The narrative arc of Salome is guided by the sexual desire of the characters. Notably, each character’s desire goes unfulfilled, with tragic results. We can identify four different instances of unfulfilled desire in Salome: the Young Syrian’s for Salome, Herod’s for Salome, the Page of Herodias’s for the Young Syrian, and Salome’s for Iokaanan. In each case, the character’s awareness that his or her affection is unrequited is a moment of profound sorrow and, in the cases of Salome, Iokaanan, and the Young Syrian, the situation leads to death.
Herod’s statement before he orders Salome to dance, “I lack nothing,” provides the audience with interesting insight into how desire operates within the world of the play. In some psychoanalytic and classical terms, desire is due to a lack or absence. That is, people desire what they feel they are missing themselves; the fulfillment of desire is often the filling of a lack, or “hole,” in the person’s sense of self. Because the object of desire is sought to “complete” the person, he or she is actually dependent on the object of desire for his or her sense of self. Desire is less about the beloved’s power than about the lover’s powerlessness. Herod claims he lacks nothing as a means of denying his desire for Salome, which, as the audience already knows, is false. To admit that he “lacks” is to admit that he desires Salome and is thus dependent on her–powerless until his desire is fulfilled.
According to this model, then, the desire of the characters in Salome testifies to their powerlessness; their rejection by the objects of their desire confirms their sense of incompleteness. Most of the action in the play is taken to remedy, obscure, or avenge, such unfulfilled desires. Some other central themes in the play should be considered sub-themes that address the play’s overarching exploration of the dynamics of desire.
A metaphor, broadly defined, is figurative language that draws a parallel between one thing and another. Metaphor (with the related figure of simile) dominates much of the dialogue of Salome. In particular, characters resort to metaphor when they are grappling with their desire for another character. For example, both the Young Syrian and Herod defer discussing Salome by instead talking about the moon. They describe the moon in metaphor, comparing it to a princess, a virgin, a dancer, a lover–all qualities that clearly evoke Salome. The Syrian and Herod thus use the moon as a metaphor for the object of their desire.
Similarly, when talking to Iokaanan, both at their meeting by the cistern and after Iokaanan has been beheaded, Salome communicates her desire for him by describing his body in extended poetic passages that compare his features to snakes, coral, silver, and moonlight. Moreover, Salome’s metaphors shift according to her anger at the prophet: when she is pleased, she compares his hair to the “cedars of Lebanon” but, just a few moments later, upset by Iokanaan’s describing her as the “Daughter of Sodom,” she compares his hair to “a knot of serpents.” Like Herod and the Syrian, Salome uses metaphor as a way of both acknowledging and resisting her desire. It allows her to talk about Iokaanan indirectly.
That metaphor operates as a kind of substitution for the object of one’s desire is identified in a comic exchange between Herod and Herodias. Observing her husband describing the moon in metaphors that clearly evoke Salome, Herodias interrupts him: “the moon is like the moon, that is all.” By refusing his discussion of the moon, Herodias is refusing the desire for which the moon serves as a vehicle for discussing. Moreover, she indicates her own immunity from desire. Notably, Herodias and Iokanaan are the two main characters who do not frequently depend on metaphor in their speech, and they likewise are the two characters who are not fraught with unfulfilled desires.
In the world of the play, looking at something confirms and intensifies the onlooker’s desire for it. For example, aware that his friend is infatuated with Salome, the Page of Herodias warns the Young Syrian repeatedly that he should not look at her. Similarly, Herodias commands her husband to stop looking at Salome, and Iokaanan, resisting Salome’s advances, refuses to look in her direction. Salome, attracted to the sound of Iokaanan’s voice, begs to get a look at the prophet. Unfulfilled desire being a dangerous condition with tragic results, Herod states prior to his order of Iokaanan’s execution, “one should not look at anything. Neither at things, nor at people should one look.” The object of desire testifies to the desirer’s own powerlessness (see the section on Unfulfilled Desire); the act of looking at the object increases desire and thus decreases one’s sense of power.
Within this dynamic, the returned look represents the fulfillment of desire (at least as a possibility), indicating that the object of desire also desires the onlooker. That the mutual gaze symbolizes fulfilled desire is indicated by Salome’s deal with the Young Syrian, in which she promises to look at him the next day in exchange for access to Iokanaan. He accepts this perilous deal, in that Salome’s “returned” gaze represents her “returned” affection. Also, when Salome finally holds the head of Iokaanan, what she regrets is that his eyes are closed, making it impossible for him to return her gaze. “If thou hadst seen me, thou hadst loved me,” she explains. “I saw thee, and I loved thee.”
The severe actions of both the Syrian and Herod upon seeing Salome with Iokaanan result from the men realizing that Salome desires Iokaanan, but not either of them. Here, the “returned” gaze Salome promises both men is a lie, since she truly desires Iokaanan and no other man.
Invisibility vs. Visibility
Related to the theme of looking in Salome is the theme of visibility. Herod, a man obsessed with maintaining control over his kingdom and personal life, keeps out of sight everything that testifies to his lack of power. When the Syrian kills himself, the guards scramble to hide the body, since Herod “does not care to see dead bodies, save the bodies of those whom he himself has slain.” The body of the Syrian would indicate to Herod that he does not control the lives and deaths of every person in the kingdom, and thus, it must be made invisible to him. He also hides Iokaanan from sight, from what other characters in the play imply is his “fear” of the prophet.
Herod is likely less afraid of Iokanaan himself than of what he represents: the arrival of a new Christian order that will undermine and challenge Herod’s power. If the Syrian’s corpse indicates to Herod that he lacks control over the bodies of his citizens, Iokaanan suggests that his control over the political and spiritual allegiances of his citizens is waning; both must be kept out of sight so as not to remind the king of his incomplete power. With similar motivation, Herod seeks to render the scene of Salome’s kissing Iokaanan invisible: he orders his attendants to put out the torches and cover the moon, so that the event will be, more or less, invisible, shrouded in darkness. Again, he seeks to obscure the evidence of his incomplete power–in this case, his lack of control over Salome’s desire.
Still, a single beam of moonlight escapes the cloud cover and illuminates the kiss perfectly, which prompts Herod to order Salome’s execution immediately. Salome’s desire for Iokaanan, which testifies to Herod’s lack of control over her mind and body, is made visible. Herod’s murder of Salome is his final attempt to assert control over his stepdaughter and to return her desire to invisibility.
At the heart of Wilde’s play is the question of women’s agency or power. While Salome is addressed by other characters in the play mainly according to her beauty, or sexual value, she is far from an inert, passive object of male desire. We can identify two ways that Salome resists mere objectification by the play’s male characters. First, since she possesses sexual desire of her own, she carves out a place to frankly acknowledge and even to act on her lust for Iokaanan. Second, she manipulates her admirers’ desire for her to her own advantage. In particular, Salome exchanges her body for access to Iokaanan, the object of her own desire. She offers to look at the Young Syrian in exchange for a meeting with the prophet, and she agrees to dance for Herod in exchange for Iokaanan’s head. In both cases, Salome is aware of the power that her desirability affords her, and she effectively uses this power to get what she wants.
Thus, while Salome is indeed a commodity, an object within the sexual economy of the play, she is in control of this status and sets the terms of her own exchange. In this sense, Wilde makes her both subject and object of sexual desire. For this reason, many contemporary critics of Wilde have read Salome as the heroine of a proto-feminist text. In contrast to much Victorian scientific and literary writing about women, which cast women as asexual and passive and generally under the social and political control of men, Salome‘s title character is cunning, powerful, and decidedly sexual.
Other critics of the play have pointed out the subtly misogynist subtext of Salome, noting that Salome’s presentation as a murderous, hyper-sexual sociopath casts her as one of the many femmes fatale who circulated throughout late 19th-century art. Like other femme fatale figures, Salome can be read as a vehicle through which the (male) artist is working through larger cultural anxieties about the increasing political, sexual, and social freedoms available to Western women.
Spiritual and Political Revolution
Iokaanan the Prophet not only suffers from the fatal power of Salome’s sexual desire, but also represents the emerging spritual and political power of Christianity. In both aspects, Iokaanan is a threat to Herod. Herod’s imprisonment of the prophet represents his attempt to contain the dangers to his personal and political power. While Herod maintains political control over his kingdom, Iokaanan’s status as a prophet suggests that Christianity is inherently stronger than Herod’s this-worldly control.
We can identify the difference between Herod’s and Iokaanan’s power through the differences in their word, or the ways that they use language. Herod, as Tetrarch, has the power to command his word into reality. For example, when Herodias suggests that he is sterile, he responds: “I say you are sterile,” suggesting that his statement is enough to make the statement true. Iokaanan, as prophet, uses his word to tell what will be; his voice indicates his power to describe a reality that is out of reach of the other characters, including Herod. For Herod, Iokaanan’s voice represents the usurping of his command by Christian theology and a new political and social order.
Moreover, Iokaanan’s prophesy, like the omens that appear throughout the narrative, suggests that the destiny of the characters and of Judea itself is predetermined, out of Herod’s control. Herod, becoming aware of the ways that his power is inferior to, and an inefficient buffer against, the burgeoning presence of Christianity, is ambivalent about what he should do with Iokaanan. Unlike with other characters who opposed him (his brother and the King of Cappadocia), Herod is hesitant to dispose of Iokaanan, suggesting that he is aware that this act will lead to mass uprising and the loss of his political and social privileges.
Artifice and Decadence
Wilde populated Salome with references to the aesthetic movement he helped pioneer. Aestheticism and decadence were largely concerned with the “useless” status of art and the superiority of artifice to the natural world, and many of the symbols for aestheticism are exaggeratedly artificial and useless objects. Many of them appear in both the written and visual texts of Salome. When Salome is bargaining with the Young Syrian, she offers to give him “a little green flower,” which most critics agree is a coded reference to the green carnation Wilde and his fellow aesthetes often wore as a way of identifying each other in public. Later, Herod gives an extended monologue about the treasures of his kingdom which he is willing to offer Salome in exchange for her retracting her wish; his description of jewels, peacocks, and other luxuries strongly evokes a famous chapter in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray that describes the protagonist’s descent into an aestheticist lifestyle. In part because of the Dorian Gray chapter, peacocks and jewels were strongly associated with the aesthetic movement; the mention of these items in Salome, written years later, suggests that Wilde was deliberately associating the play with aestheticism.
Beardsley’s illustrations extend the play’s dialogue with aestheticism, depicting peacocks, carnations, and even Wilde himself in many of the frames. The two illustrations depicting Salome’s preparation for “The Dance of the Seven Veils” emphasize Salome’s status as an artificial object, with images of masks, perfumes, powders, and cosmetics conspicuous within the frame. In both illustrations, aestheticist texts such as Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mals appear on Salome’s vanity, visually characterizing her as a kind of aestheticist heroine. Moreover, the explicit sexual imagery of Beardsley’s illustrations, much of which is androgynous or homoerotic in nature, emphasizes the play’s bold, if implicit characterization of the Page of Herodias as homosexual–a subtext that is common in aestheticist texts and which largely defined aestheticism within the public imagination. Importantly, all of Salome‘s references to aestheticism are firmly linked to the luxury of Herod’s court which, as the audience knows, is on the cusp of being overturned with the rise of a new Christian order. By associating the aesthetic movement with Herod’s doomed Judea, Wilde–deliberately or not–is going further, foreshadowing the replacement of aestheticism with the austere, anti-artifical aesthetic politics of 20th-century modernism.