Study Guide

Salomé Themes

  • Sex

    In the case of Salomé, it's not so much sex as lust, lust, lust.

    Crazy rabid desire manifests itself in many different ways: in the innocent longing of the young Syrian (aww), in the incestuous lust of Herod (eww), in Salomé's first stirrings of passion for Jokanaan (okay, sure), and in her final, self-destructive kiss of his severed head (aiiiiiiighh).

    The problem is, no one in the play seems truly capable of expressing their love. Indeed, the Syrian's innocence only leaves him vulnerable and, ultimately, leads to death. It's just as extreme a result as Salomé's murderous smoochin'…it's just a little less shocking.

    Questions About Sex

    1. Can we explain why Salomé becomes enthralled with Jokanaan so suddenly?
    2. Clearly the young Syrian's attraction to Salomé isn't perverse like Herod's, but is it completely innocent?
    3. Jokanaan is constantly accusing Herodias of being depraved, and yet she never seems to be lusting after anyone, or to be demonstrating any kind of sexual desire at all. Why is that?
    4. Why is Jokanaan so disgusted by Salomé and her desires?

    Chew on This

    Desire animates every action in Salomé; without it, there would be no play to speak of.

    Salomé cannot be blamed for her actions; her lust is ultimately a force of nature, something totally beyond her control. She must simply follow it to its natural end.

  • Death

    Spoiler alert: there's a ton o' death in Salomé. Like, this play makes Game of Thrones look pretty tame.

    At the beginning of the play, death is something to be administered by kings—all it takes is a special death ring to signal the end. The young Syrian's death begins to complicate things: Herod doesn't want to know that people die without him calling for their death, and he passes the notion of suicide off as "ridiculous." The situation really changes when the Nazarenes talk about resurrection: death takes on an entirely different character and has become a weird, alien thing. By play's end, even Naaman (Herod's scary executioner) dreads killing Jokanaan.

    Questions About Death

    1. Is Herod justified in having Salomé killed?
    2. Why is Jokanaan so surprised to see the angel of death in the palace? Why is Herod the only other person to sense the angel's presence?
    3. What motivates the young Syrian's suicide?
    4. What are the implications of the story about the daughter of Jairus?

    Chew on This

    At the beginning of Salomé, death seems like the greatest punishment and the definitive expression of Herod's power; by the play's end, we begin to realize that its dominance is already being curtailed.

    Ironically enough, the death which pervades Jokanaan's prophecies is the means of achieving eternal life.

  • Versions of Reality

    Nothing is stable in the world of Salomé. Seriously: nothing. Something as simple as the moon means different things to different people. A young man seems like he's centuries old. New omens crop up at every turn…and that's only the beginning.

    This is because those omens are just the promise of things to come, which means that things are going to change, and stat. Just as Jokanaan says that "after me shall come another mightier than I," we also have to recognize that the events we see on stage (however shocking and crazy) are only the beginning of a greater change. Basically, everything is up in the air in this play.

    Questions About Versions of Reality

    1. What makes the moon such a powerful symbol? How can it accommodate so many interpretations?
    2. Can we make sense of Jokanaan's admittedly cryptic prophecies?
    3. How do we explain Salomé's rapidly fluctuating perceptions of Jokanaan's beauty?
    4. What makes Herod so susceptible to seeing bad omens?

    Chew on This

    The moon is not merely a piece of scenery; it allows Wilde to give us a sense of each character's state of mind without resorting to long expository monologues.

    Herod's susceptibility to omens speaks to both his fear of Jokanaan and a larger kind of openness; he is not entrenched in his depravity like Herodias, or in chastity like Jokanaan.

  • Sin

    Um, we kind of wish that what happened in Herod's palace stayed in Herod's palace, Vegas-style. Instead, we have Salomé to remind us.

    It all comes down to Eve: that's Jokanaan's position, and a lot of the action in Salomé seems to confirm it. Herodias and Salomé (mother and daughter) are the chief offenders: they refuse to repent, ignoring Jokanaan's every plea and brushing off his insults. This isn't to say everyone else is innocent—Herod is the one lusting after his own stepdaughter after all—but that terrible twosome doesn't even seem to understand remorse. Only Herod begins to reconsider his actions, and comes to revile the "monstrous" ways of his stepdaughter. In his realization, we have an acknowledgment of sin.

    Questions About Sin

    1. Jokanaan tells Salomé "[b]y woman came evil into the world." His interpretation is consistent with the Book of Genesis, but does his intense criticism of Herodias and Salomé betray some deeper hatred for women?
    2. Why is Jokanaan so sure that Herodias will not repent?
    3. The young Syrian, Salomé, Herod, and Herodias are all guilty the same sin to varying degrees: lust. Why does Wilde focus on that particular offense?

    Chew on This

    In Salomé, the notion of sin is deliberately ill-defined; as one of the Jews says, "It may be that the things we call evil are good, and that the things which we call good are evil." In this way, Wilde prevents us from judging his characters too quickly.

    Jokanaan's entire theology is based on the notion that man is fundamentally sinful; he speaks of a time when those who believe will be cleansed, and those who do not will be destroyed.

  • Religion

    Religion in Salomé is a pretty gloomy thing. Yes, the Nazarenes tell Herod that their Messiah is performing miracles and even raising people from the dead. This is but a small bright spot, however.

    Jokanaan's prophecies are almost uniformly super-dark, filled with images of death and destruction. Even as he calls for repentance, he reminds those who do not believe that they will be punished as a result—and when he's speaking to Herodias and Salomé, he makes it very clear that they are doomed. The time of the Lord is at hand, he cries…but that doesn't mean there isn't trouble up ahead.

    Questions About Religion

    1. What do we make of the Jews theological quarreling? Do they have any common ground?
    2. Is there anyway to sum up Jokanaan's religious beliefs?
    3. Herod's fear of Jokanaan leads him to respect the prophet, and he dreads having to kill him. That said, is there any indication that Herod is coming to believe in his prophecies?
    4. What role do the Nazarenes and their Messiah play in the narrative?

    Chew on This

    Religion is a hard thing to pin down in Salomé; we hear so many competing theories that any labels—Judaism, for instance—begin to seem meaningless.

    Though it seems likely that the Savior whom Jokanaan speaks of is the Messiah of the Nazarenes, it's hard to imagine a man turning water into wine and raising the dead setting mass destruction upon the people of the earth.

  • Transformation

    Salomé is a play of transformations, and these transformations are as dramatic as they are inexplicable. The most obvious of them is Salomé's metamorphosis into a lust-driven young woman, but that's only the beginning. It's not only Salomé's nature that changes, it's her perception and her vision of Jokanaan.

    We also see other transformations. Some are pretty small (Herod's garland turns to fire) and some are pretty dang huge (the sun turns black and the moon turns blood red). But maybe the most shocking transformations occur offstage. We hear tell of resurrection, and the mere mention of it makes Herod quake, lending gravity to Jokanaan's more abstract forecasts of crazily momentous upheavals.

    Questions About Transformation

    1. Are any of the various transformations we see/hear about throughout Salomé—the miracles talked of by the Nazarenes, the various omens Herod experiences—understandable? Can we explain how or why they happen?
    2. Jokanaan talks often of huge, sweeping changes—the moon turning the color of blood, for instance. Does he ever forecast any small-scale changes?
    3. In his first prophecy, Jokanaan talks of a time when "the suckling child shall put his hand upon the dragon's lair, he shall lead the lions by their manes," and yet most of his other pronouncements are dark and apocalyptic. How can we reconcile these two very different kinds of prediction? How can the world change for the better and suffer terrible destruction?

    Chew on This

    The world of Salomé is one on the brink of a great change—nothing and no one is stable or safe.

    Though Salomé ignores Jokanaan's prophecies and rejects his calls for repentance, her own radical transformation speaks to the great instability of the times.

  • Power

    Power and control is constantly changing hands in Salomé. Herod is king, but he fears Jokanaan; he is the father of Salomé…and yet he is bound to do what she asks. In fact Herod—the guy you'd expect to have the most control—is often the least secure.

    When he hears of some dude raising the dead (and subverting what may be the greatest symbol of authority, the power over life and death) one of Jokanaan's prophecies is already coming true: the kings of the earth are already afraid; and "the Saviour of the World," once a title of Caesar's, will soon be claimed by a greater power. That's enough to make Herod quake in his sandals.

    Questions About Power

    1. What does Herod's status as ruler of a "client kingdom"—that is, he actually reports to Caesar—say about his actual status?
    2. How does the arrival of the Nazarenes' Messiah complicate Herod's understanding of his own power?
    3. Although Salomé is killed by Herod, she ends up taking control of her stepfather and, ultimately, over Jokanaan. How does she do this and what does it say about the nature of power?

    Chew on This

    In Salomé, we see that power is by no means permanent, that a daughter can take control of her father, and that a captive man can strike fear into the heart of his jailer.

    Although Jokanaan's statements may be cryptic, they have one central message: divine power will eventually triumph over earthly power.

  • Fear

    Fear is a powerful thing in Salomé and nowhere do we see that more than in the person of Herod. Fear puts him on the same level as his prisoner Jokanaan, and it undermines his ability to rule. He's a cowardly lion by the end of the play.

    That being said, fear isn't necessarily a bad thing. Fear motivates the Jews' belief in their God—it keeps them in line, so to speak—and it keeps Herod from suffering the same fate as his stepdaughter. Indeed, it's Salomé's lack of fear that proves her undoing, that allows her to push the boundaries of morality and plain ol' good taste. Without fear, we see, passion and desire trump all else.

    Questions About Fear

    1. By the end of the play, it's become clear that Herod fears Jokanaan and that Salomé does not. But what about Herodias? Does her annoyance conceal fear?
    2. Why is Herod, the man with the most power, the most afraid? Is he afraid because he is powerful?
    3. A few of the Jews agree that "God is terrible," which is to say, terrifying. Is their belief, then, motivated by fear?

    Chew on This

    Jokanaan attempts to spread his message via fear of death and judgment; without it, his pronouncements would have little weight.

    Though Herod may not be a believer in Jokanaan's prophecies by play's end, his fear of the prophet, of the idea that he might be a messenger of God, pushes him closer to belief.