Possible Exam Questions
How does the writer create tension?
How is Sheherezade presented?
How is Sultan Schahriar presented?

This is the introduction to one of the most famous story collections in the world: The Thousand and One Nights, also known in English as The Arabian Nights. This extract is the framing narrative to all the other stories and sets up the central problem: a blood-thirsty (mad?) king, Schahriar, is murdering his way through all the women in the kingdom.
*framing narrative = the story that contains all the other stories, e.g. Wuthering Heights and Frankenstein both have framing narratives that introduce what we think of as the main story. Other examples are The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, and Boccaccio’s Decameron. Think of it as a picture frame.

How is Schahriar presented?

Schahriar rules a ‘prosperous and powerful’ kingdom. His line is ‘great’ and full of ‘praises’. He voluntarily divides his kingdom with his beloved brother. They ‘loved each other tenderly’. He ‘loved’ his first wife ‘more than all the world’, and his ‘greatest happiness’ was to please her. The language is elevated, gentle and generous with love as well as money and land. The transformation when he discovers her ‘shame’ (unfaithfulness) is abrupt: ‘he felt himself obliged to carry out the law of the land’ and has her killed.

‘The blow was so heavy that his mind almost gave way, and he declared  that he was quite sure that at bottom all women were as wicked as the sultana, if you could only find them out, and that the fewer the world contained the better.’ 

The writer describes a shocking transformation, from tender, loving man to a murderer. Schahriar has only one thought: the fewer [women] the world contained the better. Through this, the writer shows how our judgement can be warped by emotions, and how quickly love turns to hate. What’s especially dangerous here is that Schahriar’s hate extends not just to his wife but to all women. His wife was proven unfaithful, but the other women are not. This brings to mind rulers who extend brutality to all, without justice or evidence. This story considers the problem of absolute power. When informed by love, it’s good. When informed by hate, it’s devastating. Extreme and dramatic stories such as these were often written to teach Kings, in a subtle, polite way, how (not) to use their power.

Each night, Schahriar marries a new wife. Each morning, he has her killed. Schahriar’s belief (all women must die), his great power and his proven determination to carry it all build tension: ‘every day saw a girl married and a wife dead.’ This is a particularly sinister (dark) image: the word ‘girl’ suggests innocence, promise and fertility. The people’s reaction is ‘horror’, ‘cries’ and ‘lamentations’, and the sound of a ‘father weeping for the loss of his daughter, in another perhaps a mother trembling for the fate of her child’. Even those not directly affected realise they could be next. His subjects, who used to give him ‘blessings’ now give him ‘curses’. This represents any dictator through history, ruling through fear and murder, killing the very people – innocence, fertility, hope – on which his power rests. The language (blessings/curses) shows transformation from one extreme to the other, and how quickly it occurs.

At this point we meet Scheherazade.

How is Scheherazade presented?

She is contrasted with her sister, who has ‘no particular gifts’. Scheherazade’s are so numerous it takes some time to list them. She is ‘clever and courageous in the highest degree’. The superlative (‘highest’) emphasises how outstanding she is. It’s interesting we learn she is ‘clever’, brave and highly educated first, and only later that ‘her beauty excelled that of any girl in the kingdom of Persia.’ Her father, the ‘grand-vizir’ (chief minister to the King) has educated her to the highest level in traditionally masculine subjects. This emphasises how loved, she is. We see this again when her father says ‘I can refuse you nothing that is just and reasonable’. This emphasises the theme of justice and reason linked to Scheherezade and her father, in contrast to the Sultan. The love her father has for her builds tension when she demands to become Schahriar’s wife.

First, she says she is ‘determined to end this barbarous practice’. We’ve already been told she has ‘courage’; now we see it in action. Her wish to ‘deliver the girls and mothers from the awful fate that hangs over them,’ is truly noble: she will risk herself to save others. It also emphasises how monstrous Schahriar has become, that he has created this ‘awful fate’. Her father thinks it would be ‘excellent’ to end the deaths, but reacts with horror when he realises Scheherezade proposes to risk herself (as any father might). What’s interesting is that it takes a woman to challenge the Sultan. Even though her father is ‘just and reasonable’, he is still ‘delivering’ the girls to the sultan to be killed. This is a regime of terror. As a woman, Sheherezade has no power and will find herself – sooner or later – on the death list. From weakness, she finds strength. Unlike the men invested in the system, she has little to lose. Through the character of the Vizier, the writer shames men who silently enact the brutal wishes of dictators.

Her language is like a soldier’s. She knows ‘well’ that she may die and says: “I am not afraid to think of it. If I fail, my death will be a glorious one, and if I succeed I shall have done a great service to my country.” Her father says “I shall never consent.” and asks her to think of her duty as a daughter. At this point, she becomes a disobedient, ‘obstinate’ daughter. In literature of this period, this was one of the worst things a girl could be, but ironically, it emphasises how noble she is. Alone, she stands up against her family and other people’s silence – to save them from something they all know is wrong.

The Sultan’s reaction is ‘astonishment’ that his counsellor would “sacrifice your own daughter to me?” This scene emphasises the unnatural brutality of the regime, forcing fathers to kill their own daughters. The fact it is so open makes it worse. The Sultan tells the vizier: “you will have to take her life yourself. If you refuse, I swear that your head shall pay forfeit.” The vizier’s obedience is almost tragic. 

Once she gets her own way, Scheherazade tries to comfort her ‘grief’ stricken father. Then she asks her sister to help her, painting a sweet picture of co-operation and mutual support. What’s surprising is the murderous Sultan’s human tenderness when he sees the ‘tears in her eyes’. He asks to know what’s wrong and grants her request.
“I have a sister who loves me as tenderly as I love her.”