Esther, Shakespeare, and the Hidden Hand of God

March 21, 2019 | Noah Millman
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In the book of Esther, read in synagogues yesterday evening and today, the miraculous salvation of Persian Jewry from the genocidal plot of the wicked vizier Haman appears to take place thanks to a few fortunate coincidences and the courage of the two heroes, Mordecai and Esther. Indeed, God’s name is mentioned nowhere in the text, and there are but two oblique references, made by Mordecai, to divine providence. Noah Millman seeks to make sense of these puzzling aspects of the book through a comparison with Shakespeare:

Were it not canonical, we might read the book of Esther as a comic story of pluck and luck. . . . But Esther is canonical. . . . This is how Mordecai himself tells Esther (and us) to understand the story. Salvation will come one way or another, he tells her, and one should act as if one has a providential role to play even though there is no sign of it. Non-signs thus become signs, and every profane or comedic element in the book is transformed into a greater source of wonder. . . .

However familiar, this reading is still strange. . . . When Mordecai asks Esther to consider the possibility that she was placed in the palace for a purpose, he gestures at a plane of existence for which the reader has seen no evidence. Esther’s own faith, with which she girds herself to approach [her husband, the Persian emperor] Ahasuerus, is stoic: “And if I perish, I shall perish.” To read such a story providentially, as Mordecai and tradition bid us, requires us to see the book’s biblical status as itself evidence of God’s controlling hand, the very fact that we read the story in a synagogue on Purim implying that there is destiny in coincidence, fulfilled prophecy in surprise.

It’s a neat trick. But would it work if we could actually see the author manipulating those chance occurrences? Make him visible, make it possible to ask why this way and not that? [As it happens], Shakespeare wrote that play. In Measure for Measure we see just that kind of manipulation by a character with godlike pretensions and with some of the same plot elements and turns as Esther. . . . Reading the book of Esther by the light of Shakespeare’s play forces us to face our ambivalence about the character of this hidden manipulator, to feel both the weight of his sovereignty and our frustration at his lack of forthrightness.

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