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.