The play unfolds on the terrace of Herod's palace, set above the banquet hall. A gigantic staircase stands to the left; a cistern surrounded by a wall of green bronze appears at the back. Soldiers lean over the balcony. The Young Syrian exclaims how Salomé is beautiful tonight. "Look at the moon!" cries Herodias's Page, comparing it to a woman rising from her tomb, a woman "looking for dead things." The Syrian remarks on the princess's feet of silver; she has "white doves" for feet. It is as if she were dancing. The Page repeats that "she" is like a dead woman.
A noise is heard in the hall, and the soldiers complain that the Jews are always howling like "wild beasts," disputing about their religion. The Syrian exclaims yet again that Salomé is beautiful tonight. The Page warns that he looks at her too much: "something terrible may happen." The First Soldier observes that the Tetrarch (King Herod) has a "somber look," and the soldiers wonder at whom he is looking. The Syrian marvels at Salomé's paleness. She is "like the shadow of a white rose in a mirror of silver." The Page warns him again.
Seeing that Herodias has filled the Tetrarch's cup, the Second Soldier notes Herod's fondness for wine, wines that are purple like Caesar's cloak, yellow like gold, and red like blood (those from Samothrace, Cyprus, and Sicily respectively). The Nubian remarks that his gods are fond of blood, demanding more sacrifices than they can provide. The Cappadocian laments that in his country there are no gods left: the Romans have driven them out and left them for dead. The First Soldier adds that the Jews worship a God they cannot see. The Cappadocian scoffs.
Suddenly the voice of Jokanaan is heard from the cistern, proclaiming the coming of the Messiah: "The eyes of the blind shall see the day, and the ears of the deaf shall be opened." The Second Soldier demands that the First Soldier silence Jokanaan's babble; the First Soldier refuses. He explains to the Cappadocian that Jokanaan is a prophet from the desert, "terrible to look upon," who lead a great multitude in tow. It is impossible to understand what he says, and the Tetrarch has forbidden the prophet from being seen by anyone. The Syrian exclaims that Salomé has hidden her face behind her fan, her white hands fluttering like doves and butterflies. The Page warns him yet again.
The Cappadocian remarks that the cistern must make an unhealthy prison. The Second Soldier protests: Herod's elder brother, Herodias' first husband, lived there for twelve years without dying. Ultimately he had to be strangled by Naaman, the Negro executioner, bearing Herod's death-ring, in other words, under orders from Herod. The Syrian exclaims that Salomé approaches. She enters, refusing to stay at the banquet with Herod looking at her all the while "with his mole's eyes under his shaking eyelids." To the Page's horror, the Syrian invites her to sit. Salomé welcomes the moon, comparing her to a piece of money and a silver flower. She is sure she is cold and chaste, with a virgin's beauty.
Salomé begins with a prelude of sorts, and its opening scenes familiarly prepare for the entrance of its heroine. This prelude is a crucial scene depicting voyeurism, as the cast gathers on the terrace looking onto the banquet afoot and the moon above. That Salomé concerns itself with the idea of looking and voyeurism is about as self-evident as the fact that it deals with sex. The question of how one looks—in both senses of the word—is of course always crucial in Wilde's body of work. Here, in this adaptation of biblical legend, "looking" more specifically falls within the time-honored and often vulgarized opposition between the image and the divine Word.
The play begins with two voyeurs: the Syrian, who marvels at the beautiful princess, and the Page, mesmerized by the moon. Note the Page's first line, an injunction to look: "Look at the moon!" As we will see, Salomé weaves an extensive network of metaphors around whiteness that links the moon, the princess, and the prophet. Key terms in this network include: an unearthly paleness, flowers, silver, and doves (in the case of Salomé), sepulchers, ivory, and statues (in the case of Jokanaan), and death. At this point, it suffices to note that Salomé and the moon appear here as consummate—and consuming—objects of the look. The former fascinates "like the shadow of a white rose in a mirror of silver." Indeed, Salomé, cast against the "painted" Greeks, "subtle" Egyptians, and coarse Romans, already appears in the spectacle that immortalizes her: she wears a yellow veil, and one would "fancy" she was already dancing. Though both the Syrian and Page first appear lost in their own reveries, their respective monologues soon interweave, specifically around the pronoun "she." This interweaving of dialogues, often marked by parallel structures, occurs through the play and has grounded some critics' emphasis on the influence of biblical rhetoric on the play. The moon becomes a metaphor for the princess: she is a dead woman rising from a tomb, slowly moving and dancing. The link to the prophet, who will himself soon rise from the tomb-like cistern at the back of the stage, is clear.
Importantly, not only does the male look at the female here, but the female looks back. As the Syrian muses, the princess has a "strange look" (the play is consistently unable to resist the double entendre). And, the Page senses the significance of this female look more clearly: "You would fancy she was looking for dead things." This phrase of course parallels the Syrian's own fancy: "You would fancy she was dancing." Salomé's dance is of course the dance of death; in dancing, she looks for dead things. Thus Salomé is death both as look and spectacle. As we will see, however, the looks of Salomé and the moon are not exactly synonymous: ultimately the moon will turn its death stare on the princess. Salomé primarily bears death in her being spectacle. Thus the Page repeatedly warns the Syrian against looking at the princess too much. Looking, and specifically sexual looking, is forbidden: if the Syrian looks, undoubtedly something terrible will happen.
Another group of the voyeurs appears on-stage: the soldiers leaning over the balcony. Notably they look upon another voyeur—Herod—who himself wears a rather "somber look" and catches him looking at Salomé too. Even more than the Syrian, Herod's look upon Salomé is forbidden, incestuous, lascivious, and grotesque. This look—that of a "mole's eyes" under "shaking eyelids"—drives Salomé from the hall. She knows all too well what it means. Herod has of course already bound himself to an "incestuous" union with the former wife of his brother, a brother he condemned to a fate much like Jokanaan's. As Alan Bird has noted, Wilde has combined a number of Herods here, drawing from biblical legend rather liberally.
The other prohibited and fascinating object of the look is the prophet Jokanaan. As the soldier reports, the prophet was "terrible" to look upon, and the Tetrarch has barred all from seeing him. Notably Jokanaan is invisible, as he does for much of the play, figuring as a disruptive, mystical voice from the depths of the palace. His role as voice marks him bearer of the divine word. If Jokanaan's voice is wine, as Salomé will proclaim while remarking on the intoxicating power of his voice, that wine is, as Herod notes, the wine of God. It is almost stupid to note that Salomé is intensely Christian in its trajectory, told as if Christianity has already "surpassed" Judaism. Salomé situates itself at the advent of the Messiah. Thus another group at the banquet—the beast-like Jews engaged in irrelevant debate— catches the voyeurs' attention here. As the Cappadocian reports and Jokanaan proclaims, the Messiah has driven the pagan gods away. It is thus ironic that Jokanaan foretells the granting of sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf among those who fail to see him as prophet and consistently fail to hear his speech as anything more than "ridiculous" or incomprehensible. Other ironic exchanges on religion—such as the Cappadocians dismissal of the Jews' unseen God—recur throughout the play.
We should also linger on the parenthesis on the Tetrarch's wine. The Second Soldier lists Herod's three wines in a series of parallel structures, describing their color and land of origin: purple from Samothrace, yellow from Cyprus, and red from Sicily. Color is evoked in simile: purple like Caesar's cloak, yellow like gold, and red like blood. The listings of the wines is reminiscent of a fairy tale device, the wines mapping the fantastic and exotic world of the play and evoking its trappings of power. Here the language belongs to a fantasy of the exotic Orient, an Orient composed of ornaments, luxurious commodities, wondrous artifacts, fiery passions, and high adventure. Salomé's vivid and vituperatively descriptive enumeration of the peoples at the banquet also reads in this vein.