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Salome | Plot Summary & Analysis

See Plot Diagram


Out on the Terrace

The play opens with the young Syrian and the page of Herodias talking on the palace terrace. The page compares the moon to a woman looking for the dead, as the young Syrian admires the Princess Salome, whom he can see in the palace with Herod. The young Syrian comments on how pale and beautiful she is but notices she looks troubled. The page and the young Syrian hear loud arguments from outside, where the Jews, Nazarenes, Pharisees, and Sadducees are arguing about whether or not the Messiah has come and whether or not angels exist. The page, concerned about the young Syrian's safety, warns him it is dangerous to stare at Salome so much. The two soldiers with them notice Herod, tetrarch of Judea, is somber that evening and is about to drink wine. The Cappadocian and the Nubian join the conversation on the terrace, musing about modes of worship and the gods in their different religions, as well as Iokanaan's imprisonment in the cistern. No one can understand the prophet's words, but the first soldier says Iokanaan is a holy man and is kind.

Salome Meets Iokanaan

Salome leaves the feast inside the palace, revolted by Herod's ogling of her and tired of listening to arguing about points of religion, and joins the men on the terrace. When Herod's slave asks her to return to the feast, she refuses. She then hears Iokanaan prophesying from his cistern and is attracted by his voice. She knows he has been shouting insults about her mother, Herodias. Salome soon hears him raging about Herodias's adultery, promiscuity, and incestuous marriage—Herodias divorced her husband to marry his brother, Herod. Salome asks the page, the young Syrian, and the soldiers about Iokanaan and demands to see him, on learning he is young. Following Herod's orders the soldiers won't let her see the prisoner, as everyone must be kept away from him. But Salome persists. She looks at the young Syrian and instantly realizes he is in love with her and thus can convince him to do her bidding by promising him some special attention later, though she won't keep her promise. The young Syrian relents and releases Iokanaan from the cistern. He soon regrets his decision because Salome is immediately infatuated with Iokanaan.

Salome moves progressively closer to the prophet and tries to get him to look at her, telling him she lusts after him. She describes his body lustfully, but when he rejects her, she describes his body as repulsive. She continues by describing his hair and his eyes in a similar way. When she reaches his mouth, she decides she is going to kiss him, whether he agrees to it or not. Hearing this exchange the young Syrian is despondent and throws himself between Salome and Iokanaan, killing himself at Salome's feet—an act she does not take any notice of, even when one of the soldiers draws her attention to it.

Herod Crosses the Line

Herod and Herodias come out onto the terrace, where Herod continues to stare at Salome and proceeds to get drunk, asking Salome to eat fruit with him and offering her Herodias's throne. Herod compares the moon to a naked, drunk woman looking for lovers. When he sees the Syrian's blood, he is saddened by the suicide. He perceives the young man's blood as a bad omen; to boost his spirits he needs Salome to dance for him. Herodias, meanwhile, wants Herod to silence Iokanaan because he continues to shout about her adultery and sinful life.

Herod talks with several Jews, who want Herod to turn Iokanaan over to them. Herodias accuses Herod of fearing Iokanaan. Herod responds he fears no one and will not turn Iokanaan over to the Jews, as Herodias asks him to do. He believes Iokanaan is a man of God, and despite protestations to the contrary, Herod does fear him. The Jews, on the other hand, do not believe Iokanaan's references to the Son of God mean the Messiah has actually come. The Nazarenes discuss the stories they have heard about the Messiah—that he has turned water to wine and healed lepers and raised the dead. Herod demands that he be found and commanded not to raise the dead. Herod comments about rebuilding the sanctuary but forgets he was the one to destroy it and steal its veil. He begs Salome to dance for him, but she refuses until she realizes she can get what she wants from Herod if she agrees to dance. Herodias forbids her daughter to dance, but Herod pledges to give Salome whatever her heart desires, even half of his kingdom. Salome agrees.

Salome's Revenge

Salome dances the dance of the seven veils, a highly erotic dance in which she slowly removes veils from her body, one at a time. In payment for the performance, Salome asks for Iokanaan's head on a silver charger. Herodias is suddenly pleased with Salome because she hates Iokanaan and would like to see him gone. However, Salome's request is not for Herodias's benefit. She is asking for Iokanaan's head for her own pleasure. Realizing his mistake Herod is horrified and offers her riches, jewels, anything but the prophet's head. Salome continues to demand Iokanaan's head, and Herod realizes his desperate oath to give her anything she wants compels him to order the beheading of the prophet.

Naaman the executioner chops off Iokanaan's head. During the execution Salome listens for the drop of the head. Her desire to experience the event so viscerally makes the soldiers around her realize she is evil. The head is brought to Salome, as requested, and she begins to rant at Iokanaan's face. Salome says now she has Iokanaan's head and can do anything she pleases to it. She tells the dead Iokanaan he could have loved her if only he had looked at her; he could have taken her virginity, but instead he rejected her. Salome chastises the dead Iokanaan for having turned away from her, and she kisses his mouth as she promised she would when he was alive, whether he wanted the kiss or not. Herod turns to see the moon shining on Salome holding Iokanaan's head, and in fear of what this display of evil will bring to him and to his kingdom, he orders her killed.


Poetic Language, Imagery, and Literary Connections

Oscar Wilde's rhythmic, musical language and use of refrains in Salome can be traced to biblical passages such as The Song of Songs and the Psalms, as well as to classical Greek literature and poetry, with which Oscar Wilde was familiar. His connection to the Symbolist writers and artists is also evident in his use of highly visual symbols, useful in what he hoped would be the eventual production of the play. Wilde's symbols come with omens for everyone except Herodias and Salome, who break the mold of Symbolist literature's reliance on symbols to control characters' lives. The other characters view symbols, such as the moon in its variety of colors and the movement of veils, to either hide or reveal objects of desire as crucial signs of what is to come. Salome, however, is focused on her own pleasure, regardless of what happens around her. Herodias, in the play, has become more pragmatic and chooses to ignore them.

Wilde also relies heavily on figurative language, using similes and metaphors to create vivid pictures of his characters and their emotions. For example, the moon is used metaphorically for a range of female emotions and objectives. The descriptions of Salome in the eyes of the young Syrian and of Herod contain references to white doves, butterflies, and roses. Anything white, beautiful, fluttery, and evoking passion becomes Salome for these men.

Both Iokanaan and Herod use figurative language to describe color, important for its own sake as well as for its function in the play. Iokanaan's prophecies are vividly described with metaphors about the color of the moon changing to the color of blood; visions of decay and destruction are described by images of the sun turning the color of black sackcloth made from hair, to worms eating away at the king. In trying to convince Salome to choose something other than what she has asked, for Herod offers her "amethysts ... black like wine"; "topazes, yellow as are the eyes of tigers and ... pink as the eyes of a wood-pigeon, and green ... as the eyes of cats"; "opals that burn ... with a flame that is cold as ice"; "sapphires as ... blue as blue flowers. The sea wanders within them and the moon comes never to trouble the blue of their waves." The paradoxical images Wilde uses may confuse the senses, such as an ice-like flame, blending the contradictory qualities of fire and ice.

Wilde's long blocks of descriptive dialogue express Herod's increasing frustration, despair, and fear. Salome's rant at Iokanaan's head similarly shows her anger, bitterness, and inherent cruelty. Wilde's philosophy of aestheticism, that a work of art should be created for beauty rather than as a social or political statement, is evident in the way he has taken a grotesque story, full of death and of references to religious upheaval, and turned it into a visually compelling play with long passages that extol physical beauty.

Biblical Origins, Thematic Changes, and Female Sexuality

Wilde has also rewritten a well-known story from the Bible to focus not on the beginnings of Christianity but rather on Salome's obsessive desire and her manipulative and ultimately brutal method of fulfilling it. Going beyond the story itself, Wilde examines the emotional lives of the royal family, making the motive for Iokanaan's killing much darker than and less dependent on the family's hatred of Iokanaan's message.

In the biblical version Herodias tells her daughter to ask for John's head. Herodias wants revenge against John, who says her marriage to Herod, her brother-in-law, is sinful; also she wants to silence the message John carries from Jesus, who he believes is the Messiah. In the biblical story Herodias's sex life with her brother-in-law, now her husband, is questioned, whereas in Wilde's play Herodias is still portrayed as the sinful, adulterous, and vengeful wife of Herod. Furthermore in Wilde's version Salome's revenge is all her own; the play focuses on her attraction to Iokanaan and the intensity of her sexual need. Salome's sexual awakening results from her stepfather's unwelcome and incestuous attentions, for he is also her uncle. Salome goes from confusion and disgust from Herod's leering, to wanting Iokanaan to take her virginity. And Iokanaan is similarly disgusted, although not confused, by her attentions.

Lust, Obsession, and Jealousy

The theme of lust is evident in the marriage of Herod and Herodias, but Herod appears to have lost interest in his wife, for his new target is Salome. Salome, however, lusts after Iokanaan, and her infatuation with him—as does Herod's with her—becomes an obsession, another theme running throughout the play. Herod is so obsessed with Salome he will do anything to get her to dance for him, even offering her half his kingdom. He makes an oath, which comes back to haunt him when she demands the head of Iokanaan. When he finally agrees he must give Salome what she wants, Herod says, "Ah! wherefore did I give my oath? Hereafter let no king swear an oath. If he keep it not, it is terrible, and if he keep it, it is terrible also."

Jealousy, too, motivates characters in the play. The young Syrian's jealousy causes him to take his own life upon hearing Salome wants to kiss Iokanaan. Herodias is jealous of Salome and the attention Herod pays her. It certainly is clear when Herod looks at Salome too much, his attention is sexual. Herodias says, "I will not have her dance while you look at her in this fashion," meaning if Herod is lusting after Salome, it is inappropriate for him to ask Salome to dance for him. Salome, too, is jealous. She resents Iokanaan's devotion to his faith, causing him to refuse her advances. Iokanaan even tries to divert Salome's attentions to faith by telling her, "Daughter of adultery, there is but one who can save thee." However, Salome has no interest in the Son of Man, Iokanaan's savior. She wants to know why Iokanaan won't look at her, jealous of his attention elsewhere: "Thou didst put upon thine eyes the covering of him who would see his God." Iokanaan, as others, loses his life because of jealousy.

Power and Brute Force

Salome's speech to Iokanaan's head is shocking, with elements of sexual abuse as well as necrophilia. She kisses him, although she knows in life he would never allow her to touch him. She has assumed her power through cruelty, using sexual attraction—and extortion—to get Herod to agree to this murder. Salome cannot accept Iokanaan's rejection, for no one refuses her, and she has a history of getting what she wants. When Salome asks what Herod swears by, he replies, "By my life, by my crown, by my gods. Whatsoever thou shalt desire I will give it thee, even to the half of my kingdom, if thou wilt but dance for me. O Salome, Salome, dance for me!" By making this oath Herod loses his power over Salome.

Herodias, too, has lost power over both her husband and daughter. No longer showing much sexual interest in her, Herod ignores her requests to refrain from ogling her daughter and from asking her to dance. Salome ignores her mother, who commands her not to dance. As Herodias loses her influence, Salome gains it, but it is short lived as Herod orders her death.

Herod never wants to think about the violent acts he has used his power to perform or order. For example, he seems to forget he was the one who stole the veil of the sanctuary but asks about it as if someone else had done it. Herod's incestuous lust for Salome, however, dies with Iokanaan's death. When he sees Salome with the head of Iokanaan, ranting at the head and kissing its mouth, the moonlight on her emphasizes the impact of this scene and terrifies him. Afraid of divine punishment, Herod quickly regains his authority and shouts, "Kill that woman!" as if Salome were a stranger to him, and his soldiers crush her with their shields. The symbol of the moon as a drunken woman searching for lovers changes to a beacon illuminating the extent of his sinfulness.

Religious Questions

The religious elements in the play include encapsulated descriptions of several different religions and sects, both multitheistic (relating to many gods) and monotheistic (relating to one God). The Nubian, an Egyptian, says, "The gods of my country are very fond of blood," and the Cappadocian, from what is now Turkey, says the Romans have chased his gods out and into the mountains, but "I think they are dead." The differing beliefs are discussed, argued, and eventually circulate around Iokanaan's status as a prophet and his insistence the Messiah has come. It is curious, however, that Wilde refers to "Jews" specifically, for the Sadducees and Pharisees were Jewish sects. The Nazarenes were as well, but accepted belief in Jesus as the Messiah, and thus were early Christians.

When Herodias accuses Herod of fearing Iokanaan, Herod insists he fears no one. However, he refuses to give up Iokanaan to the Jews because Iokanaan is "a holy man who has seen God." The Jews outside the palace insist Iokanaan's claim is impossible because Elias the prophet is the only one to have seen God, and that event occurred centuries ago. They argue among themselves about whether or not God is hidden: one Jew thinks a visible god is "a very dangerous doctrine" from Greek philosophers, who are not Jewish. The Nazarenes, however, are sure Iokanaan is Elias. Iokanaan says the Saviour of the World is coming, and Tigellinus and Herod wonder why he says this, because Caesar uses that title and is definitely not coming to the kingdom. The Nazarene explains Iokanaan means the Messiah, but the Jews say the Messiah has not come. Herod continues to believe Iokanaan is a prophet but is horrified the Saviour Iokanaan speaks of has supposedly brought people back from the dead. He wants someone to tell this Son of Man he can heal sick people and even turn water into wine, but he shouldn't be reviving the dead.

Iokanaan's faith is firm, and he never is willing to keep silent about what he sees as sin all around him. He makes an enemy of Herodias with his pronouncements, though Herod tries to protect him from the people who would do away with him, both the Jews and the Romans. Herod is the one who stole Herodias from his brother, but he seems not to owe any allegiance to his wife. He first lusts after Salome in front of his wife and then keeps the man who insults her alive and safe until Salome demands him to do otherwise. Iokanaan's death in this play, unlike the biblical story, is not revenge for calling out the sins of Herodias or for saying there is a man who has seen God and will save the world from sin. Iokanaan's death in Wilde's version has little to do with religion and more to do with jealousy, lust, and obsession. In fact, viewed artistically, it is death for death's sake—art for art's sake. Salome asks because it is her "pleasure."

The King, the Queen, and the Princess

Herod is remarkable for his hypocrisy and shifting emotions. First he is content; when he sees Salome, he is instantly sad, and his sadness mandates she dance for him. He has supposedly imprisoned Iokanaan for insulting Herodias but keeps him safe and defends him as a holy man. He steals Herodias from his brother but flaunts his lust for Herodias's daughter in front of her, even promising Herodias's throne to Salome. He calls Herodias his beloved but sabotages his relationship with her. The fear that strikes Herod at the end of the play and results in Salome's death is just another extreme example of Herod saying one thing and doing another. He thought he was in control of Salome, but when it becomes obvious Salome is in control of him and every other man, he destroys her.

Herodias is less of a controlling force in this version than she is in the biblical story, but she still contributes to Salome's ability to use cruelty to her advantage by modeling manipulative behavior. However, in Wilde's version Salome is no slave to her mother's whims and continues the family tradition of using sexual attraction to her—and only her—advantage. Every man around Salome, except Iokanaan, is a slave to his feelings about her. But Salome's narcissistic personality makes her target the one person who doesn't fall for her manipulation, and the princess makes him suffer for his resistance. Her speech to his head captures her motivation and her sense of privilege: "How dare you choose not to love me?" She is also angry he saddles her with her mother's sinful behavior, calling her the daughter of an incestuous mother. Finally she directly disobeys her mother by performing the highly erotic dance of the seven veils for her stepfather. Salome does this to have access to Iokanaan and control his response to her in the only way she can.

Salome Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 The page warns the young Syrian against staring at Salome.

Rising Action

2 Salome hears Iokanaan's voice and demands to see him.

3 Salome tries unsuccessfully to seduce Iokanaan.

4 The young Syrian kills himself at Salome's feet.

5 Herod begs Salome to dance, promising whatever she wants.

6 Salome dances, despite Herodias's objections.

7 Salome asks for Iokanaan's head on a platter.

8 Herod tries unsuccessfully to offer other rewards.


9 Herod reluctantly has Iokanaan beheaded.

Falling Action

10 Herodias is happy the prophet is silenced.

11 Salome chastises the dead Iokanaan and kisses his mouth.


12 Herod orders Salome killed for bringing death to Judea.

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