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Salome by Oscar Wilde: Summary & Overview

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  • 0:04 Background of 'Salome'
  • 1:25 Plot Summary
  • 7:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Shamekia Thomas

Shamekia has taught English at the secondary level and has her doctoral degree in clinical psychology.

Oscar Wilde's 'Salome' is a play based on a story from the Bible. It tells the tragic story of Salome, King Herod's stepdaughter. In this lesson, you'll learn more about the plot of ''Salome.''

Background of Salome

Salome is a one-act play written by Oscar Wilde. It's loosely based on the Biblical story as told in the New Testament books Mark 6:15-29 and Matthew 14:1-12, though the character of Salome is not named in the Bible. The play is set during biblical times and takes place in Judea, a historical region that was located in the Middle East, near what is Palestine and Israel today.

Salome is the stepdaughter of King Herod of Judea. Herod's wife is Herodias, who is cursed by a prophet named Jokanaan (known as John the Baptist in the Bible). He says that the king's marriage is unlawful because Herodias is the widow of Herod's brother. In the Bible, Salome helps her mother seek revenge on John the Baptist, but in Wilde's play, Salome's decisions regarding Jokanaan are the result of her own desire for lust-driven revenge.

Because British law at the time forbade the public performance of plays depicting Biblical characters, Wilde wrote Salome in French. It was first performed as a play in France. Eventually, Wilde was able to translate the play to English. It was performed for British audiences for the first time in 1918, several years after Wilde's death.

Plot Summary

As the play opens, a young Syrian is standing near a cistern with two soldiers of Judea. The Syrian tells the young princess Salome that she is beautiful, but she does not return his affections. Salome inquires about the cistern and is told that a prophet, Jokanaan (John the Baptist), has been captured by the king and is held prisoner.

The princess demands that the soldiers allow her to see Jokanaan, and when they finally relent, she is immediately intrigued by him, saying that 'he is like an image of silver' and comparing him to the moon. She declares herself to be 'amorous of his body,' which she says, 'is white, like the lilies of a field that the mower hath never mowed.' But she also expresses fear and disgust at his appearance, saying that his body is 'like a plastered wall where the scorpions have made their nest.'

As she continues her speech about Jokanaan's horrid beauty, the prophet repeatedly demands that she get away from him, declaring her the daughter of Babylon and Sodom. Jokanaan does not even look at Salome because she is the daughter of the sinful and incestuous Herodias, who is the widow of one of King Herod's brothers.

Salome seems to completely ignore Jokanaan's protests and declares, 'I will kiss thy mouth, Jokanaan. I will kiss thy mouth.' The young Syrian repeats his admiration for Salome's beauty and begs her to stop declaring her lust for the prophet, but she completely ignores the Syrian. When she repeats her intention to kiss Jokanaan, the Syrian kills himself. Seemingly completely oblivious to anything but Jokanaan, Salome continually repeats her intention to kiss him. But Jokanaan is not interested in the affection of a 'daughter of adultery' and tells Salome she should seek God.

Meanwhile, King Herod, Salome's stepfather, is hosting a banquet, but he leaves to go search for his stepdaughter because she did not return to the feast when he ordered her to. Herodias, Herod's wife and Salome's mother, follows the king, demanding that he 'must not look at' Salome and accuses him of 'always looking at her.'

As he is looking for Salome, Herod gives a speech about the moon, likening it to a naked woman as Herodias attempts to get her husband to stop looking for Salome and return to the banquet. In his search for his stepdaughter, Herod slips on the blood of the young Syrian; he sees this as a bad omen.

When Herod finally finds Salome, he offers her some wine, asking her to 'dip into it thy little red lips, that I may drain the cup.' She refuses, and Herod complains of her disobedience to Herodias, who says that her daughter is acting correctly, demanding to know why her husband is 'always gazing at her.' Herod ignores his wife and offers to allow Salome to sit on the queen's throne but is once again refused.

Jokanaan's voice is then heard delivering a vague warning about the coming of a time he has prophesied. Herodias tries to demand that he be silenced, saying that 'this man is forever hurling insults against me,' but her husband denies that this is true and declares Jokanaan to be 'a very great prophet.' At this, a religious dispute breaks out among the guests of the banquet, frustrating the king. Jokanaan's voice appears once again, and once again the king and queen argue over whether the prophet is insulting Herodias, with Herod claiming that he is not doing so because he never said her name specifically.

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