A number of critics have read Wilde's Salomé as an allegory for the work of art as such. Born of painting, literature, and drama, she would incarnate the beauty of artifice, ornament, and luxury. Importantly, however, this seductive spectacle is also a harbinger of death. 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.
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The Tetrarch of Judea, Herod is Herodias's second husband and Salomé's stepfather. Herod deposed, imprisoned, and executed Salomé's father—his own elder brother the former king—and wedded Herodias in what Jokanaan calls an incestuous union. Herod is in fear of Jokanaan, whom he has imprisoned, as he cannot know if Jokanaan speaks the word of God and if his many prophecies of his 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.
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.
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The proud, hard queen of Judaea, Herodias abhors Jokanaan, who has slandered her as an incestuous harlot and remains alive against her wishes. She also suffers the indignity of Herod's incestuous lust for Salomé, hopelessly reproaching him for his gaze. Unlike most of the cast, characterized by its propensity for finding symbolism and the omen in particular in the world, Herodias appears to scorn 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". According to Jokanaan, Herodias 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".
Read an in-depth analysis of Herodias .
A former prince and captain of Herod's guard, the Syrian is a handsome, languorous youth utterly entranced by Salomé. Thus he raises Jokanaan from his cistern at her request and kills himself when she professes her love for the prophet.
Along with the Syrian and the Page, the Soldiers compose the cluster of voyeurs that open the play looking into the banquet off-stage. They introduce Jokanaan to the visitors.
Mesmerized by the deadly moon, the Page senses the death of his friend the Young Syrian and eulogizes him upon his suicide.
Two opposed groups in Herod's court who dispute various religious issues. The Jews are imagined as tiresome at best and as wild, howling beasts at worst; the Nazarenes bring news of Messia' miracles.
Tigellinus is a Roman official who provides Herod with news of Rome and Caesar.
The Cappadocian is a guest of Herod's court who in the first scenes of the play converses with the First Soldier on the identity of Jokanaan. He hardly believes in the prophet's power.
The Nubian is guest of Herod's court who remarks upon the taste his gods have for blood sacrifice.
A "huge Negro", Naaman stands silently in the background until delivering Jokanaan's execution. He also executed Herod's deposed elder brother.
These slaves attend to Salomé intermittently, calling her, for example, back to the banquet and preparing her for the dance of the seven veils.