Summary of Play
The scene is set on a great terrace of the Palace of Herod Antipas, above the banquet hall. Soldiers are leaning over the balcony, watching Herod's birthday banquet and the night sky above. There are stairs going up on the right and to the left, a deep pit or cistern, a palace well surrounded by a wall of green bronze, where Jokanaan (John the Baptist) is imprisoned. Two men stand looking at the moon and speaking of the Princess Salomé.
The Young Syrian Captain of the Palace Guard is in love with Salomé and mentions how beautiful she looks tonight. The Page of Herodias is fascinated by the moon, remarking that the moon looks like a dead woman. The Syrian says Salomé has silver feet or white doves for feet. The Page, however, remarks that she moves slowly, like a dead woman.
Herod's soldiers on the terrace listen to Jews disputing loudly in the hall. They think the Jews curious because they fight with each other about their religion. The Pharisees, for instance, say there are angels, but Sadducees do not believe in angels. They like to raise their voices like this in public places.
The Syrian repeats again how beautiful Salomé is. The Page of Herodias tells him it is dangerous to look at her: “Something terrible may happen” (p. 2). The soldiers’ remark on the “sombre aspect” (p. 2) of the Tetrarch (Herod). They see he is looking at someone (Salomé). The Syrian keeps repeating that Salomé is beautiful, but he adds that she is also pale. The Page repeats that the Syrian is always looking at Salomé and must not.
The soldiers point out Herodias the Queen in a black mitre with pearls. They mention the Tetrarch Herod is drinking a lot; he is fond of wine, and has wine of three colors: purple, gold, and red. A Nubian (African) mentions that in his country they sacrifice maidens and young men to the gods who are never satisfied. A Cappadocian (from Turkey) says that in his country the Romans have driven away all the gods. A soldier replies that the Jews only worship a God they cannot see.
Suddenly, the disembodied voice of Jokanaan (John) is heard from the cistern or pit that is his jail. He speaks prophetically, saying “After me shall come another mightier than I” (p. 4). He refers to the coming of Christ when the eyes of the blind shall see, and the deaf will hear. One soldier says they must make him be quiet, but the other says, no, he is a holy man and very gentle, for he thanks the soldier for his food every day. His name is Jokanaan, a prophet from the desert where he feeds on locusts and honey. He is dressed in camel's hair, and is terrible to see, though he had disciples and a vast crowd following him. The soldiers admit they do not understand what he is talking about, but he is frightening. No one is allowed to look at him in the cistern.
The Young Syrian continues to watch Salomé and reports she is hiding behind her fan. The Page reproaches him for watching her and warns something terrible may happen.
The Cappadocian talks to the soldiers about the cistern, saying it is a strange prison. They tell him that Herod's elder brother, the first husband of Queen Herodias, was imprisoned there for twelve years, and it did not kill him, so they had to strangle him. They point to the executioner, a huge Negro named Naaman. The Tetrarch Herod sent him the death-ring, so Naaman killed the elder brother, the former king of Judea.
The Young Syrian reports Salomé is getting up, looking troubled, and coming towards them. The Page of Herodias warns him not to look at her.
Salomé enters and says she cannot stay at the banquet because Herod keeps looking at her. The Young Syrian greets her. Salomé remarks that the air is sweeter on the balcony. She does not like the crowded feast where Jews from Jerusalem argue, and barbarians, Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans are drunk. She dislikes the Romans most because they are arrogant. The Young Syrian asks her to be seated. The Page keeps warning the Syrian to stop paying attention to Salomé.
Salomé notices the moon like a piece of money. She thinks the moon is a virgin who has never defiled herself with men. The voice of Jokanaan speaks from the cistern prophesying that “The son of man is at hand” (p. 7). Salomé asks who spoke, and the soldiers tell her that the prophet Jokanaan spoke. She says it is the man of whom Herod is afraid. The Young Syrian tries to persuade Salomé to forget this and come into the garden. She ignores him and says that Jokanaan says terrible things about her mother. The soldiers affirm they do not understand what the prophet is talking about, but Salomé assures them he condemns her mother.
A slave enters and tells Salomé that the Tetrarch Herod orders her to return to the feast. The Young Syrian tries to be helpful; he tells Salomé that if she does not return, something may happen. Salomé can hear no one; she is beginning to be obsessed with the prisoner. She asks if he is an old man. The Young Syrian offers to take Salomé back to the feast. She ignores him, trying to get information from the soldiers.
They tell her that Jokanaan is very young; some believe he is the ancient prophet Elias returned. The slave asks Salomé what answer he should give to Herod. Jokanaan speaks again in riddles about future disaster for Palestine. Now Salomé wants to speak with the prophet herself. The soldiers tell her it is forbidden. Not even the high priest may speak with him. She keeps repeating her desire, and the soldiers tell her it is impossible. The Young Syrian reminds her it is better to return to the banquet.
Salomé looks into the cistern and declares how black it is; it must be terrifying in there. She keeps ordering the soldiers to take the prophet out, and they refuse. Then she turns to the Young Syrian, addressing him by name, Narraboth, asking him to remove the cover so she can speak with Jokanaan. If he does her this favor, she will look at him as she passes on her litter. She will let fall a little green flower for him. She keeps teasing him that she will smile on him. Finally, he can resist her no longer and tells the soldiers to bring out the prophet. The Page of Herodias exclaims that the moon looks like a dead woman with a shroud. The prophet comes out of the cistern, and Salomé steps back.
Jokanaan asks where is he who will die before the people in a silver coat? He should come forth. Salomé asks the soldiers of whom he is speaking and they do not know. Then Jokanaan asks “where is she” (p. 10) who gave herself up to lust? Salomé asks them if he speaks of her mother. Again, they do not know.
Jokanaan gives a long speech about this whore who gave herself to “the Captains of Assyria” and to the “young men of the Egyptians” (pp. 10, 11). He calls on her to repent. Salomé says Jokanaan is terrible. The Young Syrian tells her not to stay. Salomé is most afraid of his dragon eyes. The Young Syrian keeps begging Salomé to come away, but she is fascinated by the spectacle of the prophet's looks and voice.
Finally, Jokanaan asks who is the woman looking at him with golden eyes. He does not want to talk to her, but Salomé tells her name; she is the Princess of Judea, the daughter of Herodias He calls her “daughter of Babylon” (p. 12) and tells her to stay away from him who is “the chosen of the Lord” (p. 12).
Salomé tells Jokanaan to speak again; she is enchanted with his voice. The Syrian keeps calling to the Princess, but he cannot get her attention. Jokanaan tells her to cover her head with a veil and her body with ashes and go to the desert to seek the Son of Man (Christ). She asks if the Son of Man is as beautiful as he is.
Jokanaan says he hears the angel of Death in the palace. He speaks as if to this angel and asks why it has come, for it is not time for the death of the man who shall die in a silver robe (Herod). Salomé begins telling Jokanaan that she desires his body and speaks of it in poetic and sensuous terms (“Thy body is white like the snows that lie on the mountains of Judea,” p. 13). She asks to touch his body.
Jokanaan tells her to get back. He only listens to the voice of God. Salomé then changes her tone and tells him his body is hideous “like the body of a leper” (p. 13). She asks to touch his hair, like black cedar. He tells her to get back. She continues, saying that his hair is also hideous, like “a knot of serpents” (p. 14). She would prefer his red mouth. He says never. Salomé is obviously in a sort of sensuous trance, obsessed with the body of Jokanaan, desiring him, though he is both hideous and beautiful to her. Meanwhile, the Young Syrian is more and more horrified and tells her not to speak to Jokanaan or look at him because he cannot endure it. As Salomé moves to kiss Jokanaan, the Young Syrian kills himself and falls between them.
The Page becomes hysterical at the Syrian Captain's death, who was his friend. He had said misfortune would come, and it has. The Princess, meanwhile, has not noticed this death. A soldier tells her that the Captain killed himself, trying to bring her to her senses. Jokanaan says she should be afraid, for he has heard the wings of the angel of Death. There is only one who can save her, and she should seek him on the sea of Galilee with his disciples. She does not listen and keeps insisting that he kiss her. Finally, he curses her and returns to the cistern.
The soldiers say they must remove the dead body of the Syrian before Herod sees it. The Page goes on in a soliloquy about his relationship with the Syrian, implying they were lovers. He had given him gifts, and they walked together. The soldiers try to remove the body, but think that Herod is too afraid of the prophet to come to the terrace. Just then, however, Herod enters with Herodias and all the court.
Herod is looking for Salomé and wondering why she did not return to the banquet as he asked her to. Herodias scolds Herod for looking at Salomé. Herod thinks the moon looks like a mad woman. Herod decides to stay on the terrace and asks to have carpets laid, torches lit, and wine served to the guests. He wants to honor the ambassadors of Caesar. Suddenly, Herod slips in blood on the floor. The soldiers tell him the Syrian Captain killed himself.
Herod remembers that the Syrian Captain looked at Salomé too much. He tells them to remove the body. He feels a beating of wings and cold air. Herod sees Salomé is pale and tries to give her wine and fruits, which she refuses. Herod offers her the throne of her mother.
Jokanaan speaks from the cistern, predicting doom. Herodias tells Herod that she wants him silenced because he insults her, but Herod does not want to do this for Jokanaan is a holy man. Herodias accuses him of being afraid of the prophet. The Jews tell Herod to give the prophet to them. They carry on an argument about God, certain that Jokanaan has not seen God, as he claims. Jokanaan speaks from the cistern announcing that the Saviour of the world is coming. A Nazarene in the crowd says that it means The Messiah who is working miracles everywhere. The guests argue about this news.
Jokanaan speaks from the cistern saying that the harlot with golden eyes should be stoned by the people. He says she should be killed by the captains, crushed by their shields. Herodias thinks she speaks of her, but Herod observes he did not say any names. Herod admits, however, that his killing of his own brother and taking his wife Herodias is the cause of their woe and the prophet's rebuke.
As Herod tries to continue the banquet with toasts, Jokanaan speaks of the end of the world from the cistern when the “sun shall become black like sackcloth of hair” (p. 26). Herod, more and more drunk, stares at Salomé and orders her to dance. Herod claims he is happy in his situation, for Caesar trusts him and kills his enemies. Jokanaan continues to speak prophesies of doom from the cistern, but Herod does not believe they are about him. He insists Salomé dance, and if she does, he will grant her a gift. Salomé makes him swear, but Herodias does not want her to dance, perhaps afraid she will be displaced by her daughter. He swears he will give her even half his kingdom if she dances.
Salomé's slaves bring her seven veils and perfumes. She dances in bare feet, but Herod is upset because she is dancing in blood, the blood of the Syrian Captain. The moon turns red. Herodias tries to get Herod to leave because he is obsessed with Salomé's dance of the seven veils. Afterward, Salomé demands the head of Jokanaan on a silver platter as payment. Herodias is pleased, but Salomé says she wants this for herself. Herod is horrified and tries to get out of his promise. Why would a beautiful virgin desire this? He will give her an emerald. She repeats over and over she wants the head of the prophet. Herod goes through long catalogs of precious things he owns and will give to Salomé, but she keeps insisting on Jokanaan's head.
Finally, Herodias takes from Herod's hand the ring of death and gives it to a soldier who gives it to the executioner with orders. Salomé goes to the cistern but hears no cry or struggle asNaaman goes down to kill Jokanaan. He comes out with the head on a silver shield. Herod hides his eyes. The Nazarenes fall on their knees to pray. Salomé speaks to the head, saying that he rejected her, but she will have her kiss. She kisses the decapitated head of Jokanaan on the lips. She claims she loved him. Nothing can quench her passion but him. “I was a virgin, and thou didst take my virginity from me” (p. 40).
Even the tyrant Herod is revolted at this crime, and says to his soldiers, “Kill that woman!” (p. 41) The soldiers rush toward Salomé and crush her with their shields, as Jokanaan had prophetically invoked as a curse on her.
Commentary on Play
Traditionally, this story, told briefly in the Bible, has both religious and political implications. Herod Antipas was a subking or Tetrarch (ruler of one fourth of a country) of Judea, controlled by the Roman Empire. Like his father, Herod the Great, who ordered the Slaughter of the Innocents, this Herod is a tyrant, yet more sympathetic than the depraved Salomé. Herod is nominally a Jew, though not admired by his own people or the Romans. He is a strong man supported by Caesar. He is enough of a Jew, however, that he reveres a holy man and prophet like Jokanaan. He is often compared to Pontius Pilate in the trial of Jesus, in not wanting to be responsible for the death of an innocent holy man. He has had to imprison Jokanaan because he is making political trouble for him, by denouncing his sinful family life and stirring up the countryside with his baptisms and prophesies about the Messiah, but he clearly does not want to judge or execute the prophet.
Herod is a man who could kill his own brother, marry his widow in an incestuous marriage (Herodias was his niece), and take the throne, yet even he is revolted by the crime of Salomé in taking the life of a prophet for personal vengeance. In the Bible, it is Herodias who contrives to get the head of John the Baptist by using Salomé to dance for the king. Herodias wants Jokanaan silenced for painting her as a harlot. John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth were seen as rebels by the orthodox Jews and a political embarrassment to Herod's court who had to impress the Romans they could keep order in Judea.
Though Wilde is interested in the wider historical issues of the drama, such as the different philosophies and religions of the characters, he is most interested in Salomé's sensuality and obsession. She is unable to control her perverse passion, aroused for a forbidden man, and one who scorns her because of his religious purity. He is a celibate in the service of God. Her sexual conquest of him can only be through some extreme act, like murder. The horror of her sexual advances on a holy man is made clear when the Syrian Captain kills himself rather than face what his beloved princess has become. If she had wanted a sexual liaison, there were many to satisfy her, such as the Syrian in love with her. Even the king has hinted he would make her a queen, if she wanted.
Salomé, however, is bent on something completely forbidden and irreverent to satisfy her passion. The fact that the prophet refuses her and cannot be controlled by her fuels her desire. In fact, power and sexual desire seem to be the same for her. She proves that she can make the king and all the soldiers do her bidding, using her beauty and sexual appeal. Like Wilde in his own life, falling prey to a similar temptation,she is at the height of her influence and believes she can push the boundary of the acceptable past the tolerance of authority. The king's bribe of jewels and a throne are nothing compared to completing her own twisted design. It is called a tragedy because it is that form of play that analyzes the monstrosity of the Greek sin of hubris (arrogance) in asserting individual will over the will of the gods and human decency. Wilde descends into the dark places of the human psyche in this play, especially into the subconscious motivation towards self-destruction, which is sometimes seen as part of a masochistic sexual urge. Salomé embodies an irrational force, and no one is able to stop her, or even get her attention in her obsessive trance. There is no way she can escape her own violent death once she goes beyond all self-restraint.
This play is often paired with Wilde's novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, that also explores an ego that feels justified in living for its own sensation and thrill, no matter what others think or suffer because of it. Salomé's corrupt soul at such a young age is more frightening than Herod's murders and executions. Herod also is portrayed as a man of strong obsession, for he is besotted by Salomé into promising her anything and then carrying it out. She becomes an image of his own corrupt reign.
Jokanaan is an interesting portrait of a fierce Old Testament type of prophet who fearlessly pronounces on the sins of rulers and warns about divine judgment. He is feared because he looks and acts completely wild from living as an ascetic in the desert outside of civilization. It was rumored that John the Baptist or Jokanaan was a reincarnation of the ancient prophet Elias or Elijah, which would be another reason he was feared. Elijah could raise the dead and rain down fire on his enemies.
Though Jokanaan speaks of the sins of others in his voice from the cistern, he does not name anyone, making the accusations even more effective. Herodias is sure that he speaks of her as a whore, but if the shoe fits, wear it. He does not need to say her name. As a prophet under divine inspiration his utterances are often poetic and incomprehensible. For instance, when Jokanaan speaks of the harlot who gives herself to the Captains of Assyria and Egypt, he may be speaking metaphorically of Israel or Jerusalem as well as of Herodias. In his speech about the end of the world, he is using imagery from the Book of Revelation. He speaks of Babylon several times. The whore of Babylon is a symbolic figure from Revelation and could mean the relation of Herod and his court to Rome. Twice Jokanaan asks where is the man who will die in a silver coat? This is a reference to Herod who supposedly died eaten alive by worms or maggots. It is thought that this terrible death happened to Herod the Great rather than Herod Antipas. Herod Antipas died in exile in Gaul (France). Jokanaan's language is suitably vague. When he curses Salomé, however, it is clear whom he means, for he names her.
Wilde has given a portrait of a court being torn apart not only by individual passions but also by historical forces. Herod's birthday banquet is an occasion to gather all the important people from diverse power groups in Judea at that time. The Romans have political control of a vast empire, and some of Herod's guests, like the Cappadocian, come from other places in the empire (Turkey). The King of Cappadocia is identified as a rival of Herod's. Herod believes that Caesar will favor him and crucify the Cappadocian king. The Jews are portrayed in their many divisive sects arguing all sorts of theological positions. The Nazarenes who lament the death of Jokanaan, are part of the Jewish group that supports the coming of the Messiah and the ministry of Christ, which is about to change the whole world and all the values of these peoples. Jokanaan preaches against the corruption of the court and warns about the coming of a new order.
The Nubian or African describes his religion where virgins and young men are sacrificed to appease the gods. This is meant to show a primitive religion, and the Cappadocian mentions that the Romans have killed the local gods of place in his mountains, another primitive religion with gods connected to material objects. The Romans have their gods and rituals, but they are rather conventional about their religion. Jews appear to be superior because they worship a God who cannot be seen, but they argue about whether there are angels and other things. Jokanaan tells of the miracles of Christ, even healing lepers and raising the dead. This promises to be an even more powerful religion and is therefore threatening to the status quo, because Jesus does not care about temporal authority, or even Jewish authority, and his miracles demonstrate he might be the Messiah, who was supposed to lead the Jews to freedom. The martyrdom of Jokannan, it is plain to see, is going to accelerate this change. The moral force and history are on his side.