The Old Testament book of Esther, from which the present scene is drawn, was a particular source of inspiration for Dutch artists of the period. Esther, a Jewish orphan, raised by her cousin Mordecai, married King Ahasuerus, who was unaware of her origins. Haman, the King's chief minister, who was an enemy of the Jews and personal foe of Mordecai persuaded the King to order the massacre of the Jews throughout his empire. After Esther intercedes, the King relents and orders Haman's execution on the gallows prepared for Mordecai.
The composition is divided into two clearly marked planes. The two protagonists are set against the dark architectural foil of a massive arched gateway and a distant vista of classical architecture. Placed in front of Mordecai Haman assumes a dominant position, but he is shown in a state of puzzled humiliation, his plans disastrously turned upside down. They are surrounded by a crowd who do obeisance to Mordecai, who appears splendidly unsurprised by the turn of events.
The architecture is carefully designed so that Mordechai is silhouetted against the background, while the line of the arch at the left clearly marks the position of Haman.
The way in which the figures are integrated with the architecture has much in common with the Night Watch of the following year, and the etching can be seen as a stage in the painting's development. Both use the device of the foreground being in full light, and the middle ground being in shadow, and in both does the main protagonist come out of the picture towards the viewer.
Rembrandt adds a personal touch: unlike most other treatments, the King and Queen appear seated in a balcony at the right. The royal couple bear a strong resemblance to Rembrandt and Saskia.