In this lithograph the king, accompanied by his courtiers, towers over Vashti from his throne at the top of a flight of stairs. Vashti, at the lower right, turns away and appears to withdraw into herself.
The biblical text is unclear about the fate of Vashti, and she disappears never to be heard of again. Here, at the foot of the stairs, she looks as though she has been banished to a dark, stony dungeon.
A strong diagonal divides the composition from the lower left to the upper right, separating Vashti from the king and his council. Could it represent collapsing columns in the palace, as Vashti’s ‘disobedience’ is presented not merely as a personal affront to Ahasuerus, but as threatening the stability of his vast kingdom? In this tale, political power and sexual relations are closely interwoven.
Strong emotion is often evoked through colour in Marc Chagall’s work. Vashti, perhaps pensive in expression, adopts a pose that is frequently to be seen in Chagall’s depiction of the prophets—for example the lithographs, Pleurs de Jérémie (1956), David et Bethsabée (1956), Le prophète et l’ange (1979). Her body curves inwards on itself as she contemplates her situation. Unlike the king, Vashti is not accompanied by an entourage of supporters; she is alone and must rely on her own resources to face the consequences of her decision. She draws her arms around her protectively, crossing them asymmetrically over her body to cover herself, adopting the classical ‘Venus Pudica’ pose (as seen in Masaccio’s c.1425 fresco of Eve leaving the Garden of Eden in shame). Vashti retreats from the glare of the men, and yet she seems unable to escape their gaze altogether. Their eyes, like the viewer’s, follow her—they are evoked in the pattern on her dress.
Ahasuerus is aflame with rage, a burning tower in the inky-blue darkness, his elaborate and highly decorated red gown a reflection of both his heightened emotional state and his regal status.
As his drunkenness turns to outrage, the text describes the king turning to his sages who knew the laws. Here, these figures, diminutive beside their megalomaniac king, reflect his rage in their flushed faces as they look down on Vashti with contempt.
1 In the days of Ahasu-eʹrus, the Ahasu-eʹrus who reigned from India to Ethiopia over one hundred and twenty-seven provinces, 2in those days when King Ahasu-eʹrus sat on his royal throne in Susa the capital, 3in the third year of his reign he gave a banquet for all his princes and servants, the army chiefs of Persia and Media and the nobles and governors of the provinces being before him, 4while he showed the riches of his royal glory and the splendor and pomp of his majesty for many days, a hundred and eighty days. 5And when these days were completed, the king gave for all the people present in Susa the capital, both great and small, a banquet lasting for seven days, in the court of the garden of the king’s palace. 6There were white cotton curtains and blue hangings caught up with cords of fine linen and purple to silver rings and marble pillars, and also couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl and precious stones. 7Drinks were served in golden goblets, goblets of different kinds, and the royal wine was lavished according to the bounty of the king. 8And drinking was according to the law, no one was compelled; for the king had given orders to all the officials of his palace to do as every man desired. 9Queen Vashti also gave a banquet for the women in the palace which belonged to King Ahasu-eʹrus.
10 On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuʹman, Biztha, Harboʹna, Bigtha and Abagʹtha, Zethar and Carkas, the seven eunuchs who served King Ahasu-eʹrus as chamberlains, 11to bring Queen Vashti before the king with her royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the princes her beauty; for she was fair to behold. 12But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command conveyed by the eunuchs. At this the king was enraged, and his anger burned within him.
13 Then the king said to the wise men who knew the times—for this was the king’s procedure toward all who were versed in law and judgment, 14the men next to him being Carsheʹna, Shethar, Admaʹtha, Tarshish, Meres, Marseʹna, and Memuʹcan, the seven princes of Persia and Media, who saw the king’s face, and sat first in the kingdom—: 15“According to the law, what is to be done to Queen Vashti, because she has not performed the command of King Ahasu-eʹrus conveyed by the eunuchs?” 16Then Memuʹcan said in presence of the king and the princes, “Not only to the king has Queen Vashti done wrong, but also to all the princes and all the peoples who are in all the provinces of King Ahasu-eʹrus. 17For this deed of the queen will be made known to all women, causing them to look with contempt upon their husbands, since they will say, ‘King Ahasu-eʹrus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, and she did not come.’ 18This very day the ladies of Persia and Media who have heard of the queen’s behavior will be telling it to all the king’s princes, and there will be contempt and wrath in plenty. 19If it please the king, let a royal order go forth from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes so that it may not be altered, that Vashti is to come no more before King Ahasu-eʹrus; and let the king give her royal position to another who is better than she. 20So when the decree made by the king is proclaimed throughout all his kingdom, vast as it is, all women will give honor to their husbands, high and low.” 21This advice pleased the king and the princes, and the king did as Memuʹcan proposed; 22he sent letters to all the royal provinces, to every province in its own script and to every people in its own language, that every man be lord in his own house and speak according to the language of his people.