Hester and Ahasuerus

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Anon. (>1594)

Historical Records

Henslowe's Diary

F. 9 (Greg I, 17)

ye 3 of June ................ R[d] at heaster & asheweros ................ viijs
ye 10 of June ................ R[d] at heaster ................ vs

Theatrical Provenance

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 those records after 10 June, scholars assume that the play belonged not to the Admiral's men, who returned to the Rose on 15 June and whose records of performance are recorded there by Henslowe, but to the Chamberlain's men, if it had a stage life after the Newington run. It is not marked "ne," which implies that it had been in production by some company previously. There are no further records of its performance.

Probable Genre(s)

Biblical history (Harbage)

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

The Book of Esther in the Old Testament is the obvious narrative 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 180, 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, 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 kinds 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 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 (Ester 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 (Ester 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 enemies in power (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).

There was also an anonymous dramatic source: Godly Queen Hester, S. R. c. Jan-Feb 1561; Q1561. 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. Haman is promoted in the context of this debate and given a warning to goven 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 by her answer. 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, then turn to recreation: they exit singing, which they will follow up with drinking.
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 who has become Aman’s servant, warns Aman that he is playing right into the hands of Pride & company.
7. A chorus of Jews (one with a fine speech on credulity) bemoan the order to kill the Jews. Mardocheus, then Hester respond, she calling 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 site 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 references to the play, but there are numerous references to Hester in sermons, civic pageants, and other literary forms of the period.

Critical Commentary

Greg 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 Wits in 1673. Without saying why, he does like a connection with "the hypothetical English original of the German play printed in the collection of 1620" by Herz (II, 163-4).

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 Robert B. 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). Sharpe then wondered whether the Admiral’s men “had very special reasons for such great piety at this late date” (29) and toyed with the succession and conflicting political allegiances as one such reason.

Roslyn L. Knutson, hinting that absence of evidence is not evidence, resists 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 (66).

Andrew Gurr posits a back story for the acquisition of Hester and Ahasuerus by the Chamberlain's men that depends on John Heminges and a diaspora of plays from the repertory of the Queen’s men:

“The most tangible reason for Heminges to be taken into the new Lord Chamberlain’s was because he could bring the 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

A number of details in The Book of Esther suggest costuming, characterization, and structural possibilities that a dramatist might have exploited.

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 dealing with wifely disobedience and risk-taking in the cause of social justice. The gallows offers an onstage emblem of political 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.

Works Cited

Text of BB GQH

Gurr, Andrew. The Shakespeare Company, 1594-1642. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Knutson, Roslyn Lander. The Repertory of Shakespeare's Company, 1594-1613. Fayetteville, AR: University of Arkansas Press, 1991.
Sharpe, Robert B. The Real War of the Theaters. Boston: D. C. Heath, 1935.

Site created and maintained by Roslyn L. Knutson, Professor Emerita, University of Arkansas at Little Rock; updated 2 August 2010.