Tuesday, 5 June 2018

5 June, 1594 - Esther and Ahasuerus

Here's what the Admiral's Men and/or the Chamberlain's Men performed at the Newington Butts playhouse on this day, 424 years ago...
Henslowe writes: ye 3 of June 1594 ... R at heaster and asheweros ... viijs

In modern English: 5th of June, 1594 ... Received at Esther and Ahasuerus ... 8 shillings

Welcome back to a new sequence of entries from Philip Henslowe's diary! For the next week or so, Henslowe is recording performances by the Admiral's Men and the Chamberlain's Men, who are sharing the Newington Butts playhouse in the countryside south of London. As is so often the case, Henslowe's dates are muddled, so he will be two days out of sync for the next few weeks; in correcting them, I am indebted to the work of earlier scholars (especially Martin Wiggins in his Catalogue of British Drama).

The players chose to open their stint at Newington Butts with Esther and Ahasuerus, a play that we have not yet encountered in the diary. It probably belonged to the Chamberlain's Men - that is, the company to which William Shakespeare belonged - because there are no records of the Admiral's Men performing it by themselves. The title tells us that the play was based on the biblical Book of Esther, in which the eponymous heroine saves the Jewish people from the devious Persian vizier Haman.

The play itself is probably lost, but it may survive in a German translation. There are records of English companies touring Germany and performing a Comedy of Queen Esther and the Haughty Haman. And a 1620 German text of that name that may preserve, however distantly, the play that was performed at Newington. Either way, let's take a look at the legend of Esther and imagine what a dramatist could have done with it.

The story of Queen Esther

The Book of Esther relates how Ahasuerus, King of Persia, commands his Queen, Vashti, to show off her beauty to visiting guests. When she refuses, the angry Ahasuerus banishes Vashti for disobedience and makes a proclamation that wives should be obedient to their husbands.

A search begins for a better queen, and Ahasuerus eventually chooses Esther. But Esther does not tell the King that she is Jewish; only her kinsman Mordecai knows. Esther and Mordecai then become popular with the King when they help him to avoid an assassination attempt.

Esther accusing Haman: Jan Lievens' The Feast
of Esther
(c. 1625)
But the King's counselor, Haman, forms a grudge against Mordecai so intense that he persuades the King to order the massacre of all Jews in the kingdom.

Fearing for the lives of her family, Esther arranges a feast for herself, Ahasuerus and Haman. There, she reveals to the King that she is Jewish and that Haman has therefore ordered her death and that of her people. Ahasuerus is furious and hangs Haman.

Ahasuerus is not able to reverse his own order for a massacre, but he instead permits the Jews to fight back against anyone who assaults them. Battles therefore break out across the land, and the Jews are victorious. In the aftermath, Ahasuerus permits an annual celebration of this event, known to this day as Purim.

The German play that may be based on Esther and Ahasuerus (see above) follows the Biblical narrative fairly closely but adds a comic subplot about the violent quarrels between a clownish carpenter and his insubordinate wife after King Ahasuerus makes his proclamation against widely disobedience. The couple eventually take their disagreements to the King, who makes them court jesters to himself and his Queen.

Was it popular?

The box office takings for Esther and Ahasuerus were only 8 shillings. This would have been a disastrous return at the Rose, but, as I explained yesterday, it's not clear what the box office figures for the Newington Butts theatre refer to, so we probably shouldn't take the low figure too seriously.


Hester and Ahasuerus information

  • Roslyn L. Knutson, "Hester and Ahasuerus", Lost Plays Database (2012). 
  • Martin Wiggins, British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue, vol. 2 (Oxford University Press, 2012), entry 801.

Henslowe links


Did I make a mistake? Do you have a question? Have you anything to add? Please post a comment below!

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