The book of Esther reaches its climax in Chapter 7 when Esther beseeches Achashverosh for her own life and that of her nation and, in the process, accuses Haman. This banquet scene is a favorite of artists, and is shown here as depicted by J. Victors,1 E. Normand,2 and J. Steen.3 Each of the artists focuses on the threesome of Esther, Achashverosh and Haman, but they differ both in the choice of which secondary characters and objects to include, and in the depiction of the figures' interactions, stances and expressions. These variations allow for different understandings of both Esther's and Achashverosh's character and motives.
Victors' image is the sparsest of the three, featuring just the three protagonists around the banquet table. Esther stands in the back with her body and face positioned towards Achashverosh, but her hand stretched towards Haman. The two men sit across from each other, the king adorned in red and Haman robed in black. The king glares at Haman, raising a staff in one hand and clenching the other into a fist. His anger is clearly visible but seems controlled. Haman, in turn, looks not at Achashverosh but at Esther. His hands clasp together anxiously as he awaits his fate.
In contrast to Victor's intimate threesome, Normand depicts his figures at a distance from one another, with a scattering of servants displayed in the back. Esther and Haman are highlighted in the foreground, as the white-robed queen kneels and dramatically points an accusing finger at her enemy. Haman reacts by cowering in his chair with his arms raised as if to protect himself from attack. The king, meanwhile, sits in the shadows and appears to be more of an onlooker than a participant in the unfolding drama.
In Steen's painting, Achashverosh takes center stage, standing with one hand outstretched and the other clamped in a tight fist. Directly in front of him, his wine goblet is featured prominently. He seems to teeter slightly, from either drunkenness, rage, or both, and with his outburst, he overthrows a vase and a peacock pie.4 Esther sits to the viewer's right, a hand clenched to her bosom, while the extremely distraught Haman looks at the floor, his face a mask of dismay.
Relationship to the Biblical Text
The artists' choices reflect certain ambiguities in the Biblical text and different possible interpretive stances:
While Victors portrays just Achashverosh, Esther, and Haman, both Steen and Normand include several bystanders in the scene. Who was present at the banquet according to the Biblical text? Although it is clear that Haman and the king are the only invited guests,5 it is less clear how many other servants were present. Charvonah is the only eunuch mentioned by name, but it is possible that others were around as well. The difference relates to the atmosphere that Esther was trying to create. Did she intentionally plan a private and intimate party which might encourage the king's jealousy of Haman, an obvious third wheel?6 Or, alternatively, did she purposefully want witnesses to the accusation?
While Steen's Achashverosh is clearly full of wrath and seems somewhat out of control, Normand's king seems almost apathetic, watching from afar and only inching forward in his seat to see better. Victor's Achashverosh is somewhere in the middle, visibly upset but still in control. Though the verses clearly state that Achashverosh was filled with fury upon hearing Esther accuse Haman, they do not explain the cause of such a reaction, especially considering that Achashverosh should have been privy to Haman's plan from beforehand.
Was Achashverosh simply a drunken and fickle king, given to whimsical rages and loss of self control, as might be concluded from Steen's image?7 Or, might Achashverosh actually have been Victor's strong and disciplined king who, for some reason, really was unaware of Haman's plans and thus legitimately angry when he heard them?8 Or is it possible, instead, that Esther's news actually did not really shock the king at all? Perhaps her pleas simply matched his own personal interests and his anger at Haman was unconnected to her plea. For elaboration on each of these possibilities, see Achashverosh's Shock and Fury.
Drunk or Sober?
While Steen prominently displays a wine goblet at the center of the table and presents a king who appears slightly tipsy, neither of the other artists emphasizes this element. Was Achashverosh really a drunkard? On one hand, parties and drink are definitely highlighted throughout the Megillah, and in Chapter 1 the king is said to act "כְּטוֹב לֵב הַמֶּלֶךְ בַּיָּיִן". On the other hand, Achashverosh was clearly a powerful king who ruled over a massive empire, a feat not easily performed by a drunken fool.
Esther: Docile or Active?
Victors and Steen both portray Esther as accusing Haman from a position quite close to the king. Normand's Esther, in contrast, stands on her own, at a distance from Achashverosh, actively pointing at Haman. She appears to have her own inner strength and makes the Esther of the other artists seem docile and weak in comparison. What strength of character did Esther really have? Is she ever proactive, or does she only do as others tell her?9 Is she a puppet of Mordechai, acting only upon his bidding, or does she on her own plot how to bring about Haman's downfall? See Portrait of Esther for more.