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Oscar Wilde

Analysis of Major Characters

Character List

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Salomé %

A number of critics believe Wilde's Salomé to be an allegory for the work of art itself. As Wilde told a friend with regards to her essential representation—the dance of the seven veils—Salomé should appear "totally naked, but draped with heavy and ringing necklaces made of jewels of every color, warm with the fervor of her amber flesh. " Salomé is left not naked, but bejeweled, transformed into a luxurious work of art: even her flesh becomes "amber." Importantly, however, this seductive spectacle is also a harbinger of death.

In the play, Salomé first appears disgusted by the court, mortified by its crude, painted guests and the incestuous gaze of her stepfather, Herod. Soon thereafter she is seduced by the imprisoned prophet Jokanaan's voice and has him drawn from his tomb, transgressing the order of the Tetrarch. His appearance ends her cold virginity, a chastity that she celebrates in the moon and appears, albeit in much more hysterical fashion, in her Mallarméan counterpart "Hérodiade." Though all men have been hateful to her, Salomé loves Jokanaan desperately. Staring at him lustily, she violently demands his look and his lips, which the prophet of course refuses her.

Salomé then withdraws somewhat for the following scenes as Herod brings his banquet outdoors and attempts to seduce her. She returns the center of the stage to perform the famous dance of the seven veils and enjoy the desire she can apparently only have in death. Thus she becomes deadly as spectacle. In this respect, she is twinned with the moon anew, which also appears here as both the image and gaze of death. As established at the outset, the moon and Salomé are the play's most consuming objects of the look, imagined in a seductive metaphoric network of concealment and exhibition, of veils, clouds, wings, fans, etc. and moving slowly in a dance of death. We have the first demonstration of her deadliness in the suicide of the Syrian, who is precisely seduced by Salomé's command that he look at her and promise that she will look at him tomorrow through the muslin veils of her litter. Ultimately Salomé herself will become object of the moon's deadly stare. Her monstrous, necrophilic crossing of the taboo between living and dead at the end of the play brings down the judgment the moon, causing the Tetrarch to order her execution—a smothering under the soldiers's shields that erases her from view.


The Tetrarch of Judea, Herod is Herodias's second husband and Salomé's stepfather. He has deposed, imprisoned, and executed Salomé's father—his own elder brother and the former king—and wedded Herodias in what Jokanaan calls an incestuous union. Loyal to Caesar and assured of the favor of the Roman Empire, he has every cause to celebrate but finds that his desire distracts him. As the Soldiers note, he wears a "somber look," fascinated by Salomé's beauty. He attempts to seduce her lecherously, but to little avail. Herod is in fear of Jokanaan, whom he has imprisoned, as he cannot know if Jokanaan actually speaks the word of God and if his many prophecies of ruin will come to pass. He is also tormented by a host of omens—the blood in which he slips, the beating wings of the angel of death, his burning and bloody garland—that foretell the death about to strike the palace. He turns to Salomé desperately to lift his spirits, his lust leading him into his fatal pact. Herod then Guiltily cringes from what he imagines to be his punishment for looking at Salomé too much. He will call for the smothering of the torches in disgust and withdraw into darkness. As he bitterly swears: "I will not look at things, I will not suffer things to look at me."


Jokanaan—Wilde's Saint John the Baptist—is the prophet imprisoned in a tomb-like cistern at the orders of the Tetrarch. "Terrible to look at," he spends much of the play in his subterranean prison, figuring as a mad, booming voice that prophecies the ruin of the kingdom, curses the royal family, and proclaims the coming of Christ. He appears on-stage and takes corporeal form, against his wishes, at Salomé's lustful call. As a mystic, Jokanaan is a tabooed body: Herod bans others from seeing him, and he himself—as Salomé learns—refuses to suffer the gaze of the cursed. He is also "blind" in a sense, failing to see those around him in his inspiration by the divine word. Thus the beauty of his body appears only through Salomé's amorous praises: never has Salomé seen a whiter body, blacker hair, or a redder mouth, and so on. Of particular note is the unearthly whiteness of his body, a whiteness that twins him with Salomé and the moon.


Herodias, usually a major player in the Salomé legend, is less of a key figure in Wilde's play. She has lost her erotic attachment to Jokanaan, but she has gained a certain stolid practicality. She is the antithesis of symbolic mysticism, placed in direct opposition to Herod, Salomé, and most of the cast, which is characterized by its propensity for finding symbolism and the omen in particular in the world. Herodias scorns the symbol. Thus, for example, when Herod sees a madwoman in the moon, she can only scoff: "the moon is like the moon, that is all". A proud, hard, and unsympathetic queen, Herodias abhors the prophet, who has slandered her as a wanton, incestuous harlot and remains alive against her wishes. Though not the instigator of his death, Herodias will cheer the prophet's death in face of her husband's horror. According to Jokanaan, she is also guilty of a crime of sight, having "seen the images of Chaldeans limned in colors" and given herself up "unto the lust of her eyes."

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