Today, entertainment competes heavily for our attention. Some eagerly await the Season Finale of ‘Lost’, others are happy to go see a movie at a nearby movie theater. There’s Hulu and Netflix and the iPod, and even the iPad. There’s a real information overload but why?
The premise of cheap entertainment is the thrill. The premise of quality entertainment, however, is the story. And good stories can be told compellingly in any medium whether it’s the silver screen, pixels or print. Or, perhaps, a good story can be told through the forgotten art of theater.
I would like to cordially invite you to examine a unique and ancient theater production of our own: the Megillah Reading. True, it may not be a Broadway show, but the story is absolutely riveting. The Book of Esther contains comedy, romance and suspense and is topped off with a happy ending—of sorts. The Megillah features a brave hero (Mordechai), and evil villain (Haman), a well-intentioned but ignorant king (Achashverosh) and of course, our beautiful heroine: Queen Esther.
I would like to approach the character of Esther. How does she develop as a character? And what is her message for a contemporary audience?
The book of Esther can be read on multiple levels. At first glance, the story seems to be a Shakespearian ‘comedy of errors’. Yet the apparent levity of the story is counterbalanced by a profound sense of gravity.
Firstly, for a Biblical text, it is remarkable that the protagonist who is featured so prominently (and heroically) is a woman. Moreover, it is striking that she is also the richest and most complex character in the story. Achashverosh and Haman are caricatures. Vashti only makes a brief cameo appearance and even our brave Mordechai is a flat character. In a sense, his heroism is predictable and one-dimensional. It is Queen Esther who tantalizes us with her complexity, courage and contradictions. Unsurprisingly, then, she is also the character that undergoes the most growth.
Another striking feature of the Book of Esther is the absence of God. The Rabbis from the Talmud already wrestled with this question. If this book is a sacred and canonical text, then where does God come into play? Or does He remain in the wings? The Megillah does not mention the God of Israel once. Furthermore, the Megillah’s plot illustrates a number of incidents that contradict Jewish law. Wasn’t Esther ‘intermarried’? How did she keep kosher in the palace of the Persian king? Was Esther a religious girl or a prime example of assimilation avant-la-letre? Exploring these questions will provide us with compelling insights into Esther’s character.
Midrash tries to answer these questions.
One of the Midrashic answers comes from the Talmud Bavli (Megilla 10b to 17a). The Midrash suggests that Esther adhered to a vegetarian diet at the palace, immersed in a mikveh before consorting with the King and resisted relations with Achashverosh. All this, of course, is conjecture of idealized ‘rabbinic’ behavior on part of Queen Esther. The rabbinic imagination doesn’t stop here. The Midrash describes Queen Esther’s beauty to the Morningstar. Even so, a more contemporary analysis of Esther’s character is more complex and more enticing.
Esther’s story begins as a hybrid between Cinderella and America’s Next Top Model—only set in Antiquity. The orphan Esther (also known as Hadassah) is Mordechai’s beautiful niece. After Achashverosh’s unfortunate incident with his former wife Vashti, Esther is summoned to the palace. There she is to compete against the many beautiful young maidens of Shushan in order to find favor in the King’s eyes. Esther won the beauty pageant avant-la-letre and was assigned personal handmaidens and an intricate year-long spa treatment with oil of myrrh, perfume and cosmetics.
If one reads the p’shat (literal meaning) of the story, concluding that Esther was the superficial type would be obvious. She allows herself to be pampered and seems to enjoy the attention lavished upon her. The text of the Megillah doesn’t hint at her having any other ambitions except from being Persia’s beauty queen. Initially, it is Mordechai who takes bold steps in order to safeguard the future of the Jewish people while Esther prefers to look away. Even when the situation surrounding Haman’s evil plans worsens.
Mordechai tries to galvanize Esther into action when he learns of Haman’s genocidal plans. He prods her to draw the King’s attention to these plans. Her initial response is evasive. 'All the king's servants, and the people of the king's provinces, do know, that whosoever, whether man or woman, shall come unto the king into the inner court, who is not called, there is one law for him, that he be put to death, except such to whom the king shall hold out the golden scepter, that he may live; but I have not been called to come in unto the king these thirty days.' (Esther 4:11)
Mordechai is disappointed in Esther’s response and even has to convince Esther to search out the King. Mordechai states; 'Don’t think that you shall escape in the king's house, more than all the Jews.’
Interestingly so, this outcry is the turning point in the narrative. From a literary perspective, it cannot be coincidental that this occurs in the middle of the Megillah, in the fifth chapter. And not only is this a turning point for the plot but also for the growth of Esther as a true heroine. She becomes a character of depth and substance who gains insight and courage. Both bravely and stoically, she proclaims, ‘v’cha’asher avad’ti, avad’it’: ‘if I perish, I perish’. (Esther 4:16)
This is the moment that Esther comes to full bloom and where she develops real Shakespearian finesse. Our young heroine forges her own plans to manipulate Achashverosh through seduction, wit and palace intrigue. Amongst these worldly goals, Esther still balances spiritual concerns by fasting—in sharp contrast to the opulence and decadence of the Persian court.
Unlike many Shakespearian dramas (although in keeping with Shakespearian comedies) all ends well. The Queen is rewarded, Mordechai is vindicated, Haman is hanged and the Jews are saved.
Esther reigns triumphant, as a fully developed and well-rounded character. She is worthy of her title, ‘Esther haMalka’. Her personal development gains full significance in light of a small but telling detail in the narrative of the Megillah. In Chapter 9, verse 29, the Megillah writes: ‘vatichtov Esther’, ‘and Esther wrote’. This description of the Purim decree that Esther issued speaks volumes. Esther shares the (albeit, dubious) honor with Jezebel of being the only two women in Tanakh who wrote in person. (Jezebel’s act of writing is recording in Kings I, 21:8). The notion of a literate Biblical Queen sparks the imagination of the contemporary reader. Esther truly underwent a metamorphosis and became the complex and rich character that still fascinates us to this day.
If you would like to experience the depth of Esther’s character yourself, I would encourage you to come to a Megillah reading. Bring your Megillah – in Hebrew and in translation – and your best spirits. Allow yourself to be swept away by an epic tale that still rings true and by the charm of its beautiful protagonist. The Book of Esther surely is a good story. With a great heroine at its midst.
(This (slightly revised) article, written as an assignment for class, was inspired by an earlier Dutch article on Queen Esther)