Once upon a Time in Shushan

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There’s a thing I say about Shakespeare fairly often—it’s helpful for modern audiences, certainly American audiences, to remind themselves that it really matters in these plays whether the right person is King. Shakespeare assumes that it will matter to the audience. It’s obvious to him, and he assumes it’s obvious to his audience, and it isn't anywhere near as obvious to modern audiences.

So, it’s Purim, and I am reading the Book of Esther, as I do every Purim, and it occurred to me that the opening scene—the exile of Vashti—is kind of a before-the-credits set piece that introduces the whole setting of the story, with a King and a Queen and a Palace, with seven chamberlains and Princes of Persia, with vessels of gold and pillars of marble. It’s kind of fairy-tale, isn’t it? It’s not clear to me whether that was the intention at the time it was put together, which was of course much closer to the time and place in which it is set, but the effect now is very much once upon a time.

I mean, the whole effect of the thing, really, only works if you start with the existence of the holiday of Purim, and ask: why do we drink, and eat triangular foods, and dress up in silly costumes, and use noisemakers, and generally have a wild party in the early Spring of the year? And to answer these quite reasonable questions, you say: Once upon a time, in a faraway land, there was a foolish King named Ahasueros…

The result, of course, is that there’s a terrific story, but it doesn’t feel in any way real. I don’t mean to suggest that the dangers of religious violence aren’t real, mind you. Or that the characters aren’t made vibrant and surprisingly detailed in such a short story. Just that it’s a fable, and it feels like a fable.

The obvious contrast is with the Book of Ruth, which is also a kind of explainer, but which feels much more realistic. Honestly, Esther is in a small group of stories in Scripture that feel fairy-tale-ish. The Garden of Eden, Bala’am’s ass, that one in Judges about stabbing the fat king, parts of the Samson story (but not all of it). Most of the stuff about the Kings doesn’t feel (to me) the same way, despite being about Kings and Palaces and so forth. Even Noah and the Flood doesn’t have the same sense to me. Perhaps that’s because the start and set-up of Noah is so very ordinary, while the start and set-up of Esther is so not-ordinary.

And, of course, part of the whole thing about a purimspiel is that panto/fairy-tale atmosphere.

And the thing is that we don’t, in that fairy-tale atmosphere, really care about who is king, or who is vizier. In the end, things will turn out all right; that’s how the story goes. Which is fine! Really, I suspect that much of my whole problem with the holiday is that I take the Scripture seriously.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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