Throughout the ancient tale that spawned from even older oral traditions in the Middle East, in “Thousand and One Nights”, Shahrazad occupies not only the position of storyteller, but of teacher. Throughout “Thousand and One Nights” she relates ideas about violence, jealousy, and misogyny in the hopes of exposing these wrongs to Shahryar. While never appearing to taking an authoritative role, since she maintains the appearance of entertaining instead of instructing in “Thousand and One Nights” many valuable lessons are espoused and although the King is clearly entertained, it is hoped that the messages behind her stories are not falling on deaf ears.
To suggest that Shahrazad has a clearly visible theme she wishes to express (i.e. feminism, religion, the corruption of power) she touches on a number of issues through vignettes in “Thousand and One Nights” that are meant to instruct just as they are to entertain. The modern reader of “Thousand and One Nights” may wish to project a feminist agenda onto the stories she tells, but this would be a fallacy since several of her tales include graphic and rather misogynistic descriptions and messages. Still, however, Shahrazad offers a balanced picture of human wrong in “Thousand and One Nights” and attempts to expose the wrongs of both sexes equally. While she tries throughout her nights with the king to make him see some of the errors of his ways, the reader must not forget that in “Thousand and One Nights” it is stated in a piece of literary criticism that, “Shahrazad’s role as a teacher is neither declared, nor predefined, nor articulated in the process, but hidden behind her role as storyteller and entertainer” (Naithani 277). Armed with this way of reading the text—as something of a “mirror for princes”—it becomes possible to view Shahrazad’s tales as lessons on certain social ills and moreover, attempt to define her as a heroine.
When the reader is introduced to Shahrazad in The Thousand and One Nights, it is learned that she “pursued books, annals, and legends of preceding Kings…She had pursued the works of poets and knew them by heart…studied philosophy and the sciences, arts and accomplishments (Burton 15). This description stands in stark contrast to the previous portrayals of women in The Thousand and One Nights of how Shahryar came to hate women and immediately sets the reader up for expecting something more from this woman (who unlike the women mentioned up until this point, is actually granted a name). After learning about her education, which it is implied has come from self-teaching and a personal love of learning, it is exposed that she is strong-willed and unwilling to relent to male pressure. For example, her father tells her the story of the man who could speak the language of animals and how he “dealt with” his wife. He relates that after the man beat his wife, she kissed his hand and feet and he led her out of the room, submissive, as a wife should be.
Her parents and all the company rejoiced and sadness and mourning were changed into joy and gladness. Thus the merchant learnt family discipline from his Cock and he and his wife lived together the happiest of lives until death” (Burton 14). Although this is the case of a wife and husband, the fact remains that a father’s control over a daughter is much the same. Her father threatens her with equal treatment (being beaten into submission) but instead of bending under his will, she responds in true heroic fashion, “I wish thou wouldst give me in marriage to this King Shahryar; either I shall live or I shall be a ransom for the virgin daughters of Moslems and the cause of their deliverance” (Burton 15). What is perhaps most striking about this statement is that she is implying that there is a feminist motivation to her potentially deadly altruistic action. Strangely however, while one might expect this set-up to lead into a series of feminist tales, her first few stories are about the typical evil and unfaithful wife. While it has been mentioned that her tales are meant to serve as entertaining instruction, one must wonder why Shahrazad, with these feminist underpinnings spurning her action, does not engage in less misogynistic tales at the beginning.
Shahrazad is quite the fearless hero throughout the course of Thousand Nights and while this may extend to her refusal to submit to male authority, it does not encompass her choices of tales to tell the clearly misogynistic king. If it is in fact her aim to teach the king lessons, given her previous behavior, one might expect her tales to have a more recognizable feminist motivation. As it is, she relates tales about women who do wrong by their husbands, use magic to trick men, and like the woman who threatens to awake the genie if the two kings don’t have sex with her, engage in sexual power-plays. One critic pointed out the potential foolishness of Shahrazad’s choice of tales by stating, Even the very first story, The Merchant and the Jinni, introduces the theme of wicked wives, which renders it an unsuitable or, in the case of a wife having intercourse with a black slave, even tactless choice by a woman in such a dangerous situation as Shahrazad’s” (Enderwitz 188). While Enderwitz may be correct in assuming that this is a dangerous choice, it has been overlooked that Shahrazad rejects the idea that men pose a threat to her. If that is not quite the case then at least she has some feeling of her ability to soothe their anger—with words rather than sexual appeals. Perhaps by mirroring the king’s interactions with women in her tales, even if the woman is in the wrong, there is still some displaced lesson being taught, even if it is merely that there are some women deserving of punishment while there are also others who should have the right to fair treatment.