Salome Summary and Analysis of Section II (to the entrance of Herod and Herodias)

Salome enters. She explains to the group on the balcony that she became tired of the banquet, which was filled with Jews, Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans whose customs she found baffling and dull. She also admits that she became tired of Herod's constant staring at her. Upon hearing the shouting of Iokanaan, Salome becomes curious and asks the Young Syrian and the Second Soldier questions about the body behind the voice. They explain that Iokanaan is the prophet who has been shouting "terrible things" about Herodias, Salome's mother, and tell her that he is imprisoned in the palace cistern.

A slave enters, imploring Salome to return to the banquet. She refuses, instead asking the First Solidier to allow her to visit Iokanaan, with whom she wishes to speak. The slave exits, and Salome, approaching the cistern, asks the soldiers to let him out so that she may see him. Repeating Herod's orders, they refuse, and Salome finally turns to the Young Syrian. She promises to smile at him the following day when she is travelling through the gateway of the idol-sellers, and he grants her wish, releasing Iokanaan from the depths of the cistern.

Iokanaan steps out of the cistern and, looking at Salome, begins shouting invectives against Herodias, whom he considers sinful for having married her husband's brother. When Salome introduces herself as Herodias's daughter, Iokanaan curses her as the daughter of Babylon and implores her to seek the counsel of the Messiah to wash away her sin. Ignoring this plea, Salome admits that she is "amorous" of Iokanaan's body, and she describes the prophet in two extended poetic passages that compare his skin to snow, his hair to serpents, and his lips to coral. Despite his horror at her lust, Salome promises Iokanaan: "I will kiss thy mouth."

The Young Syrian, overcome with jealousy, kills himself. The Page laments his death, explaining that the Young Syrian was closer to him "than a brother." The First and Second Soldiers work to hide the body from Herod who, they claim, "does not care to see dead bodies, save the bodies of those who he himself has slain." Unconcerned with the commotion, Salome continues to plead with Iokanaan for a kiss. Iokanaan, again urging Salome to seek "the Son of Man" instead, returns to the depths of the cistern.


The dramatic events that unfold between Salome's entrance and the entrance of Herod and Herodias establishes the main conflicts of the play. Upon Salome's entrance, she confirms to the soldiers that Herod was staring at her lasciviously, thus alerting the audience to the intensity of Herod's desire for her. By convincing the Young Syrian to allow her access to Iokanaan against the Tetrarch's orders, Salome demonstrates her power over men, a power that they often succumb to against their own interests. And Salome's persistent desire for Iokanaan, which is met with stalwart resistance on the part of the prophet, sets up the central conflict between Salome and Iokanaan that will eventually lead to both their deaths. In contrast to the biblical narrative on which Wilde's play is based, in which Salome was the unwitting target of her stepfather's lust, Salome appears here as not just an object of desire (for Herod and the Young Syrian) but as a desiring agent, just as intent on fulfilling her desire as the famously lecherous Herod.

The questions of visibility and looking are central to how this part of Salome works through the question of Salome as a desiring subject. Many feminist critics of the play have pointed out that Salome is constructed as an object of the male gaze. That is, men express and partly fulfill their desire for women visually, by looking at them. But Salome seems aware of her status as an object, in that she manipulates it to her own benefit. For example, while she initially claims innocence regarding why Herod is staring at her, she quickly relents, stating "of a truth, I know it too well." Later, Salome gains access to the imprisoned Iokanaan by capitalizing on the Syrian's desire for her, telling him that the next day, she will "look at [him] through the muslin veils." Salome is aware not only of the Syrian's infatuation for her, but also of how such desire plays out through the act of looking. To promise that she will look back at the man who desires her is a promise to fulfill that desire. In the world of Salome, looking is a meaningful act; hence, Salome is certain that he "wilt do this thing." Thus Salome is made to be a cunning female character, quite different from the naive ideal of femininity that dominated late Victorian culture.

Salome also gives as well as she gets, through her frankly sexual desire for Iokanaan. Within late Victorian discourses on feminine sexuality (Freud's, for example), women were portrayed as inherently asexual, the maternal love instinct superseding and canceling romantic and sexual desire. Salome, who openly admits and even celebrates the fact that she is "amorous" of Iokanaan's body, deviates from the Victorian feminine norm and expresses a norm more characteristic of other times (recall Potiphar's wife being amorous for Joseph in Genesis), suggesting that the play is, at least in part, a critique of gender stereotypes common in Wilde's time.

But is Salome's a distinctly feminine sexuality, or is she a character given masculine instincts? Indeed, her desire is expressed in the same visual terms as that of Herod and the Syrian--she wishes to see the prophet, whom Herod hides from public view--but this expression does not seem gendered in itself. In the world of the play, to look at someone is to be seduced by him or her; hence, Iokanaan's refusal to return Salome's gaze. Salome's gaze appears to be as potent an expression of sexual desire as Herod's, and Iokanaan's rejection of Salome acknowledges her sexuality while reframing it in terms of Christian morality. Moreover, Salome's request to kiss his mouth represents a threat not just to Iokanaan's ethics but to his source of identity as a prophet. Associated with his powerful voice, which tells the events of both future and past, Iokanaan resists Salome's claim to his mouth as though it represents a symbolic usurping of the Christian word by the corrupt existing order of Herod's Judea.

As in many plays, desire in Salome is unilateral; that is, each character seems able to desire only one other at a time, and this pattern establishes particular tension among the Page, the Syrian, and Salome. Upon hearing that Salome desires Iokanaan, the Syrian kills himself. The news that she desires another confirms that she does not desire him. Upon the Syrian's death, the Page is distraught, implying that he too has now lost the object of his desire and will remain incomplete.

While explicit references to homosexuality were forbidden by the censors of Victorian England, the intensity of the Page's grief, as well as his claim that the Syrian was "more than a brother" to him, imply that the Page's love for his friend was sexual. The death of the Syrian confirms that the Page's passion for him, and his for Salome, will remain unrequited, which symbolically links unfulfilled sexual desire to bodily death, a theme explored more fully toward the end of the dramatic action.

While Herod has yet to be introduced to the audience, the second section of Salome continues to elaborate his character. We learn not only of his desire for Salome, which she appears to be in control of, but also that he is afraid of Iokanaan, whose prophesies of a powerful new religion and large following establish him as a threat to Herod's power over his land and people. When the Syrian kills himself, the soldiers hurry to remove his body, since, they explain, "he does not care to see dead bodies, save the bodies of those whom he himself has slain." That is, Herod does not like to see evidence that he is not in control of the workings of the world. By hiding the evidence, he convinces himself that all remains within his power. Herod's decision to conceal Iokanaan from sight in the palace cistern testifies to the threat the prophet, and the new Christian order he embodies, poses to Herod's power. It also indicates the important link between power and visiblity in the play. Like the body of the Syrian, the prophet is kept out of sight, his invisibility ensuring that the evidence of Herod's faltering power is not made public.

Beardsley's illustrations in this section follow his previous ones in that they forgo exegesis for abstracted commentary on the themes and concerns that emerge from the dramatic action. For example, the illustrations of Salome in the plate "The Black Cape" and "John and Salome" differ from each other. In the first, a highly stylized Salome poses in an Edwardian black cape and summer hat (not mentioned in the narrative), and in the second, she wears a thorned headdress and exotic costume that bares both her breasts and her navel. Depicting Salome in the costumes of different eras, Beardsley calls the reader's attention to the performative and chameleon-like qualities of Wilde's heroine that are implicit, but not immediately accessible, in the written text. The thorned headdress Salome wears in "John and Salome," recalling the crown of thorns Jesus wore on the cross, links the princess to the Christian Iokanaan, highlighting the similarities between the two characters as the ultimate victims of Herod's machinations. Salome's revealing costume further enhances the erotic atmosphere of the text and enforces Wilde's presentation of the princess as a sexually desiring and desirous agent.