Herod and Herodias enter, accompanied by their guests. Herod comments on the moon and openly wonders about Salome's whereabouts. Herodias, sensing trouble, asks her husband to return to the palace interior, but Herod insists on keeping the festivities on the terrace. As his attendant moves the tables and lighting outside, Herod slips in the blood of the slain Syrian, which he takes as an omen. Herodias, who does not believe in omens, scoffs at her husband. The two soldiers confess that the Syrian killed himself, and the group discusses suicide, which Herod considers "ridiculous." Herod reveals that the Young Syrian, the captain of his guard, is actually the son of a king Herod has displaced and a queen who is now a slave to Herodias.
Despite Herodias's warning against looking at Salome, Herod implores the princess to join him over wine and fruit. She refuses, which amuses Herodias. The voice of Iokanaan, shouting insults about Herodias, interrupts the discussion and upsets the queen. When Herod explains that Iokanaan is "a very great prophet," Herodias replies that she does not believe in prophecy. She suggests to her husband that he turn Iokanaan over to the Jews who "have been clamoring for him." A conversation between five Jews reveals that, while they have different thoughts about the "unseen" Jewish God, they are all offended by Iokanaan's claim to be a prophet, a title conferred only on the Hebrew prophet Elias.
Iokanaan speaks about Christ, "the Savior of the World." Joined now by a Christian Nazarene, he discusses the controversial figure with Herod and Herodias. Herod expresses indifference about most of Christ's miracles, but he instructs the Nazarene to convey to Christ his message: "no man shall raise the dead." Iokanaan's continued ravings about Herodias's "harlotry" provoke the couple to argue some more about the truth of the prophet's insults.
Herod attempts to conduct business with one of his Roman guests but is immediately distracted when he again catches sight of Salome. Herodias again implores her husband to return inside, but he ignores her. Herod, transfixed by Salome, asks her to dance for him. When Salome refuses, Herodias is amused, which again prompts Herod to speculate about the truth of Iokanaan's assessment of their blasphemous marriage. Perhaps, Herod points out, theirs is a "marriage of evils," since Herodias is sterile. Pointing out that she bore Salome, and that it was in fact Herod who was sterile, Herodias calls her husband "a fool." Herod declares that if he says Herodias is sterile, then she is sterile, and he returns his attention to Salome.
Salome again refuses Herod's request, and Herod resorts to begging and then bargaining. He offers her anything of her choice from his vast kingdom for a single dance. Making Herod swear on his own life that he will grant her anything she desires, Salome finally agrees, ignoring her mother's orders that she not dance for the Tetrarch.
Salome prepares for her dance, asking her attendants to bring her veils and to remove her sandals. As she does so, Herod notices that the floor is still covered in blood (a bad omen) and that the moon has "become red"--as Iokanaan prophesied. Iokanaan shouts yet another prophesy of doom as Salome dances the Dance of the Seven Veils.
The dialogues between Herod and the other characters onstage continue the play's exploration of the complex relationship between language and desire. Like the Syrian in Salome's introductory dialogue, Herod, in the absence of Salome, reverts to displacing his desire for her onto the moon, which he describes as "a mad woman who is seeking everywhere for lovers ... naked too." Language, specifically metaphor or conceit, is a temporary substitute for the fulfillment of Herod's sexual desire. Herodias, however, refuses to indulge in metaphor, telling her husband that "the moon is like the moon, that is all." As one of the play's only characters who is not consumed with unrequited desire, Herodias has no need for figurative language. We may also note here Herodias's awareness of her husband's desire for her daughter: when Herod explains that the party should move to the terrace, where his guests will be more comfortable, she replies wryly, "It is not because of them you remain." Denying Herod's description of the moon, then, is one of the ways that Herodias attempts to deny or thwart his attraction to Salome.
The parallel Wilde continually suggests between Salome and the moon draws on traditions of Greek and Roman mythology that figured the moon as a goddess. In particular, he recalls the Hellenic divinity Cybele, whose potent femininity led her male followers to castrate themselves and begin new lives as women. Like Cybele, Salome's threat is in her control over men, who are made impotent (or less powerful) by their sexual desire for her. The reappearance of the moon/Salome figure in this section of the play foreshadows Herod's eventual loss of political control, thus operating as a kind of ill omen.
Not surprisingly, Herodias refuses to acknowledge the validity of omens, claiming (as did others in the ancient world) that she does not believe in them. She refuses to see extra significance in the blood on the terrace floor (left over from the body of the Syrian) and claims not to hear the sound of beating wings in the wind. She also denies the possible truth of Iokanaan's prophetic claims. By claiming not to believe in omens or prophesy, Herodias attempts to deny the unfolding of the ominous events to come, which hinge on Salome's submission to her husband's inappropriate desire.
The conversations among the characters in the play's third section--between Herod and Herodias, Herod and his guests, and Herod and his soldiers--are frequently interrupted by Iokanaan's offstage voice, shouting either insults against Herodias or prophesies about the Messiah. On a structural level, the interruption of Herod by Iokanaan symbolizes the desire to thwart the threat of the new Christian order subverting and eventually overthrowing the current system of Judea. Moreover, Iokanaan's speech, which is not speculative or metaphoric but strictly declarative, contrasts strongly with the uncertain musings of Herod and his Jewish guests.
As a prophet, Iokanaan has yet another relationship to language. His words are truth; they tell what will be. His prediction that Christ will soon be "seated on his throne ... clothed in scarlet and purple" places the Christian Lord in Herod's current position, which indicates that Iokanaan does not accept Herod as a ruler. (Forgotten is Jesus's idea that Caesar deserves the things that are Caesar's, while God's things are God's.) Herod's subsequent dialogue with his wife, in which he suggests he may believe in Iokanaan's prophesy, is thus less an indication of his spiritual transformation than of his political savvy. Herod panders to Iokanaan as a way of protecting himself against the possible upheaval of a new Christian order.
The narrative and symbolic center of the third section of the play, however, is the bargaining between Salome and Herod. The agreement between Herod and Salome, that she will dance for him if he grants her anything she later wishes, departs from the biblical narrative in two important ways. First, while the biblical account has Herodias arranging for Salome's dance with Herod, Wilde makes Herodias an objector and recasts the decision to dance as Salome's own. Second, Wilde has the terms of the bargain struck before the dance, rather than after (as in the original account). These changes are significant, since they shift the responsibility for Iokanaan's beheading from Herodias (who, in the biblical narrative, sought the prophet's death as revenge for his insults against her) onto Salome. Moreover, that Salome makes Herod promise to grant her wish before, rather than after, the dance implicates Herod in the bloodshed to come, recasting the murder of Iokanaan as a direct result of his desire for Salome.
Salome, aware of the intensity of Herod's desire for her, "sells" her body to Herod in exchange for access to the object of her own desire, a kiss from the otherwise resistant Iokanaan. The changes to the biblical story thus indicate the play's unique revision of the gender stereotypes that dominated Victorian discussions of the feminine. Wilde introduces feminine sexual desire to expand beyond the view of women as commodities. Salome is indeed a commodity, but at least she (not her parents) is in control of her own exchange on the sexual market. Moreover, she capitalizes on this status in order to secure the fulfillment of her own desire.
Beardsley's illustrations in this section highlight the play's emphasis on performance, a theme represented in the narrative by the Dance of the Seven Veils. "Enter Herodias," like many of the drawings, suggests a relationship between performance and eroticism. Herodias is depicted as naked except for a cloak and anachronistic Japanese-style obi waistband. Accompanying her are two attendants: a naked, effeminate young man holding a bottle of perfume and a mask, and a monstrous fetus-like creature with cloven hooves. At the bottom of the frame, three candles burn in penis-shaped holders. In the frame's lower right corner, a caricature of Oscar Wilde looks out at the viewer, clutching a copy of Salome in one arm while gesturing proudly at Herodias with the other. This type of image is "meta-textual" in that it explicitly calls attention to its status as art. Thus, the drawing is less an illustration of the narrative of Salome than an illustration of Salome itself, as an artificial production. By calling the reader's attention to the fact that Salome is a play, an artificial creation of Wilde's, Beardsley implies that similar artifices are at stake in the narrative action. The presence of the mask in the illustration, as well as the explicitly erotic depiction of male genitalia on both the effeminate attendant and the candelabra, links sexuality to performance and foreshadows the central performance of the play: Salome's erotic Dance of the Seven Veils.