The atmosphere and celebration of carnival linking it with the feast of Purim, at which this story is traditionally read aloud (twice), is one hermeneutical key to understanding the book of Esther. Adele Berlin identifies the book of Esther as a ‘burlesque’ (2001: xix) and suggests it should be read as a comedy or a farce, replete as it is with exaggeration, caricature, ludicrous situations, practical jokes, coincidences, improbabilities, repetitions of scenes and reversals of circumstance. Irony and sarcasm abound as we progress from banquet to banquet.
The Scroll or Megillah, as the book of Esther is referred to in the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh), opens with Vashti’s refusal to come into the king’s presence when he sends his eunuchs ‘to bring Queen Vashti before the king wearing a royal diadem (1:10). That she was wearing only a royal diadem, without any other clothes on her body, is what the rabbis suggest in their interpretation (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 12b).
An aura of lewdness and debauchery and a ‘tone of excess, buffoonery, and bawdiness’ characterize the opening verses of the book (Berlin 2001: 3). Richard McBee’s painting Vashti’s Tail captures this tone, and presents us with a Vashti acting out the king’s demand. She is represented as a rather bizarre ‘bunny girl’ type of cabaret dancer wearing only her twinkling turreted diadem. Playfully she shows off her tail—only her tail is more that of a monkey than a bunny. We can almost hear the hilarity and raucous response.
But none of this happens in the biblical text; Vashti does not appear before the king in her crown. Like the figure hiding around the corner in the archway, she refuses to obey and come into the presence of the drunken king and his retinue, for their gratuitous ogling. Frenetic brushwork and unusually juxtaposed, lurid colours work here to stir up the heightened atmosphere that pervades the palace of an easily influenced despot liable to fly into a rage at the slightest provocation and prone to sweeping pronouncements that impact the lives of countless subjects.
In Marc Chagall’s interpretation, it might be said that it is the king who appears to be the buffoon. Adorned in an oversized, decorated gown and crown, outward appearances matter to this king. Chagall’s Vashti, seen in profile, is reflective and calm as she turns her back on the puffed-up king and his entourage. Ahasuerus looms larger-than-life, towering over his four diminutive companions, at the top of stairs; the location might be the city gate, the palace gate, or the entrance to a dungeon of sorts. It would seem the king has come into the presence of Vashti, even if only to banish her forever from his. This is an interesting reversal of Vashti’s refusal to come into the presence of the king. It is telling that Esther, the new queen to follow, also greatly fears coming into the presence of the king, most especially unbidden, as the consequence may be death (4:9–11).
Midrashim on Vashti abound, and we are informed that she was the daughter of King Belshazzar of Babylon and the great-granddaughter of King Nebuchadnezzar, the one responsible for the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem (Berlin 2001: liii, 14). On account of her ethnicity and familial lineage (extending back through Babylonian royalty—historic persecutors of the Hebrew people), Vashti is not entitled to sympathy from the Jewish reader. Chagall’s sensitive portrayal of Vashti, situating her close to the viewer in the foreground of his work, is thus another reversal of the conventional reception of this text. He arouses our pathos for her predicament. She retains her crown and her dignity, yet her almost diaphanous dress features many eyes suggestive not just of peacock magnificence but also of the objectifying male gaze from which she withdraws and protectively covers herself.
The narrative opens with a description of power, wealth, and grandeur on a stupendous scale. This is an aspect of the Esther story that made it fittingly attractive as a parable to decorate the sumptuous wedding chests that marked marital alliances in Florentine patrician society. The cassoni were paraded through the city streets, behind the wedding party, as part of the wedding procession—another carnivalesque context. Filippino Lippi’s banished Vashti, not unlike Chagall’s, steps forward tentatively, but is demure and resigned to her fate. Her dignity and autonomy are intact, if not her crown—despite the precariousness of her new situation.
Berlin, Adele. 2001/5761. Esther, The JPS Bible Commentary (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society)
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.