Hester and Ahasuerus
Playlists in Henslowe's diary
F. 9 (Greg I,17)
ye 3 of June . . . . . . Res at heaster & asheweros . . . . . . . . . . viijs ye 10 of June Res at heaster . . . . . . . . . . vs
"Hester and Ahasuerus" appears in Henslowe's diary on 3 June 1594 in the list of plays offered by the Admiral's men and Chamberlain's men playing at the playhouse in Newington. Because it does not appear in Henslowe's records after 10 June (the Admiral's men are believed to return to the Rose by 15 June), many theater historians assume that the play—if it had a continued stage life— belonged to the Chamberlain's men, who were soon to reside at the Theater in Shoreditch. The play is not marked "ne," which implies that it had been in production by some company previously. There are no further records of its performance.
Biblical history (Harbage)
Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues
The Book of Esther
The Book of Esther in the Old Testament is the obvious foundational source of this play. The Bishops’ Bible, widely available in the 1590s, is a reasonable guess as the basis of the story in translation. The details are as follows (spellings of names as in the Bishops’ Bible):
Ahasuerus, king of more than 127 provinces stretching from India to Ethiopia, held a pair of feasts in his royal city of Susan during the 3rd year of his reign. The guests at the first, which lasted "one hunred and fourescore dayes" (Esther 1:4), were his ruler and warrior classes and their servants; the guests at the second, which lasted 7 days, were the common menfolk of Susan. Ahasuerus’s queen, Uasthi (in other sources, "Vashti"), held a parallel feast for the womenfolk. On the 7th day of this second feast, Ahasuerus (“mery after the wine” [Esther 1:10]) commanded his seven chamberlains to summon his queen so that he could display her beauty to his guests. She refused to come. Infuriated, Ahasuerus asked his tribute kings of Persia and Media what should be done. They recommended that she be banished from the king’s sight and the kingdom as a lesson to all wives who disobey their husbands, a lesson reinforced by a royal commandment spread throughout the realm that “all women shall holde their husbandes in honour both among great and small” (Esther 1:21).
To replace Uasthi, the king’s counsellors recommended that he gather the fairest young virgins in the land and choose his favorite to become queen. One of the women so summoned was Esther (also called “Hadassa”), an orphaned cousin of Mardocheus, a Jew who had been brought in captivity to Ahasuerus’s kingdom with his family as a result of an earlier war against Judea won by Nebuchodonosor (Babylon). Esther first found favor with Hegai, “the keeper of the women” (Esther 2:8), who groomed her through traditional purification rites to come into the presence of the king. Ahasuerus fell in love with her immediately and chose her as his queen; keeping her promise to her cousin, she did not reveal her Jewish ancestry. Meanwhile, Mardocheus, as he was keeping an eye on Esther, overheard treasonous talk from two of the king’s chamberlains. He told Esther, who told Ahasuerus, who had the men “hanged on tree” (Esther 2:23).
Haman, who soon became Ahasuerus’s most trusted counsellor, chafed against Mardocheus, who refused to bow down to him. Haman learned that Mardocheus was a Jew, and to punish Mardocheus’s insubordination he influenced Ahasuerus to publish an edict “to roote out, to kill, and to destroy all Iewes both young and olde, children and women in one day” upon the 13th of December (Esther 3:13). For this service, Haman received a reward of 10,000 talents of silver, plus the king’s ring.
Mardocheus reacted to the news with extreme public grieving, which came to the attention of Esther. Warned by her cousin that she was not immune to the edict, Esther declared a three-day fast before confronting Ahasuerus, though it was forbidden that she attend him without an invitation. In due time, she did enter his presence, and he received her graciously, asking what she wanted. She asked that he prepare a banquet with Haman as sole guest. At that event, the king asked Esther to present her petition, and she answered with a request that Haman return a second time to a banquet she would prepare. As he was leaving this first private dinner, Haman saw Mardocheus at the gate and was again infuriated at the man’s continued disrespect. On the advice of his wife and friends in whom he confided, he ordered a “galous of fiftie cubits hie” to be built expressly for hanging Mardocheus (Esther 5:14).
Sleepless the night before Esther’s banquet, Ahasuerus had the recent history of his rule read to him, and he was reminded of Mardocheus’s service. Summoning Haman (who had come to court to ask permission to have the Jew hanged), the king asked, “what shalbe done vnto the man” who has done the king best service?” (Esther 6:6). Haman, thinking himself that man, described gifts of fine clothes, a horse, and a crown, plus a parade through the streets proclaiming his virtues. The king then told Haman to do these things for Mardocheus, but he slunk home instead, only to find that his wife and counsellors predicted his consequent fall.
That evening at the second private dinner, Esther, in a renewed request from the king for her petition, revealed her Jewish heritage and asked that he grant her life and that of her people. The king demanded the name of the perpetrator, and Esther named Haman, who was waiting in the garden. Haman threw himself on Esther’s mercy, violating her couch in the process, and Ahasuerus ordered him hanged on the gallows he had constructed for Mardocheus. The king rewarded Mardocheus and, at Esther’s pleading, lifted the mandate against the Jews.
The Jews, further empowered to protect themselves, slew the ten sons of Haman and others of their powerful enemies (many people converted to avoid the Jews’ wrath). To celebrate this victory, a two-day commemoration called “Purim” was established. Henceforth Ahasuerus ruled with Mardocheus as his second in command, revered throughout the land as one “that seeketh the wealth of his people, and speaketh peaceably for all his seede” (Esther 10:3).
Godly Queen Hester
There was also an anonymous dramatic analogue: Godly Queen Hester, S. R. c. Jan-Feb 1561; Q1561 (Internet Archive). The story, which ignores the fate of the king’s first queen, focuses on the rise of Aman (i.e., Haman), Mardocheus, and Hester (i.e., Esther, or Edissa). The story line is consistent with the Biblical narrative, but there are interpellations and differences in emphasis, as follows:
- 1. The play has a partial frame, in which the Prologue raises the issue of what trait should be granted the greatest honor; this question controls the opening moments of the play, as Assuerus (i.e., Ahasuerus) presides over a debate among his gentlemen on which honor is the worthiest to attain.
- 2. Aman is promoted in the context of this debate and given a warning to govern with justice and truth. He is also charged to supervise the gathering of virgins for the king’s selection of a bride.
- 3. Mardocheus gives Hester (his niece here) a brief lecture on a wife’s proper love and obedience to her husband. He adds that, if Assuerus should choose Hester, he does so not because of her virtue but his “goodness, bounty, and grace.” He enjoins her to temper political fire with mercy.
- 4. The play has a scene in which Assuerus chooses Hester from a line-up of the assembled virgins, but consults Mardocheus on her virtue. Mardocheus, in praising her, does not reveal her (or his) Jewishness. The king then asks Hester the question about the greatest honor, and she replies that a queen should govern as virtuously as the king in his absence. The king is charmed. With appropriate timidity, she adds that the poor should be fed so that they can serve the kingdom.
- 5. A trio of Vice characters—Pride, Adulation, and Ambition—agree to give all their attributes to Aman to bring about his fall: headed for a tavern, they exit singing.
- 6. Aman offers the edict to destroy the Jews as a gift from him to Assuerus, one that will bring his treasury £10,000; Hardydardy, a wise fool, warns his master Aman that he is playing right into the hands of Pride & company.
- 7. A chorus of Jews (one with a fine speech on credulity) bemoans the order to kill the Jews. Mardocheus and Hester respond; she calls for hymns and prayer (stage directions: “Then the chapel do sing.”)
- 8. Stage directions indicate open affection between Assuerus and Hester: “Here they kiss.”
- 9. At the banquet Assuerus defends his support of the edict by claiming that Aman said the Jews did not show the poor hospitality (charity).
- 10. Hardydardy, in commentary with the king, raises the parallel of Perillus and the brass bull in observing that the gallows Aman raised for Mardocheus will be the instrument of his own hanging.
- 11. The play ends with complementary moral speeches by Assuerus and Hester; his reminds kings of the proverb that men rarely serve but for their advantage; hers, that the wicked succeed in the world for awhile but are exposed in the long run.
References to the Play
There are no known contemporary references to the play, but Hester herself was a popular figure of feminine and patriotic virtue. Below is a sample of the contexts, pre-1594, in which references to Hester and her story occur:
1. Political Treatise: On 23 April, 1559, in response to John Foxe's inflammatory Blast against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, John Aylmer published An Harborovve For Faithfvll and Trevve Svbiectes, agaynst the late blowne Blaste, concerninge the Gouernment of VVemen .... Taking as its epigram Proverbs 23 ("Many daughters there be, that gather riches together: but though goest aboue them all"), Aylmer defends women's rule, calling on (among others) Biblical women such as Deborah, Judith, and Hester. He calls also for counselors who must help "to bringe the ship of the common welth, the Church of Christe, and the Quenes realm, to a quiet port" (O3). In this context, he praises Mardocheus who "by the help of Hester, kept Assuerus from the foulest murdre, that euer was deuised" (O3). He continues with a characterization:
And yet he [Mardocheus] was but a meane man to be of a kinges counsell, being not onlye a straunger, but also suche an abiecte, as satte at the kinges gate without office, dignitie, countenaunce, or anye estimacion, yea and of such a stomacke, as he woulde not stoupe to the proudest of all the reste. M. Haman, who was, domine fac totum, Vvhiche had like to haue cost him the best ioynte he caried aboute. VVherefore if meane men be called to that honoure: lette no manne repine at it. For sometime vnder a homelye coate, lieth hidden muche treasure, and pure gold is founde among muche drosse (O3). EEBO
2. History: Richard Rainolde, in "The Epistle to the Reader" in A Chronicle of all the Noble Emperours of the Romaines, 1571, uses the narrative of Ahasuerus to illustrate the importance of reading history as instruction in virtue. Rainolde claims that Ahasuerus “so muche delighted in histories, that for a perpetuall memory of things done he commaunded to be put in a chronicle all thinges that happened to hym." (silent editing here)
3. Prayer: In a prayer on Psalm 37 (>1572), Queen Elizabeth takes for granted the ubiquitous allegorical reading of Hester's Israel as England. She asks God that He "persist ... in giving [her] strength so that [she], like another Deborah, like another Judith, like another Esther, may free Thy people of Israel from the hands of thy enemies" (Marcus, et. al. 157).
4. Civic Pageant: In the summer of 1578, Queen Elizabeth made a progress to East Anglia that included Norwich. There, on 16-22 August, the city presented a civic pageant in celebration. Full details of the event are preserved in a tract, "The ioyful Receyuing of the Queenes most excellent Maiestie ...," by B. G. (EEBO). (Holinshed also carries a description of the pageant; see The Holinshed Project). Characteristic of civic pageantry, the event occurred in waves. The first, which was to take place just outside the city, featured the mythical king Gurgant, but he was rained out (Bergeron 38). The queen's procession then moved inside Norwich for a sequence of tableaux and speeches, in the second of which the speakers are five female figures: "The first was, the city of Norwich: the seconde Debora: the third Iudeth: the fourth Esther: the fifthe Martia, sometime Queene of Englande" (B. G., Cr). Hester's speech is as follows (B. G., EEBO):
- The fretting heads of furious foes haue skill,
- As well by fraude as force to finde their pray:
- In smiling lookes doth lurke a lot as ill,
- As where both sterne and sturdy streams do sway,
- Thy selfe oh Queene, a proofe hast seene of this,
- So well as I poore Esther haue iwis.
- As Iabins force did Israel perplex,
- And Holofernes fierce Bethulia besiege,
- So Hamons slights sought me and mine to vex,
- Yet shewde a face of subiect to his liege.
- But Force nor Fraud, nor Tyrant strong can trap,
- Those whiche the Lord in his defense doth wrap.
- The proofes I speake by vs haue erst bin seene,
- The proofes I speake, to thee are not vnknowen.
- Thy God thou knowest most dread and soueraigne Queen,
- A world of foes of thine hath ouerthrowen,
- And hither nowe triumphantly doth call
- Thy noble Grace, the comforte of vs al.
- Doste thou not see the ioie of all this flocke?
- Vouchsafe to viewe their passing gladsome cheare,
- Be still (good Queene) their refuge and their rocke,
- As they are thine to serue in loue and feare:
- So Fraud, nor Force, nor foraine Foe may stand
- Againste the strength of thy moste puyssaunt hand.
5. Biblical Commentary: Johannes Brenz wrote a Latin commentary on The Book of Esther translated by John Stockwood in 1584, A right godly and learned discourse vpon the book of Ester Most necessary for this time and age, to enstruct all noble men, and such as God hath aduanced vnto high places about princes (EEBO). In the commentary, Ahasuerus is allegorized as God's anointed, Vasthi criticized for wanting to show her women that she ruled over her husband, Aman is called the "instrument of the deuil" (609), and Esther praised for her "princely courage" (644). As in the prayer (above), the tract interprets the story as an allegory that "perteyneth vnto the people and Church of god" (690). However, lest readers confuse the ancient Jews with modern ones, the tract annotates the Old Testament history with a reminder that "The Iewes of our time are the kindred of Aman" (690). EEBO
A pair of citations illustrate the continuing appeal of Hester's story past 1594:
1. Political Treatise: In 1609 Thomas Cooper published The Chvrches Deliverance, containing Meditations and short notes vppon the Booke of Hester. Its sub-title is "in remembrance of the wonderfull deliuerance from the gunpoulder-Treason." The work purports to retell Hester's story, but its agenda is to warn the Church and State of dangers. EEBO
2. Poem: Francis Quarles published Hadassa: or the history of Queene Ester with meditations thereupon, diuine and morall in 1621. Though obviously much later than Hester and Ahasuerus, Quarles's poem is rich in the kind of characterization, visual detail, and moral import that a dramatist also might have seen in the story of Hester. EEBO
Greg II was unenthusiastic about a connection between this lost play and the extant Interlude of the Virtuous and Godly Queen Hester (Q1561) as well as an item in Francis Kirkman's Wits in 1673. Without saying why, he liked a connection with "the hypothetical English original of the German play printed in the collection of 1620" by Herz (Item 41, pp. 163-4). In commentary on the playlist recorded by Henslowe for 3-13 June at Newington, he opined that "Hester and Ahasuerus" and the play called "Hamlet" in that list had previously belonged to Pembroke's men (II, 105).
Otherwise, this play has attracted little attention except for its apparent singularity as a Biblical play in the repertory of the Chamberlain's men. That claim was used by Sharpe to contrast the repertory and consequent audience of the Chamberlain's with the holdings and audience of the Admiral’s men: “Hester and Ahasuerus belongs to a considerable list of Biblical plays, of which it is the only one ascribed to Shakespeare’s company, and all of which (unless we count Peele’s David and Bethsabe) are lost” (28). Sharpe continued with the following assertion:
“Apparently the Chamberlain's company did not feel that plays on Bible subjects would appeal to their clientele; after these first days at Newington Butts we never hear of their presenting such material. But the Admiral’s men, with their catering to the more old-fashioned Puritans, those not ‘precise’ enough to stay away from the play no matter what its subject, had a play on Nebuchadnezzar in 1596, one on Judas in 1600, and no less than five Biblical plays in 1602: Pontius Pilate, Jepthah, Tobyas, Samson, and Joshua” (28-9).
Knutson, hinting that absence of evidence is not evidence, resists the implications of Sharpe’s assertion that “we never hear” of Biblical plays in the repertory of the Chamberlain's men after 1594 (28) with the reminder that a huge number of the company’s plays are lost (Repertory, 66). Exploring specifically the repertorial value of "Hester and Ahasuerus," Knutson suggests that its proximity to The Jew of Malta in performances at the Newington playhouse anticipates the continued run of each play by their company owners with the resulting commercial contrast of very different plays with leading Jewish characters; the coincidence of both plays with the June execution of the Jewish physician, Roderigo Lopez, adds cultural piquance to the theatrical moment of "Hester and Ahasuerus" in performance ("New Directions," 95-98).
Gurr posits a back story for the acquisition of "Hester and Ahasuerus" that depends on John Heminges and a diaspora of plays from the repertory of the Queen’s men to the Chamberlain's men: “The most tangible reason for Heminges to be taken into the new Lord Chamberlain’s was because he could bring several of the Queen’s Men’s plays. At least five (King Leir, Hamlet, The Troublesome Reign of King John, Hester and Ahasuerus, and The Famous Victories of Henry V) somehow came into their possession in 1594. Shakespeare rewrote four of them for the new company, ignoring only the biblical tale” (25). Implying a refutation of Sharpe, Gurr points out that “We cannot … be sure which types of play the company chose not to perform. There is nothing, for instance, to say whether they continued to stage plays on biblical topics like Hester and Ahasuerus, which they started with in June 1594” (130-1).
For What It's Worth
The Book of Esther as resource for costuming, characterization, structure, and action
For example, the Bishops’ Bible describes the magnificence of the palace for the feast to which Uasthi was called: “there hanged white, greene, and yelowe clothes, fastened with cordes of fine silke and purple, in siluer ringes, vpon pillers of marble stones: The benches also were of golde and siluer made vpon a pauement of greene, white, yelowe, and blacke marble” (Esther 1:6). It describes also th “vessels of gold” from which Ahasuerus and his guests drank “vessel after vessel” (Esther 1:7).
It names the seven chamberlains of the king: Nehuma, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagthan, Zethar, and Charchas (Esther 1:10); and his seven princes of Media and Persia: Carsena, Sethar, Admata, Thersis, Mares, Marsena, and Memuchan (Esther 1:14). It assigns to Memuchan the role of delivering to the king the decision that Uasthi be banished. It names Hegai as the keeper of the harem (Esther 2:3) and Hathach as the go-between for Hester and Mardocheus (Esther 5). It gives the lineage of Mardocheus (“the sonne of Iair, the sonne of Semei, the sone of Cis, a man of Iemini” [Esther 2:5). It names the two traitorous servants, Bigthan and Theres (Esther 2:21]). It provides the lineage of Haman (“sonne of Amadatha the Agagite” [Esther 3:1]), and the name of his wife, Zares (Esther 5:10).
The feasts—the pair with invitation lists in the thousands that lead to Uasthi’s banishment, and the pair requested by Hester with Haman alone as guest—offer a structural parallel, as do the contrasting messages in the two queens' behavior toward Ahasuerus. The narrative is full of instances of petitioning, supplication, and service. A detail of clothing is suggested by Mardocheus's sackcloth and ashes on hearing about the edict, and an action in Ahasuerus's ordering Haman's face to be covered with a cloth when his death sentence is pronounced. The gallows offers an onstage emblem of justice. It is even possible to imagine that the expansiveness of Ahasuerus’s kingdom put this play in some competition with those of Tamburlaine, Alphonsus, and Selimus as world conquerors, but the political yet recreative aspects of the feasts, the emphasis on wifely behavior, and the king’s favoring of Hester over Haman takes the narrative more into the realm of epic romance than tragedy, despite all those executions by the triumphant Jews.
How Ahasuerus's father became king:
Johannes Benz and Francis Quarles repeat what must have been a familiar story about Darius, father of Ahasuerus (also Xerxes, whom Hebrew sources equated with Ahasuerus). A dramatist who wanted a bit of comedy might well have taken notice. The story starts with the disastrous reign of Cambyses (familiar to Elizabethan audiences), at the end of which a devious wise man puts an impostor on the throne. A daughter of a concerned counselor sends his daughter, one of the king's concubines, to find out if the alleged ruler is who he says he is. She detects the ruse, and a conspiracy of noblemen lead a coup d’état in the course of which they stab the wise man through the body of one of their fellows who is holding him (yet the fellow "escaped unhurt" [Brenz, 700]). Unable to agree among themselves who should now rule, the noblemen conceived a test involving their horses (animals sacred to their god, the sun). They agreed to meet on horseback on an appointed day before the palace at dawn, and "he whose horse neyed first before the rising of ye Sunne, should be king" (701). Darius's horsekeeper, to assure the horse's excitement, brought the animal there the morning before and "put him to a mare" (701). The horse, returned to that spot at the appointed time, neighed in anticipation of the mare and Darius became ruler of the kingdom.
Site created and maintained by Roslyn L. Knutson, Professor Emerita, University of Arkansas at Little Rock; updated 9 February 2012.