When we meet Shahrayar, he is portrayed as a cruel, powerful ruler. After the betrayal (and resulting execution) of his wife, Shahrayar marries a new woman every day. However, to avoid further betrayal, he strangles his newlywed every morning. Enter Scheherazade. Knowing her likely fate (to be strangled in the morning), Shahrayar's newest wife begins the 1001 Arabian Nights (stories).
Immediately Shahrayar is interested in the prospect of a story, in the unknown and fantastical.
"A story," exclaimed the Sultan.
"Yes, I know many stories. Please let me tell a story as my last wish." the Sultan agreed again.
After just one night, Shahrayar's curiosity is enough to spare Scheherazade's life (albeit for just another 24 hours). Already we are introduced to a new side of Shahrayar--one without cruelty and oppression.
The stories of the first few nights are carefully chosen to promote moral lessons:
First night - The first story (The Merchant and the Demon) speaks of "blood for blood" and punishment without proof of guilt. The Demon's acts mirror the Sultan's--indiscriminate and without due cause.
Fourth night - The merchant is still under the Demon's control. The story of the fourth night further relates directly to the situation of Shahrayar and Scheherazade. During the story, the Merchant asks the Demon to remove a portion of guilt in return for stories. Sparing a life is a feature of the Merchant's story.
Fifth night - During the fifth story, life and death choices are again explored. If the Merchant had killed the bull, his daughter would not have married. The story demonstrates that everything may not be as it seems--and that irreversible decisions (like murder) should not be taken lightly. The value of stories (and the learning they can convey) is also a moral of the story.
The stories use a mixture of fantasy and reality to explore the roles of mortality, judgement and forgiveness. The Sultan learns and grows through the stories, ever eager to learn more.