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Course Hero. "Salome Study Guide." June 14, 2017. Accessed November 13, 2018.


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Salome | Themes



The theme of lust as a driving force in an individual's character appears throughout the play, informing and motivating the characters in different ways. Herod's insatiable lust is directed toward Salome, his stepdaughter and niece, and it upsets Herodias who wants him to stop his lewd ogling: "You are looking again at my daughter. You must not look at her. I have already said so." Herod's insistence Salome dance for him and his willingness to pay any price she asks signals the depth of his lust for her as well as his depravity. Herod has shown himself lustful in the past as well. Herodias, his wife, is the former wife of his brother, whom Herod had deposed, imprisoned, and executed. Herodias had left her husband to marry Herod. As long as Herod's brother was alive, such a relationship was considered incestuous, as is Herod's current fixation on Salome. By no means innocent herself, Herodias left her husband to marry Herod. And if Iokanaan is to be believed, Herodias has indulged her lust with armies of soldiers while still married to Herod's brother.

Salome, too, is no stranger to lust, although certainly less experienced because of her youth. Regarding Herod's unwelcome stares "with his mole's eyes under his shaking eyelids," Salome says, "I know not what it means. Of a truth I know it too well." Salome is aware Herod lusts after her, and she is repelled by his attentions. However, when she hears the voice of Iokanaan, Salome's emotions about sexual attraction change, and she soon finds herself consumed with lust for the imprisoned prophet. Salome is often contradictory; at first she extols virginity, and then after she is drawn to Iokanaan she says, "I am amorous of your body." Her desire reaches the point of obsession, outdoing even Herod's. When Iokanaan rejects her, she describes his body as disgusting and leprous. The more she expresses her lust, the more Iokanaan rejects her, thereby inflaming her desire. After he calls her "the daughter of an incestuous mother" and says she is cursed, Salome responds, "I will kiss thy mouth, Iokanaan; I will kiss thy mouth." Each becomes stronger in their passions, Salome spurred on by lust, Iokanaan repelled by it.

Salome makes good on her promise. By satisfying Herod's lust with an erotic dance in which she removes her clothing—seven veils, one by one—she satisfies her own desires, exacting revenge on Iokanaan and kissing his lips—on his severed head. Lust forces Herod and Salome into obscene behavior at the same time as the desire to avoid it forces Iokanaan to lose his life.


Jealousy, too, is a strong motivator of a character's actions. The first instance of jealousy appears in Salome as the young Syrian despairs of Salome paying attention to Iokanaan rather than to himself. The young Syrian, awed by her beauty and seductiveness, speaks of her poetically: "Princess, Princess, thou who art like a garden of myrrh, thou who art the dove of all doves, look not at this man, look not at him! Do not speak such words to him. I cannot endure it ... Princess, do not speak these things!" When he understands Salome wants to kiss Iokanaan, the young Syrian kills himself, unable to stand the pain of seeing her with another man.

Herodias is another character whose jealousy is clear. By forbidding Salome to dance for Herod, Herodias demonstrates her jealousy of Herod's attention directed away from her and toward her daughter. Herodias's repeated request, "Do not dance, my daughter," goes ignored, however. At the same time as she is jealous over Herod's lust for her daughter, Herodias feels a greater threat in and is thus jealous of the power Salome has over Herod, which decreases her own.

Salome shows a more subtle aspect of jealousy in Iokanaan's connection with the man he calls the son of God and in his ability to resist temptation at all costs. Iokanaan's spiritually grounded existence is more important to him than any physical attention Salome can offer. This rejection ignites Salome's jealousy, among other feelings, and leads to her desire for revenge. At first Salome says, "Speak again! Speak again, Iokanaan, and tell me what I must do," as if willing to follow him anywhere, but he wants nothing to do with her, before and after knowing who she is. Salome has no spiritual life of her own, so she feels driven to punish Iokanaan for holding onto his. At the end of her speech to his severed head, she reveals her jealous sentiments: "Well, thou hast seen thy God, Iokanaan, but me, me, thou didst never see."


The four main characters exhibit cruelty in different ways. Herod is cruel in that he seems to do whatever he wants at whatever price, not caring how his rash and violent actions affect others. Before the beginning of the play he already has deposed, imprisoned, and executed his brother and married his brother's wife. Now he has imprisoned Iokanaan, at Herodias's request, because Iokanaan continually insults her and shouts to all who can hear him of her serial adultery. While Iokanaan is in the end the victim of Salome's cruelty, he practices his own form; the difference is that his insults proceed from his faith and strong moral fiber.

Herod listens to Iokanaan, even though he has the prophet locked in a cistern and refuses to let him go because he is a "man of God." Also Herod is responsible for destroying the Temple: "And that restoration of the Temple about which they have talked so much, will anything be done? They say that the veil of the Sanctuary has disappeared, do they not?" Herodias reminds Herod he is the one who stole the veil. Herod, although he imprisoned Iokanaan at Herodias's request, doesn't consider his cruelty to Herodias by lusting after her daughter and commanding her to dance for him.

But Herodias is no mere victim of others' cruelty. Motivated by lust but inflicting cruelty, she left her husband and married his brother. Even more she is the one who insisted Herod imprison Iokanaan for insulting her. Nor is Salome a victim of cruelty, despite Herod's unwelcome attentions. In fact she seems to have outdone her mother. Instead of merely imprisoning a man who doesn't do what she wants him to do, Salome has him killed. Before she does so, however, Salome insults every part of Iokanaan she first praised, punishing him further for rejecting her advances. As Herod does to Salome, Salome obsesses over a man who wants nothing to do with her and who finds her completely immoral and repellant. When she can't get what she wants, she resorts to the ultimate cruelty by ordering his death. Herod begs her to choose another reward, as he is afraid of Iokanaan, but she repeats and repeats, "Give me the head of Iokanaan!" Salome's inherited character doesn't go unnoticed by Herod, who replies, "Let her be given what she asks! Of a truth she is her mother's child!"


Obsessed characters lose control over their lives and focus only on the object of their obsession, reaching a point from which they cannot retreat. At the beginning of the play the young Syrian is obsessed with Salome and cannot stop talking about her. The page of Herodias begs his friend to stop looking at the princess this way because something awful can happen; however, the young Syrian continues to talk about how pale the princess is and how beautiful she is. The young Syrian is so obsessed he follows Salome around, and Salome, being who she is, takes advantage of his feelings by manipulating him into releasing Iokanaan, against Herod's orders. She does this by implying she will bestow favors upon him: "Thou wilt do this thing for me, Narraboth. Thou knowest that thou wilt do this thing for me. And on the morrow when I shall pass in my litter by the bridge of the idol-buyers, I will look at thee through the muslin veils, I will look at thee, Narraboth, it may be I will smile at thee." After he complies, he is jealous and fearful and begs Salome not to look at Iokanaan or get near him, knowing she might become attracted to the prophet. When the young Syrian hears Salome wants to kiss Iokanaan, he cannot accept defeat, and his obsession leads to his suicide.

Herod is obsessed with Salome and her sexuality, as shown in her dancing. Herod is so determined to get Salome to dance, he loses control and makes an oath to give Salome anything she wants, no matter what it is. Because of this oath Iokanaan dies, and the only way Herod can rid himself of the result of his obsession—and the fear of guilt and punishment by a higher power he can't see or identify—is to kill Salome as well.

Salome's obsession is of course Iokanaan, but not only Iokanaan. Her obsession is getting what she wants from him: physical love. When she doesn't get it, her mother and stepfather, as well as some of the king's men, get caught up in her net of revenge. Salome is so obsessed with her object of desire it doesn't matter to her Iokanaan is dead when she finally kisses him and that his head is separated from his body. When she takes her revenge, she says, "Well, I still live, but thou art dead, and thy head belongs to me. I can do with it what I will." Her obsessive love continues to control her: "I am athirst for thy beauty; I am hungry for thy body; and neither wine nor apples can appease my desire. What shall I do now, Iokanaan? Neither the floods nor the great waters can quench my passion."

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