The Renaissance, Introduction by A. Symons, New York, 1919, p. 197.

[7] O. Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray in The Works of Oscar Wilde with an Introduction by V. Holland, London and Glasgow,1969, p. 28. All quotations are from this edition, unless when specified otherwise.

[8] Wilde had just read Pater’s Giordano Bruno published in “The Fortnightly Review” in August 1889, cf. O. Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, edited by I. Murray, Oxford, 1998, p. 188, note 48.

[9] See the chapter on the “poisonous book” in my reconstruction of Oscar Wilde’s library, La biblioteca di Oscar Wilde, Palermo 2004, pp. 67-86.

[10] It seems that Wilde was particularly obsessed by the idea of living without a soul, as he narrated in the Histoire de l’homme qui vendit son ame, as an apologue which was reported by Laurence Housman, cf. Le Chant du Cygne. Conte parlés d’Oscar Wilde, recueillis et rédigés par Guillot De Saix, Paris 1942, pp. 162-165.

[11] The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde with an Introduction by V. Holland, cit., p. 251.

[12] A name with very significant connotations, cf. R. E. Scrogham, The Echo of the Name “Iaokanann” in Flaubert’s Hérodias, in “The French Review”, vol. 71, no. 5, April 1998, pp.775-784.

[13] Perhaps D.H. Lawrence had in mind Salome’s lustful glance when he described Lady Chatterley who, unseen, watches Mellors strip and wash himself at the fountain.

[14] Cf. I. Kott, Mangiare Dio (original title: The Eating of Gods), Milano 1990, pp. 193-236.

[15] Cf. R. Severi, Oscar Wilde &Company. Sinestesie fin de siècle, Bologna 2001, pp.13-54.

[16]  H. Bauër, Pour Oscar Wilde, in Pour Oscar Wilde. Des écrivains français au secours du condamné, Rouen 1994, p. 74.

[17] Salomé was staged on February 11 1896 at the Comédie Parisienne. The cast was made up of the following actors: Salomé - L. Munte; Hérodias - Mme Barbieri; Le page – S. Auclair; Une esclave – H. Moore; Iokanaan – M. Barbier; Hérode – Lugné- Poe;  Le jeune Syrien – Desfontaines; Un Juif – La Bruyère; Tigellin – Laumonnier. In the same evening Raphaël by Romain Coolus was also represented, cf. M. Mazzocchi Doglio, Il teatro simbolista in Francia (1890-1896), Roma 1978, p. 305.

[18] The influence of Maeterlinck’s early plays, La Princesse Maleine (1889), L’Intruse (1890) and Les Aveugles (1890)  is evident in the language, stage directions, timing and symbolic structure of Wilde’s Symbolist plays.

[19]  He was an anarchist poet who belonged to the entourage of Stéphane  Mallarmé and was also a friend of the American-French writer Stuart Merrill, cf. P. Aubery, The Anarchism of the Literati of the Symbolist Period, in “The French  Review”, vol. 42, no. 1, Oct. 1968, pp. 39-47 and M. Henry Ilsley, Stuart Merrill, Boyhood Reminiscences, in “The French  Review”, vol. 5, no. 6, May 1932, pp. 473-478.

[20] O. Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, edited by I. Murray, cit, p. 111 and note, p. 192.

[21] C. S. Nassaar, Wilde’s La Sainte Courtisane, in “Explicator”, Fall 1997, pp. 28-30.

[22] Cf. The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, cit., p. 507. Wilde, in a letter dated December 1891 invites  his friends Pierre Louys and Paul Fort to dinner chez Mignon in Paris.

[23] Staged on March 19 and 20 1891 at the Théâtre Moderne.

[24] Veselovskij-Sade, La fanciulla perseguitata, a cura di d’Arco Silvio Avalle, Milano 1977. A. N. Veselovskij published his findings on the Novella della figlia del re di Dacia (The Story of the King of Dacia’s Daughter) based on the legend of Saint Uliva and on the motif of the “persecuted virgin” in 1866.

[25] Represented on December 11 1891, at the Théâtre Moderne.

[26] Cf. M. Maeterlinck, Menus propos: le théâtre (Un théâtre d’Androïdes), in M. Maeterlinck, Introduction à une psychologie des songes et autres écrits 1886-1896, textes réunis et commentés par S. Gross, Bruxelles 1985, pp. 83-87. Maeterlinck discussed the possibility of avoiding accidental and human elements on the stage by employing actors-androids that would not interfere with the key role of the representation of the symbol. Henry Signoret devised a puppet theatre, cf. G. Marie, Le Théâtre Symboliste, Paris, 1973, pp. 157-160.

[27] Cf. the Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, cit., p. 1157 and p. 1159n. In a letter dated around July 3 1899 Wilde tells Robert Ross that he has dined with Stuart Merrill and seen Ferdinand Hérold who gave him his book, La Vie et la Mort de la Sainte Vierge. Wilde sent to Hérold a copy of An Ideal Husband which was published in July 1899.

[28] M. Minghelli, Santa Marina la travestita, Palermo 1997.

[29] Wilde had certainly read Anatole France’s novel, Thaïs (1890), cf. the Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, cit., p. 792.

[30] Cf. R. Cazelles, Modele ou mirage : Marie l’Egyptienne, in ‘ The French Review ’, vol. 53, no. 1, Oct. 1979, pp. 13-22.

[31] Cf. Marie-Madeleine figure mythique dans la literature et les arts, edited by M. Geoffroy and A. Montandon, Clermont-Ferrand 1999, in particular the essay by M. Dubar, Le personage magdalièn de la “sainte courtisane”, La Samaritaine, d’Edmond Rostand-1897 and B. Dunn-Lardeau, Le saint fictif. L’hagiographie médiévale dans la littérature contemporaine, Paris1999, pp. 1-80.

[32]  Cf. F. A. Pennacchietti, Legends of the Queen of Sheba, in Queen of Sheba. Treasures from Ancient Yemen, edited by St John Simpson, London, British Museum, 2002, pp.31-38 and F. A. Pennacchietti, La reine de Saba, le pave de cristal et le tronc flottant, in “Arabica”, tome XLIX, 1, 2002, pp. 1-26.

[33] Cf. P. Major, Jumping Josaphat, in “TLS”, July 28 2006, p.15.



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