Salome : Character
The Cappadocian, a guest at Herod's banquet, is from an area in Turkey. He complains about Roman rule there. The King of Cappadocia is a rival of Herod's.
Herod Antipas, the Tetrarch of Judea (ruler of a quarter of the land), was the son of Herod the Great, and ruled for forty-two years. He is nominally Jewish, enough that he is afraid of killing a holy prophet like Jokanaan. On the other hand, he seems to have the high priest in his pocket and boasts of stealing the veil in the temple. He took the throne by killing his elder brother and marrying his widow, Herodias. Historically he is known for his part in the executions of John the Baptist (Jokanaan) and Jesus of Nazareth. As Antipas refused to order directly Jokanaan's death, he also sent Jesus back to Pontius Pilate when Pilate tried to make Herod judge the case of Jesus. Herod, like his father, was a builder and built his capital Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee, later a center for rabbinic learning. In this play, he is depicted as a cruel tyrant, crafty enough to keep the many divisive sects in the country in check in order to gain Caesar's favor. He is ever afraid of losing his power but is not in control of himself, as he lets himself be governed by drink and lust. He foolishly promises Salomé whatever she wants if she will dance for him. Shocked at the outcome of his generosity to her, he orders her killed for her terrible crime, which would obviously embarrass his court and make a martyr of Jokanaan. Though Jokanaan predicts the Tetrarch will die in a silver coat, that fate of being eaten alive by worms was actually his father's. Herod Antipas, with his wife Herodias, was eventually exiled to Gaul by the Romans after a defeat in battle, where he died around 39 CE. He was defeated by his former father-in-law (he had divorced his first wife), and this was commonly interpreted as punishment for the sin of his marriage and for killing John the Baptist.
Herodias is the wife and niece of Herod Antipas, formerly the wife of his elder brother, Herod Philip I, put to death by Antipas. In the play, Herodias is angry at Jokanaan for his condemnations of her as living a sinful and incestuous life with her husband. She urges his death, while Herod seems to stall and tell her that Jokanaan has insinuated but not named anyone. Herodias is portrayed as sour and jealous of Herod's attention to her daughter Salomé. In this version, it is Salomé's independent idea to have the prophet killed, while in the Bible it is Herodias's plotting that is responsible. She uses her daughter as a sex object to get what she wants. In this play, Salomé is almost a rival to her as Herod is so taken with Salomé he even offers to give her her mother's throne.
A number of Jews attend the banquet, each arguing a different theological position. The soldiers remark how the Jews like to argue doctrine among themselves. Represented are two Nazarenes who support Jokanaan and Jesus, expounding on the miracles of Jesus; a Sadducee who does not believe in angels; a Pharisee who believes in angels; a Jew who believes God is absent; and a Jew who believes God is everywhere.
Jokanaan is the Hebrew name Yehochanan for John. Jokanaan was known as John the Baptist because he baptized with water to forgive sins and ready his followers for a greater messianic teacher coming after him. He preached the kingdom of heaven was at hand. John baptized Jesus of Nazareth who is believed to have been one of his disciples. He was rumored to be Elias or Elijah reborn, a powerful Old Testament prophet. He is described as a wild man, living in the desert, wearing the hair of the camel and living on locusts and honey. In the play, Jokanaan denounces the court for its sins, and prophesies coming disasters. Even though imprisoned in a large well or cistern, he is heard speaking his prophecies. When brought before Salomé, who tries to seduce him, he first tells her to seek Jesus to have her sins forgiven, but when she will not give up, he curses her and returns to his prison. He foretells she will be crushed by the soldiers' shields. When the executioner kills and beheads Jokanaan, Salomé leans over the cistern but hears no sound or protest from him. His head is brought to her, and she kisses his lips, triumphantly.
Naaman is Herod's executioner, a huge Negro. He only performs an execution when Herod sends his token death-ring from his finger. In the case of Jokanaan, Herodias slips the ring off and sends it to Naaman when Herod is drunk and confused.
The Nubian is an African guest at the banquet who tells how in his country, maidens and youths are sacrificed to please the gods. Rome was in control of many countries in North Africa at this time.
The Page of Herodias
The Page of Herodias is a servant of the Queen and a friend of the Young Syrian. After the Syrian Captain kills himself the Page laments in a way to reveal that he and the Captain were lovers. He constantly warns the Syrian not to look at Salomé or something terrible will happen.
Salomé is the young, beautiful, virginal princess of Judea. Her mother is Herodias. Her father is the elder brother that Herod had slain, Herod Philip I. Herod is now amorous of Salomé and cannot take his eyes off her. She also inspires the love of the Young Syrian whom she uses to get to the prisoner Jokanaan. Salomé is perverse and willful, only responding sexually to the forbidden Jokanaan, who is off limits because he is a prisoner, and because he is a holy man. She baits Jokanaan, who is repulsed by her and denounces her as evil, though he tries to preach the forgiveness of sins to her. Salomé is obsessed and does not respond to any command but her own wishes, not even the Tetrarch's command. As with the Captain, she uses Herod to fulfill her own monstrous desire. She has no public shame, even kissing the dead Jokanaan's lips in full view of the court, infuriating the Tetrarch who orders her immediate death. Salomé indicates that by kissing Jokanaan's head, she has given up her virginity to him, making his beheading a sexual rather than a political act in Wilde's play. Her dance of the seven veils is usually presented as a sensuous Middle Eastern belly dance, like a strip tease. It may have been a fertility dance. She is so heartless, she dances in the blood of the Syrian Captain, which is still on the floor. Herod feels this dance is so provocative that he is willing to give Salomé his jewels or half his kingdom. Wilde's version of Salomé makes her even more evil than other versions in which she is merely a tool of her mother.
Herod's soldiers provide background information on the court and their king. They refuse to do Salomé's bidding until she tempts the Captain of the Guard whom they must obey. Eventually they are the ones who kill Salomé by crushing her with their shields.
The Young Syrian (Narraboth)
The Young Syrian is the Captain of the Palace Guard and in love with Princess Salomé. She gives him no notice until she wants a favor. She promises Narraboth to look upon him if he will let her speak to the prisoner. He violates his orders to please her and then commits suicide when she tries to seduce Jokanaan. Herod is shocked and displeased at the death of this handsome young man who was the son of a king that Herod defeated. Herodias had made his mother her slave, and Herod made the son his captain. When the Captain kills himself in front of Salomé, she does not notice, because she is too enthralled by her fascination for Jokanaan.
Tigellinus is the urbane Roman guest at Herod's banquet, representing the emperor. He and Herod discuss the philosophy of the Stoics, and Tigellinus mentions Caesar has written a satire on them.