The play involves the extremes of human emotions and experience, especially the sensations around love and death. One metaphor for love or attraction is the glance of the eyes. Looking on another person is a dangerous act. The characters are especially warned against looking at Salomé and Jokanaan, as though looking at them will bring disaster. The Page of Herodias warns the Syrian Captain not to look at the Princess or something terrible will happen. He keeps looking at her, violates his orders, and then commits suicide. Herod keeps staring at Salomé at the banquet, forcing her to flee to the terrace where she confronts Jokanaan. Jokanaan is in the dark cistern, and no one may look at him, though they hear him speak. When he is brought out and Salomé looks on him, she is most afraid of his eyes that are like “black holes” (p. 11). When Jokanaan looks on Salomé, he sees her false, painted “golden eyes” (p. 11). She is attracted to him and does not stop until it brings his death and hers. Herodias warns Herod to stop looking at Salomé, but he cannot, orders her to dance, promises her anything she wants, to his own grief. He concludes, “One should not look at anything . . . Only in mirrors . . . for mirrors do but show us masks” (p. 35). Attraction thus leads to confrontation with reality and death. The court is false and cannot afford to look at itself.
The moon is the main symbol in the play for Salomé, a madwoman looking for love and death. In the first scene, the Syrian and Page alternate poetic speeches about Salomé's beauty and the strange death-like quality of the moon, one commenting on the other. While the Syrian sees Salomé as “the shadow of a white rose in a mirror of silver,” (p. 2), the Page sees the moon as a dead woman looking for dead things. Herod later sees the moon as a naked madwoman seeking love. Salomé compares her virginity to the moon's chasteness. Salomé's virginity is both sensuous and filled with death, like the moon's. She claims that Jokanaan is the only man she has ever loved, but the kiss on his severed head brings her death.
Colors and Senses
There is an appeal to the senses in this Symbolist drama that creates a unity of impression through rhythm, intensity of imagery, and parallelisms. Every speech is full of metaphor and poetic repetition.There is a color scheme to the imagery with white, black, and red predominating. Salomé and the moon are white or silver. Her feet are “white doves” (p. 1), her hands are “white butterflies” ( p. 5). Jokanaan is chiefly associated with blackness. He is in a black cistern, his eyes are “black holes” (p. 11) his hair like “clusters of black grapes” (p. 13). Red is used for the Captain's blood that Salomé dances in, the red of Jokanaan's lips “like a band of scarlet” (p. 14). Color is pronounced in the endless list of gems that Herod offers to Salomé to appease her: pearls, amethysts, topaz, opals, moonstones, rubies, sapphire, ebony, gold, and crystal. The King drinks wine of three colors: purple, gold, and red. Jokanaan speaks of the Queen's “wine of iniquities” (p. 12), while the prophet is said to be drunk on the wine of God.
Salomé's dance is the epitome of the sensuous, and a symbol of Herod's downfall. She calls for her seven veils and perfume censors to fill the hall. The play's imagery abounds with veils. The seven veils Salomé wears are removed, something like a strip tease. In a sacrilegious counter metaphor, Herod offers Salomé the veil of the Temple which he has stolen, or the mantle of the high priest.
The most startling episode is Salomé's wooing of the prophet in sensuous images derived from the Bible, from “The Song of Solomon,” a love song describing the beloved in the same tone and images she uses of lilies, towers, and gardens. Salomé, however, branches out to insert images of horror as well. She is inflamed by Jokanaan because she ecstatically sees the union of the ugly and beautiful in him, alternating, with his body like lilies and also like a leper's. His hair is like the cedar tree but also like snakes. His mouth is red like coral or lion's blood. This co-existence of opposites evokes an even greater and more irrational passion than a simple language of beauty.
The Weird and Superhuman
Many strange images and metaphors draw attention to what is outside human control, as this tragedy mounts, unable to be stopped. Several characters feel a cold wind in the palace and associate it with the wings of the Angel of Death. Herod even sees it as a “huge black bird that hovers over the terrace” (p. 30). Salomé herself is spoken of as a dead woman walking. The hint of Herod's past cruelties are evoked in the cistern and its gruesome history. He has but to give his death-ring to the executioner. Herod believes he is thus the ruler of death. The idea that Jesus can raise the dead infuriates and frightens him.
The cistern-prison is a pit of total blackness with a lid on top, yet Jokanaan's voice and prophecies can be heard issuing from it in a mysterious and fateful way. He denounces the sins of the royal family in Biblical terms, calling down God's curse on them. He foretells Herod's death in a silver coat, a frightening image of being eaten alive by maggots. Many of the images associated with Jokanaan are frightful—lepers, vipers, scorpions, and dragon eyes. He is dressed in a camel skin and looks wild and fearful, yet is afraid of nothing. He prophesies the end of the world when the sun will become “black like sackcloth of hair” (p. 26) and the moon shall be like blood. The Nubian guest speaks of the sacrifice of maidens and young men to the gods of his country, and Jokanaan says that it is clear the Lord is coming because the old gods are hiding themselves: “The centaurs have hidden themselves in the rivers” (p. 7) He predicts a “basilisk” shall come to Palestine that will devour the birds. A basilisk was a fabulous serpent that could cause death with a single glance. Jokanaanpredicts a plague of evils to the sinful. The most gruesome image in the play is Salomé passionately kissing the lips of the severed head of Jakonaan. The shock of this sight is too much even for Herod who orders the soldiers to kill her at once.