Herodias is enraged that Herod would let Jokanaan slander her: she is his wife. Herod remarks that she was also the wife of his brother. Herodias rejoins that he tore her from him. Herod changes the subject, proposing that all toast Caesar. He remarks on Salomé's paleness, and Herodias reproaches him for looking. Jokenaan announces the day the sun will become black, the moon like blood, and the stars like falling figs. Herodias scoffs that she does not believe in omens and that the prophet speaks like a drunk. Herod remarks that he may be drunk on God's wine.
Looking from then on at Salomé, Herod distractedly asks Tigellinus a question about the missing veil of the Sanctuary that he himself has stolen. Abruptly he asks Salomé to dance for him. She refuses. Herod feigns indifference: he is exceedingly happy. The Soldiers again note his "somber look." Herod proclaims his happiness because Caesar loves him and has promised to crucify his enemy, the King of Cappadocia. Jokanaan envisions a king on his throne bearing a cup of his blasphemies. An angel will smite him and worms will devour him. Herodias goads Herod: does he hear what he says of him? Herod insists that he speaks of Cappadocia. Jokanaan has only spoke ill of him with regards to his marriage and perhaps truthfully, as Herodias is sterile. Herodias scoffs that Jokanaan is the sterile one.
Herod beseeches Salomé to dance for him. Herodias protests. Herod laments that he is sad tonight, having slipped in blood and heard the fearsome beating of wings. He would give her half his kingdom. Salomé rises and makes him swear to give her whatever she wishes. Herod concurs: she would make a wondrous queen. Again he hears the beating of wings coming from a huge black bird above the terrace. It is at once cold and hot. He calls for water for his hands and snow to eat. His garland of roses burns him like fire. He tears off his wreath, comparing the petals to bloodstains on cloth. Herod remarks that one must not find symbols in everything.
Salomé prepares herself, her slaves bringing her perfume and veils and removing her sandals. Herod swears he has never broken his word: his is the word of kings. He quivers at her naked, dove-like feet. She must not, however, dance on blood. The moon too is as red as blood. Herodias mocks him: Herod is sick, and they should go within. Jokanaan speaks of a man from Edom in purple garments stained with scarlet. Herod refuses Herodias and commands Salomé to dance. She does so.
Cheering Salomé, Herod invites his daughter to ask for her reward. She asks for the head of Jokanaan in a silver charger. Herodias applauds her. Aghast, Herod implores Salomé not to heed her mother. Salomé insists that she asks for her own pleasure. Herod begs her to be reasonable. The head of a man is terrible to look on and no pleasure for a virgin. He has always loved her and perhaps too much, concluding that what she asks is too terrible.
Finally we come to the first of two defining scenes in the Salomé legend: the dance of the seven veils. The second is of course the presentation of Saint John's head. Rarely does one so forcefully come up against the incommensurability between the play as text and play as spectacle. At precisely the most spectacular moment of the play, in which Salomé offers herself up as spectacle to exact her pleasure, we see nothing. We skip over the italicized line—"Salomé dances the dance of the seven veils"—and the time of reading and the time of the spectacle completely split apart.
As the stage notes indicate, Herod asks for the dance when he finally can resist the image of Salomé no longer, an image that maddens him to distraction. Salomé first rejects him. Though initially he feigns a defiant happiness, Herod—who still wears his "somber look"—soon crumbles, begging her to dance and relieve his misery. Herod is wracked with unhappiness because the portents of his ruin are abound: the slip in the blood and the angel of death that overcomes him with chill and fire. Conjuring a scene of Apocalypse (the moon that turns red with blood, etc.), Jokanaan provides the image of Herod's ruin in describing a king on his throne "clothed in scarlet and purple" and bearing a "golden cup full of his blasphemies." This image, which Herod in vain would pass onto his enemy, the King of Cappadocia, recalls the earlier king he conjures wearing a silver robe and holding a cup of abominations. Jokanaan proclaims that an angel will smite him and that "he shall be eaten of worms." Such images of kings bedecked in the earthly splendor that condemns them to their future ruin are familiar in the Bible. They take on especially potent visual form in the late-Renaissance tradition in painting of vanitas, in which those trappings of earthly splendor and beauty conceal the death and decay that have already come and indeed are already visible upon closer scrutiny. Such conjunctions of beauty, splendor, and concealed decay recur throughout Wilde's works, Dorian Gray of course being the foremost example.
Interestingly, Herodias resists the portents Herod sees everywhere. When Herod sees a madwoman in the moon, she scoffs: "the moon is like the moon, that is all." When Herod cries that John is drunk on the wine of God, she asks sarcastically from what wine yards and winepress one might gather such wine. Indeed, Herodias would not only scoff at the omen but, it would seem, metaphor in itself. In contrast, for Herod, metaphor, as it appears in the omen's demonstrative function, involves undeniable metamorphoses. Some have somatic effects: his garland is like fire and burns his forehead. He tosses it on the table, and its petals become bloodstains on the cloth. Certainly one hears the echo of the crown of thorns here. Terrified Herod reflects that one "must not find symbols in everything" as it "makes life impossible." Unlike Herodias, however, Herod would not seek life in an ultimately hopeless denial of metaphor but in metaphor itself—specifically, the reversibility between metaphor's terms. Thus "it [is] better to say that stains of blood are as lovely as rose petals." Of course, the omen is perhaps characterized by the inflexibility of its metaphoric structures, the stop in the whirligig between a metaphor's terms. Though usually vague in its meaning and thus producing uncontrollable anxiety in us, it remains "motivated" nevertheless as a demonstration of some ill fate. Thus the petals are blood because the garland must portent dark times in the palace.