Esther 1: 13-21
13 Then the king consulted the sages who knew the laws (for this was the king’s procedure toward all who were versed in law and custom, 14 and those next to him were Carshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena, and Memucan, the seven officials of Persia and Media, who had access to the king, 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 Ahasuerus conveyed by the eunuchs?” 16 Then Memucan said in the presence of the king and the officials, “Not only has Queen Vashti done wrong to the king, but also to all the officials and all the peoples who are in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. 17 For this deed of the queen will be made known to all women, causing them to look with contempt on their husbands, since they will say, ‘King Ahasuerus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, and she did not come.’ 18 This very day the noble ladies of Persia and Media who have heard of the queen’s behavior will rebel against the king’s officials, and there will be no end of contempt and wrath! 19 If it pleases the king, let a royal order go out 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 never again to come before King Ahasuerus; and let the king give her royal position to another who is better than she. 20 So 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 alike.”
21 This advice pleased the king and the officials, and the king did as Memucan proposed;22 he sent letters to all the royal provinces, to every province in its own script and to every people in its own language, declaring that every man should be master in his own house.
In George R.R. Martin’s book (and by extension the television series) The Game of Thrones begins with Robert Baratheon as king, and King Robert likes his drink and he likes his women (well every woman except the one he is married to, but that is a long story) and he makes a number of brash decisions. In both stories a king’s inebriation leads him to make decisions he will later regret and allows him to be manipulated by his counselors. What began as an interpersonal refusal, Vashti refuses to appear, becomes an event of national consequence. One adviser leads the king on a drastic course of action that seems to be completely disproportionate to the slight for fear that Vashti’s actions will embolden all women to be rebels against their own husbands, and well anarchy is only one tipping domino away, at least as Memucan fears it.
We can speculate all we want about why Vashti refuses: was it because she knew the kings would make a spectacle of her, some seem to think that she was to appear naked although this is not a part of what is recorded, her reasons in the story are her own and as much as we might want to applaud her, she is but a foil in the story. She has unsuccessfully negotiated the realities of the situation she found herself in. In challenging the king’s authority she lost. In a perfect world with equal power, with no patriarchal systems or favoritism based on authority, position or wealth someone would never have to worry about how they negotiate the realities of the political situations they find themselves in, but Vashti and we do not live in a perfect world. Vashti will open the door for Esther, our protagonist to enter the scene and we will see her enter the story next.
A decision made in anger makes the story turn. The excess of the decision should make us laugh at the king. The story is told by people who are without power at a festival where they have some free space to poke fun, indirectly, at the ruling powers. We should be able to enjoy the sarcastic picture of this ruler of the largest empire of his day as well: the king is a buffoon whose heart is made glad with wine and he is no wiser or more powerful than the rest of us for his own decision will bind him, and bad advice will cost him something he cherishes. Perhaps before we allow our own fears of what might happen if the dominos begin to fall and we find ourselves on the treacherous slippery slope of moral depravity unleashed by one person’s refusal to conform to expectations, we should take a deep breath and perhaps a reality check. Yet the king in this respect is no different than us, for words harshly uttered cannot be taken back, and although we may not find ourselves in the ridiculous position of being unable to unmake a law or ruling many times our words can leave a legacy that we must live with.