by: Oscar Wilde

Part 4

Summary Part 4

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.