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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
That Salomé concerns itself with looking is about as self-evident as its concern with sex. The Salomé legend, featuring what has been for the West one of the primal scenes of woman-as-spectacle and male spectator, is organized in all its forms around the seductive play of voyeurism and exhibitionism, exhibition and concealment, and the transgression of visual taboos on the body. Invariably, the transgression of these taboos involves illicit sexual desire. Looking in Salomé is dangerous, bringing death on the stage. Thus the image of the prophet that captures Salomé's illicit gaze awakens her lethal desire and the fascination of Herod's incestuous gaze by the image of the dancing Salomé, and her seductive veils binds him to the prophet's execution.
At the center of the play is of course Salomé. Her image fatally captures the male gaze: for looking on her too much, the Syrian will die. Equally significant is Salomé's own "strange look," a look she will cast specifically on Jokanaan, which will demand the prophet's recognition to the point of his death. We elaborate the qualities of this Salomé as spectacle and look further under Motifs. The other forbidden gaze in the play is Herod's. Herod's look upon Salomé is incestuous, lascivious, and grotesque—that of a "mole's eyes" under "shaking eyelids." When Herod's lust for looking leads him to Jokanaan's execution, he will guiltily exclaim that Salomé is punishing him for his look. Thus he will resolve to withdraw from looking altogether, turning from both people and things. This withdrawal prefigures his disgusted retirement from the scene of the visible, where he puts out the palace torches and reduces the stage to darkness: "I will not look at things, I will not suffer things to look at me."
Along with the dancing Salomé, the play's other primary body-as-spectacle is Jokanaan's. As a mystic, Jokanaan would remove himself from worldly desire—again, here organized fundamentally by structures of voyeurism and exhibitionism, look and spectacle—in his apparent "blindness" and invisibility. Reduced to God's mouthpiece, Jokanaan sees nothing. Only gradually does he emerge from his haze to see Salomé—the girl everyone else is looking at—and then immediately refuses to grant her his gaze. As Salomé exclaims, the prophet's blank eyes are above all terrible, like black holes burned in tapestries, dragon caverns, and—in a reference to her attempt to seduce him—lakes troubled by "fantastic moons." The blackness of his eyes marks Jokanaan's refusal to return the enamored princess' gaze by looking at her. Secreted in the cistern and barred from view by royal decree, Jokanaan is also an invisible, tabooed body. Salomé's transgression is her look on him, a look that gives him an eroticized body.
Throughout the play, Jokanaan conjures the image of Herod's ruin, evoking a king on his throne "clothed in scarlet and purple" and bearing a "golden cup full of his blasphemies", a fallen king wearing a silver robe and holding a cup of abominations, and onward. Jokanaan proclaims that an angel will smite this monarch 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 of course familiar to readers of 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. Salomé thematizes similar conjunctions of beauty, splendor, and decay throughout, twinning, for example, the dancing Salomé and her veils with the image of a corpse and its shroud. Such conjunctions are crucial to Wilde's work, Dorian Gray of course being the foremost example.
Though Salomé is not directly "about" the Orient, the reader would do well, in an era where many still believe that the "clash of civilizations" is upon us, to take a cue from Edward Said and consider the play's imbrications in the longstanding Western discourse of Orientalism. In this sense, Salomé would figure less a "portrait" of some supposed Orient than as staging of Victorian fantasies of it. Take, for example, the parenthesis on the Tetrarch's wine toward the beginning of the play. Here 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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Salomé!