The Young Syrian, the Page of Heroidias, and some soldiers are gathered on a balcony at King Herod's palace, overlooking a walled cistern (a well). Offstage, Herod is conducting a banquet with many international guests. Among the soldiers on the balcony, two conversations take place: one between the Young Syrian and the Page of Herodias, and the other between the remaining four men. These conversations alternate but do not intersect.
The Young Syrian and the Page discuss the moon and the Princess Salome, comparing each to the other in terms of their beauty, femininity, and strangeness. The Page implores the Young Syrian not to "look at her too much ... Something terrible might happen"--a warning that the Syrian appears to ignore. Meanwhile, two soliders, referred to only as the "first" and "second" soldier, discuss a group of Jews in Herod's court, who are loudly "disputing their religion." They become anxious that the Tetrarch is "sombre" because he is looking at someone, and they try to determine who it is. They are soon joined by a Cappadocian and a Nubian, who point out that Herod's wife, Herodias, is pouring her husband a cup of wine. They comment on the Tetrarch's love of wine, which he imports from Samothrace, Cyprus, and Sicily in colors of purple, gold, and blood red.
The soldiers move on to discuss their different religions. The Nubian reveals that his people worship "harsh" gods that have to be placated with blood sacrifices, and the Cappadocian describes how his own countrymen have come to believe that their own gods are hiding or dead. The First Soldier explains that "the Jews worship a God that one cannot see ... in fact, they only believe in things that one cannot see."
These conversations are interrupted by an offstage voice that shouts a prophecy about the Messiah and the heavenly kingdom that awaits his followers upon his return. The Second Soldier is annoyed by the shouting, but the First Soldier explains that the voice is that of Iokanaan, a gentle prophet whom Herod captured in the desert alongside his sizable following of disciples. The Cappadocian asks to see the prophet, but the First Soldier explains that Herod has forbid anyone from visiting or even looking at his prisoner.
The Cappadocian comments on Iokanaan's imprisonment in the palace cistern, which he senses must be dangerous. The Second Soldier responds that Herodias's first husband, Herod's brother, had been held in the same cistern for twelve years, and eventually he had to be strangled.
The Young Syrian announces that Salome is approaching the balcony with a troubled expression. Though the Page again reminds his friend to avoid looking at Salome directly, the Young Syrian continues to wax poetic about the beautiful princess.
The play's introductory action establishes several of Wilde's major themes while explicitly foreshadowing the murder of Iokanaan. Interestingly, none of the royal characters are introduced to the audience immediately, and even Iokanaan is present only as a disembodied, offstage voice. Rather, it is through the soldiers' conversations about Salome, Herod, Herodias, and Iokanaan that the audience learns about these figures and the (largely negative) relationships among them. The two distinct dialogues that comprise the play's introductory action, the conversation between the Page of Herodias and the Young Syrian, and the one between the remaining soldiers on stage, alternate but never overlap, giving the audience a sense of the lively and populous atmosphere of Herod's court. Moreover, the two dialogues serve two different functions in terms of presenting the main characters and dramatic action to the audience.
Historical and political background about the dramatic action is revealed through the dialogue between the First and Second Soldiers. For example, Herod is the brother of Herodias' first husband, whom he imprisoned and eventually strangled; Iokanaan is a prophet with a large following whom Herod's army captured in the desert; and Herod's kingdom comprises many people of different religious beliefs which are often strikingly at odds. The diversity of Herod's kingdom is indicated by the distinct backgrounds of the soldiers participating in the conversation and, on a figurative level, by the different-colored wines the Tetrarch imports from three different colonies. Like his guards, the wine is a product and symbol of Herod's political rule; he appears to tolerate religious and cultural difference when it remains under his control and where he can profit from it. The soldiers' discussion of religion, then, draws the audience's attention back to Iokanaan, a prophet of a new and as yet unsanctioned Christian religion whose faith may not be reconcilable with the terms of Herod's rule. The soldiers also note that Herod is "looking at some one" and has a "sombre aspect"--the play's first indication of the King's desire for Salome.
The conversation between the Page of Herodias and the Young Syrian functions less to articulate information about the characters and action than to highlight the symbolic preoccupations of the play and sketch the network of unfulfilled desire in which all the characters operate. The Page and the Syrian open the play with a discussion of the moon, which is explicitly paralleled to Salome (it is "like a little princess who wears a yellow veil") throughout the narrative, and the dynamic between these two characters is presented as asymmetrical, with the Syrian clearly desiring Salome and the Page strangely invested in thwarting the Syrian's desire. Foreshadowing one of the play's major themes, the Syrian's desire is provoked and enhanced by the act of looking: the Page begs his friend not to look directly at the princess, since "it is dangerous to look at people too much ... [something] terrible might happen." The Page's appeal to the Syrian to look at the moon instead thus highlights the play's exploration of the gaze, or look, as the vehicle of desire. Yet, as the dialogue indicates, such desire goes unsatisfied. In the world of the play, love exists, but it is unlikely to be fulfilled. This dynamic of unrequited desire shapes the narrative's tragic arc.
The play's obsession with the relationship between desire and language (one that recurs throughout Wilde's writing) is also established through the different parallels the Page and the Syrian draw between Salome and the moon. Sensing his friend's desire for Salome, the Page implores him to instead look "at the moon ... she is like a dead woman ... one might fancy she was looking for dead things." To keep the Syrian's desire unfulfilled, the Page uses the moon in two ways: first, he replaces the act of looking at Salome with the act of looking at the moon, and second, he draws a parallel between the moon and Salome that is negative, calling attention to the murderous, ominous qualities that will later lead her to order Iokanaan's execution. The Syrian accepts the first substitution (Salome with the moon) but alters the comparison to a positive one that reflects his affection for the object of his desire. He compares the moon to a princess who "wears a yellow veil," "has little white doves for feet," and might be "dancing." The Syrian thus uses the moon to invoke Salome not in her murderous aspect, but in her seductive persona, the dancer of the erotic "Dance of the Seven Veils." For both characters, the moon is a metaphor for Salome--a substitution for her. More aptly, talking about the moon is a substitution for Salome, in that the two men exchange metaphors about the moon instead of looking at Salome. In the absence of the possibility of fulfilling his desire, the Syrian (prompted by the Page) turns to metaphoric language as a means of getting near the object of his desire without confronting it (and thus being rejected).
Readers mostly familiar with realist drama and fiction will notice the ornate, abstract prose of Salome, particularly in the dialogue between the Page and the Syrian. The characters' conversations with each other do not "flow" like real conversations, and their accounts of each other, objects, and events are rarely concrete or realistic. For example, the comparison of the moon to either a "dead woman" or a "little princess" is far-fetched, even impossible for readers to imagine. In literary terms, such a technique is called a "conceit," a metaphor that claims similarity between two highly dissimilar things; a conceit tends to be used less for descriptive purposes than figurative or thematic ones. This is typical in particular of French Symbolism, a late 19th-century literary movement of which Wilde was particularly infatuated during the composition of Salome. In Salome, as in the Symbolist texts it was influenced by, characters and objects are presented less as "real" things than as mouthpieces, or vehicles, for the intellectual ideas and symbols the text is working through. Thus, for example, the soldiers' preoccupation with blood, while foreshadowing the series of murders to follow, is intended less as an indicator of the soldiers' characters than as an example of the way that the symbol of blood (like the symbol of the veil) circulates throughout. In Symbolist style, the characters and action of Salome are not so much "unrealistic" as they are secondary to the complex of symbolic meanings that the play explores.
The Symbolist concerns of Salome are distilled and enhanced by Aubrey Beardsley's illustrations, of which 12 were originally included in the body of the first English edition. Honing his highly stylized, semi-abstract, Japanese-influenced style, Beardsley's illustrations did not simply depict scenes from Wilde's narrative. In fact, they often contain images of characters who are not in the text as well as props and clothing that are anachronistic for 1st-century Judea. Instead, Beardsley focused on rendering explicit the themes and preoccupations that were implicit in the written and performed text. On the original title page, for example, Beardsley included two nude androgynous figures, one with goat horns, breasts and male genitals, and the other with angel wings and a semi-erect penis, perching between oversized candles in a forest of stylized carnations. There is no corresponding scene in the play, however. The illustration's fusion of the traditional symbols of masculine and feminine, evil and good, points the reader to the similar preoccupations with gender and religious values in the text. This focus on sexual ambiguity is also present in the frontispiece, which contains a famous caricature of Wilde as the face of the moon, which in the play (we have seen) is associated with the feminine character Salome.