Salomé is a confused girl, to put it mildly. Standing toe to toe with Jokanaan, she can't seem to decide whether she loves him or hates him. Even when she declares that she will kiss his mouth, her motives aren't exactly clear; her lust is mixed with something more violent and forceful. This combination of the really dark and the really sensual defines Salomé.
The puppy love of the young Syrian, poetic and innocent, ends in suicide; and his death (and the blood he leaves behind) functions as a bad omen. There are moments of wit, but even they are tainted. Consider this exchange between the Cappadocian and the First Soldier:
THE CAPPADOCIAN: Yet it is a terrible thing to strangle a king.
FIRST SOLDIER: Why? Kings have but one neck, like other folk. (57-62)
The soldier's observation is as clever as it is ominous, and it's the closest thing Salomé has to humor. By the time Salomé has decided to dance for Herod, even that little bit of levity has totally vanished and is replaced with the play's trademark sexiness (the dance is pretty burlesque-y) and pitch-darkness (the dance ends in a girl making out with a severed head, guys.)
Salomé is based on the story of John the Baptist's beheading, which can be found in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, making it a—you guessed it—Biblical drama.
And although Wilde changes—some might say "perverts"—the story significantly, he remains true to its roots: he doesn't attempt to turn what is a serious episode in the story of Jesus into a comedy or a farce.
Instead, he turns what is already a tragic story into something way, way, way darker. While the Gospels' Salomé is an innocent girl manipulated by her mother, Wilde's Salomé decides the fate of Jokanaan without any prompting or consultation. The play's final moment, in which Salomé is quickly executed after kissing Jokanaan's lips, only reinforces the creeptastic gloominess of Wilde's vision.
This may seem like an easy question. Sure, it refers to Salomé, daughter of Herodias, who you might call the main character in the play. But it ain't that easy-peasy.
For one, Wilde himself said the moon actually had the leading part—but you can't take Wilde's word at face value. (You can find more on the moon in the "Symbols" section). More importantly, though, is the origin of that name: Salomé. It never appears in the Bible itself, at least not in reference to the daughter of Herodias.
The story of John the Baptist's beheading appears in two of the four Gospels: in Mark 6:17-29 and Matthew 14:3-11; and in both cases Salomé is simply called "daughter of Herodias." That said, by the time Wilde got around to writing his Salomé, there was plenty of precedent for ol' Wilde to follow.
Gustave Flaubert referred to her as Salomé in his 1877 short story Herodias. More importantly, another French writer, Joris-Karl Huysmans, wrote about Salomé at length in his novel Against the Grain (À Rebours), written just seven years earlier. That novel, with its decadent (and sometimes super-duper-grotesque) imagery, had a huge influence on some of Wilde's writing—he even alludes to it in his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray—and it's safe to say that that same total weirdness and absolute grossness survives in his depiction of Herodias' daughter.
So, when we see Salomé on the stage, we're not seeing a character from the Bible: Wilde's putting his own spin on her…and he's also taking a cue from his (often French) literary ancestors.
Okay—it's really easy to get distracted by that whole kissing-a-severed-head thing, but we need to take a step back and figure out what exactly led up to it. These things don't happen by accident (we hope!)
No one person is responsible for how things turned out, but there sure does seem to be a single motivation: desire. Let's look at how things stand at play's end. The main players—Salomé, Herod, and Herodias—have gotten what they wanted. Salomé has kissed Jokanaan's mouth. Herod has seen Salomé dance. Herodias has gotten Jokanaan killed. So, all their wishes have been fulfilled.
That being said, each of 'em suffers as a result of that same fulfillment. Sure, Salomé gets her smooch, but she also gets killed. Herod gets his dance, but he ends up killing the object of his desire as a result—not to mention that he has to kill Jokanaan, a man he respects and fears. If Jokanaan is to be believed, Herodias was already damned, and her glee at seeing him killed isn't going to earn her any brownie points.
Jokanaan, despite being a big part of this sequence, is not tainted by it: he doesn't succumb to lust and dies quietly without struggling. He has already announced the coming of the Messiah; he has already achieved his goals.
Having said all this, we're left to wonder: is this what everyone deserved? Does Salomé need to die because of her passions? Does Herod, a man who married his brother's wife and lusted after his stepdaughter (no prizes for this dude) have the right to judge Salomé?
Wilde gives us some help in this regard: "No man can tell how God worketh," one Jew says, "His ways are very dark. It may be that the things which we call evil are good, and that the things which we call good are evil" (223).
This doesn't really clarify things, but it's definitely something to keep in mind while you ponder the moral of this story…the twisted, twisted moral.
Salomé takes place in the palace of Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Judæa. But even though it's a palace, Wilde's description of the set is pretty simple.
The action occurs on a "great terrace" in the palace, which looks over the banqueting hall. To the left is an old cistern (Jokanaan's prison) and to the right a "gigantic staircase" leading down to the hall. There really isn't much to say about this physical space, and that's for the best: there's so much going on off-stage that it'd be a shame to get caught up in it. You have to figure that the moon—which gets its own section in "Symbols," never fear—is placed out of sight, making the character's interpretations of it all the more important.
In order to really understand the setting, though, we have to go back to Herod and his title, "Tetrarch of Judæa." Herod is son of Herod the Great, the dude who told the three wise men to go to search for the Messiah. Herod's title literally means "ruler of four." You see, following his death, Herod the Great's kingdom was split into four pieces, and Herod Antipas was given one of them.
Of course, the whole area was ultimately controlled by the Romans, represented in the play by Tigellinus. So, though Herod may be a king, he still has to report to an Emperor.
As for his subjects, well…this is where things get interesting. You see, Herod's got quite a contentious bunch of citizens. In the play we hear from or hear tell of Jews, Nazarenes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and Samarians. All are nominally Jews—or have some connection to Jewish beliefs—but, as we learn in the play, their beliefs differ a lot.
The world of Salomé is one basically defined by conflict, one that seems to be always on the verge of change. Jokanaan talks of a Messiah and the death of a king. In this strange time and place, where rumor has it that a man (psst: the man is Jesus) is turning water into wine, curing lepers, and raising the dead, nothing seems fixed or certain.
Salomé may be a short work, but it'd be a lot longer if you included all the footnotes necessary to make sense of it all.
An understanding of the New Testament is essential to understanding the play: if you don't know the original story of John the Baptist, Herod, Salomé, and the coming of the Messiah, you can't tell how Wilde has modified it…and that's what makes this play awesome.
To make things even more complicated, Wilde borrows from the Old Testament, classical mythology and the works of his French contemporaries. Even then, making sense of Salomé's long lists of insults and compliments—or simply figuring out why they're there in the first place—is still tough. Lucky for you, we're here to help.
Wilde, who is usually a pretty hilarious dude, isn't as witty here as you might expect. There's not a lot of wordplay on display. This has a lot to do with the tone and genre of the piece (You can check out "Genre" and "Tone" for more on that.) Wilde's characters speak, well, "biblically." What does that mean, you ask? Well, the Bible in question would be the 1611 King James Version translation (often referred to as the KJV). So it makes sense to start there. Take a look at the beginning of Matthew's account of the Salomé story, as rendered in the KJV:
At that time Herod the tetrarch heard of the fame of Jesus, And said unto his servants, This is John the Baptist; he is risen from the dead; and therefore mighty works do shew forth themselves in him. For Herod had laid hold on John, and bound him, and put him in prison for Herodias' sake, his brother Philip's wife. For John said unto him, It is not lawful for thee to have her. (Matt 14:1-4)
See all those "unto"s and "thee"s? Wilde's dialogue is sprinkled with them, especially when it comes time for Jokanaan to speak. "When he cometh," he cries out toward the beginning of the play, "the solitary places shall be glad. They shall blossom like a rose" (36). This is some heavy stuff, and, for the most part, Wilde doesn't mess around.
But on the other hand, it would be pretty twisted to make this play into a comedy. That kind of dark humor wouldn't be around for almost another hundred years.
Take a gander at this piece of writing:
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine. Because of the savour of thy good ointments thy name is as ointment poured forth, therefore do the virgins love thee. Draw me, we will run after thee: the king hath brought me into his chambers: we will be glad and rejoice in thee, we will remember thy love more than wine: the upright love thee. (Song of Solomon, 1:1-3)
Sound familiar? You might have read it in books of famous poetry, or maybe in a kinda racy wedding ceremony. It's the very beginning of the Song of Solomon, also known as the Songs. You can find it in the Old Testament. Written—some say by King Solomon, hence the name—as a dialogue between a new bride and her groom, it's the inspiration for what are probably the most difficult passages in the play: Salomé's litanies (that is, long series) of compliments and insults to that hunk of hunks, Jokanaan.
The connection is clear right off the bat: "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth" immediately recalls "I will kiss your mouth." The parallels don't end at the beginning, though. Take another look, this time at Chapter 4, Verses 3:
Thy lips are like a thread of scarlet, and thy speech is comely: thy temples are like a piece of a pomegranate within thy locks. (Song of Solomon, 4:3)
Now, compare this to a speech of Salomé's:
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. (149)
As you can see, some phrases match up almost exactly: "thread of scarlet" and "band of scarlet," "pomegranate temples" and "pomegranate lips." (And pomegranate lips make way more sense—what on earth is a pomegranate temple?!)
The thing is, the entire Song of Solomon is composed of such phrases, but Salomé's speeches are really, really not. Song of Solomon is a dialogue conducted between two partners in lovin'; they are really, really into each other.
Salomé, on the other hand, doesn't have a partner; Jokanaan refuses to respond to her. Instead, she has a kind of internal dialogue—it's sort of like she's got a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other. One second she's claiming Jokanaan's body is white "like the lilies of the field," and the next she's saying it's "like a whitened sepulcher full of loathsome things" (47). Whoa, girl. Calm down.
So Salomé's speeches function as a dark (and we mean dark) reflection of the Song of Solomon. They're a document of lust, of unrequited, unholy feelings. It's no wonder, then, that Salomé ends not in marriage, but with an act of creepy, necrophiliac smooching.
Wilde didn't stop with the Song of Solomon. No, he went from one end of the Bible to the other. Check out this passage from the last book of the Bible, Revelation:
And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication: And upon her forehead was a name written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH. And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus: and when I saw her, I wondered with great admiration [admiration here meaning something closer to awe or horror]. (Revelation 17:4-6)
The figure which John—author of the Book of Revelation—describes here is often called "The Whore of Babylon," and while there's much debate as to its symbolic significance, it's clear that the Whore is no friend of Christianity. In fact, she's often identified with the Antichrist. Yikes.
It's clear that Wilde meant for us to identify Herodias with the Whore of Babylon. Our first and only description of Herodias, as spoken by the Cappadocian, identifies her as "she who wears a black mitre [a tall hat, like those worn by high priests] sewed with pearls" (23). Before you say, "Wait a minute, I'm sure plenty of people wear pearls in their hair," listen to what Jokanaan has to say.
He calls Salomé "daughter of Babylon" more than once and, what's more, makes a more specific reference to Revelation. "Thy mother hath filled the earth with the wine of her iniquities," he tells her, "and the cry of her sinning hath come up even to the ears of God" (34). At one point Wilde even uses the phrase "cup of abominations." And he's not talking about a Slurpee (truly a cup of abominations).
A lot of Jokanaan's speech is essentially a paraphrase of different Biblical passages. In this case, Wilde uses these quotations in order that he might associate two minor Biblical figures—Salomé and Herodias—to a much more prominent source of sin and evil.
Um, yeah, Wilde. We kind of got the "sin and evil" part when Salomé makes out with a severed head. But go ahead and gild that lily.
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.
Okay, you just know that the angel of death is up to no good. It's the freakin' angel of death.
The angel appears just after Salomé introduces herself to Jokanaan (dum dum dummm). Oddly enough, his appearance actual surprises the prophet, the very one who usually forecasts these sorts of things. "Get thee behind me!" he says. "I hear in the palace the beating of the wings of the angel death" (40).
At this point, the angel's allegiance isn't clear—John's exclamation is reminiscent of Jesus' own "Get behind me, Satan!"— but he immediately clarifies the situation:
JOKANAAN: Angel of the Lord God, what doest thou here with thy sword? Whom seekest thou in this palace? The day of him who shall die in the robe of silver has not yet come. (42)
The angel is an agent of God and a freaky manifestation of God's judgment. As far as Jokanaan can tell, though, he's showed up a little early. And he chooses an unlikely character to visit: Herod. Throughout the play, Herod feels a cold wind and hears "the beating of vast wings" (91). This raises the question: why does he make himself known to Herod when Herod is not directly touched by death?
Sure, he orders the execution of John the Baptist and Salomé, but you could argue that in the first case he has to keep his oath, and that in the second Salomé deserves to die for what she does (make out with a severed head, ew, ew, ew).
You could try out any number of theories—maybe it's because Herod is very prone to taking things as omens?—but, no matter how you slice it, the angel's appearance fits in with a larger pattern: he connects the events of the play to the events which Jokanaan prophesies. Yup: doom n' gloom.
Salomé begins the play chaste, a virgin. She is lusted after—innocently by the young Syrian, creepily by her stepfather, Herod—but she does not lust. But the moment she hears Jokanaan crying out from the cistern, though, something changes. She wants to see him immediately, and she uses her feminine charms to get what she wants.
Salomé's encounter with Jokanaan is totally bizarre-o. For one thing, Jokanaan wants nothing to do with her. His coldness doesn't dampen her lust, though—she just adds a little (okay, a lot) of hatred to the mix.
Though Jokanaan ultimately walks away, she lets him know that she will kiss his mouth…no matter what it takes. She doesn't even listen when the young Syrian begs her to stop and doesn't flinch when he kills himself in horror.
The appearance of Herod and Herodias puts Salomé's desires on the back burner for a while. But Herod's lust gets the better of him—and he begs Salomé to dance for him and promises to give her anything in return.
Salomé's refusal to dance could be taken as a sign of resistance or remorse, an acknowledgment of her strange, desire-fueled actions…or she could just be creeped out that her stepdaddy has the hots for her. Eventually, though, something clicks, and her resistance turns to scheming. When she forces Herod to swear an oath, she is, in a sense, sealing her own fate. She dances.
When Salomé utters those fateful words—"I demand the head of Jokanaan"—she seals her fate. We basically hear an ominous "dum dum dummm."
She cannot and will not change her mind. She puts herself on the path to ruin. Jokanaan has, after all, told her to repent, and, well, at this point repentance seems to be out of the question. Still, it's not the beheading of Jokanaan that destroys her.
Only by kissing Jokanaan's severed head does Salomé ensure her demise. She crosses the boundary that separates ordinary lust (the kind of thing Herod is all too familiar with) with something super-duper-duper-duper creepy and nasty, something that frightens even a man who has killed his brother to marry his wife.
Salomé's lust is her undoing.
There are a lot of different conflicts/plot threads/going on here, and though we don't want to mix our metaphors, let's just say they all come to…a head.
One night in Herod's palace, we find a group of soldiers watching the Tetrarch banqueting; one of the soldiers, a young Syrian, is particularly taken with Salomé. We learn, too, that Jokanaan, a prophet, is being held captive in a cistern. When the prophet cries out, the soldiers begin discussing his authority and religion in general.
Salomé, disgusted by the way her stepfather looks at her, comes up to the terrace where the soldiers are watching. When she hears Jokanaan crying out, she starts asking questions about him and convinces the young Syrian to her see the prophet. A tense confrontation ensues: Salomé lusts after Jokanaan, but Jokanaan hates her; she praises him and insults him before deciding, once and for all, that she will kiss him.
Horrified by the confrontation, the young Syrian kills himself. Soon after, Herod appears with his entourage. He's still keen on seeing (or, rather, staring at) Salomé. The presence of the dead body really dampens the mood, though. Furthermore, the move upstairs puts Herodias in hearing range of Jokanaan, who hurls insults at her.
After listening to the Jews and Nazarenes argue about Jokanaan—you see, the Jews really would like deal with the prophet themselves—Herod decides he'd like to see Salomé dance. Salomé has no interest in seeing her stepfather, let alone dancing for him. Herod promises to give her anything she wants, up to half his kingdom.
Salomé refuses to dance. Herodias supports her decision. Herod insults Herodias. Finally, Salomé seems to come around. She gets Herod to swear to do whatever she asks. He swears. Herodias continues to object; she's still put off by Jokanaan.
Salomé performs the (sexy) Dance of the Seven Veils. She then asks for Jokanaan's head on a silver platter. Herodias is delighted. Herod is horrified. He tries to get Salomé to change her mind, but she won't budge. He calls for Jokanaan to be beheaded.
Salomé is given Jokanaan's head. She addresses him/it, getting mad at him for rejecting her. Still, she tells him, she thinks he's hot. Herod is disgusted. Herodias is pleased. When the stage goes dark, Salomé kisses Jokanaan. Herod, disgusted, orders Salomé to be put to death. The soldiers crush her beneath their shields.
A group of soldiers watches Herod banqueting. Their captain, a young Syrian, pays special attention to Salomé, daughter of the queen, Herodias. They discuss religion, and the status of Herod's prisoner, the prophet Jokanaan.
Salomé, disgusted by her stepfather's creepy lustful glances, joins the soldiers. When she hears Jokanaan calling out and insulting her mother, her interest is piqued. She convinces the young Syrian to disobey his orders and let her see Jokanaan.
Salomé becomes smitten with Jokanaan. She thinks he's dreamy. Jokanaan rejects her advances and insults her, but she still wants him. Bad. Even as she returns his insults, she continues to praise his beauty. When she tells Jokanaan, "I will kiss your mouth," the prophet walks off stage. The young Syrian, horrified, kills himself.
Herod appears, along with Herodias, a representative from Rome, and the rest of his entourage. He has come looking for Salomé. He is dismayed to find the Syrian's body; he thinks it is a bad omen. When Jokanaan cries out, insulting Herodias, she asks for him to be taken away. Herod refuses, but her comments spur on a discussion about the prophet's status and the state of religion in the region.
Herod soon grows tired of the discussion; he wants to see his stepdaughter dance. He offers her anything in return. Although she is reluctant, she eventually agrees. She dances the Dance of the Seven Veils. She asks for Jokanaan's head in return. Even though he's horrified, Herod has to give it to her. She takes the head and kisses it. Herod, disgusted, has her put to death.