What made Shakespeare famous was his ability to pen adaptations. This salacious fact draws from his purloining of content from long dead authors, incapable of making too much of a fuss, though some noticed. Gaiman, is guilty of the same sins, but I have yet to find fault in the poor man for this. Adaptations are tributes to our heroes and villains, compartmentalizing life experiences into narratives that see us in the action of memorable plots. So, at the final issue of The Sandman’s consecutive 75 issue run, Gaiman adapts Shakespeare’s The Tempest for his final work. The Will Shakespeare featured in the comic is aged, portly, depressed, and nostalgic–an author– and is completing his final commissioned play for Dream of the Endless. How Gaiman sets up the issue gives insight to Will’s creative process and perhaps reveals the source of Dream’s inner despair. Though the ending is painful, there is hope. The emphasis here is that the ending of a story is just as important as the introduction. As Gilbert remarked to Daniel, as the new King of the Dreaming began to recreate him, the emphasis on life is death, it’s ending. How The Sandman ends then sheds light on the series as a whole.
We have arrived.
Issue #75 concerns itself with the writing process of Shakespeare, how he develops his characters, where his plots are extracted from others works, and, namely, how he feels about the plays he writes. Will, the tortured artist, then is the focus of the issue. There have been other attempts to do this, such as Miramax’s 1998 Shakespeare in Love, and though the film was a cinematic gem, it made the work of Shakespeare into the object of derision, emphasizing Romeo and Juliet, a play that isn’t up to par with even the mediocre tragedies. Here, Shakespeare writing methodology comes from his everyday life experiences, which flies in the face of everything modern historians know about the artistry of the English Renaissance. Wiki “bookwheel” and one will find the product of Agostino Ramelli’s genuis, a simple revolving bookshelf. Obviously, not every layman would be able to afford a complicated feat of Early Modern engineering (and besides, it’s Italian…), but the understanding that the ability to read allowed any man, or woman, passage into the private inner circles of society from the distance of a page was commonplace in Elizabethan England. And so we see Gaiman’s Shakespeare exactly how he appears to be: a commoner that simply reads a lot. The difference between Gaiman’s understanding and that of the film, Shakespeare in Love, is that the former constructs a Shakespeare that is introverted, isolated, and rather boring compared to his adventurous and intrepid friend Ben Jonson.
Shakespeare emphasizes that he writes by “being a person,” an idea that the gregarious Ben Jonson instigates from Will after he lists the long resume of enriching life experiences and trades he has acquired over the years. The idea of “being a person,” allowing a writer passage into the mind of his/her characters is an understanding that takes intimate personal interaction and translating the substance of those interactions into narrative form. It is a technique that I employ shamelessly and frequently. In Shakespeare’s life, his process is the sum of his experiences surrounding his regret. Since the arrival of Dream into his life, Shakespeare’s world has not been the same. He has neglected his family, incurred regret, and yet earned his one true wish: to be remembered long after he is gone. He certainly received his wish fulfilled in excess, now the most widely recognized name in Western Literature; yet his personal life and family eludes even the most meticulous scholars. Gaiman offers his conclusions, interpreting Shakespeare to be closed off, and tired of writing, recognizing the mechanical nature of his craft. When Dream arrives to check on the progress of The Tempest, Shakespeare is going over his older plays pointing out which speeches were fabricated to please a play actor or allowed the players more time to change clothing in between scenes. His tired eyes, his posture bent over his writing desk, depict a man bereft of inspiration. Between himself and Dream, he sees through the window dressings of his plays and finds the majority of them contrived. Even in the construction of The Tempest Shakespeare admits that he borrowed from other authors here or there, but the majority of it comes from his casual observations. He sees through the actions of the outside world as ongoing plays that he can borrow from to create his own. Hence Shakespeare’s writing philosophy, “being a person,” signifies something greater about him: his inability to see people as people, but objects in a hollow world.
Shakespeare’s inner anguish is caused by his yearning to know if the talent that he received was indeed his own. If it wasn’t, his talent is fraudulent. What is interesting about Shakespeare’s philosophical observations is that it implies many other scenarios, all of which I believe Gaiman intended for us to consider. If Shakespeare’s talent is fradulent, does that make the well-rounded and well-lived Ben Jonson the ideal playwright? If Shakespeare’s talent is a talent bestowed upon him as a curse, like Richard Madoc in Sandman #17 (Calliope), can Shakespeare be released? What would that mean? Half of his life has been devoted to the writing of plays for Dream, but to know what could have been is what drives Shakespeare to depression and nostalgic yearnings. It is when Shakespeare awakes from his final confrontation with Dream and exclaims upon waking, “It is over,” that Shakespeare is seen as finally free. And like awaking from a dream, he comes back to his life that was long ago deterred. He watches his daughter marry a man that is not right for her and dies alongside his friend, Ben Johnson. But like all life, it was one worth living.
It is appropriate to remind the reader that Dream makes an appearance in this final issue, and not in vain. Shakespeare’s ability to live around people, to insert them into his stories is framed as a gift that not all possess. Dream is quick to remind Shakespeare that he was indeed different that those around him and that his stories were still truly his own, only that Dream awakened an inner capacity to express them. However, Dream’s downcast expression and loneliness indicates that his time spent with Will Shakespeare was not without purpose, but was like a father who grew up without a memorable and pleasant childhood, living vicariously through the joy of his offspring. Dream reveals that he does not have a story of his own, that he does not see himself in stories like Will does. Dream’s greatest lament is that he cannot “leave the island” as Prospero did in The Tempest. He cannot burn his books and break his magic staff and repent and finally aquit himself of his true nature. Not before now do we see a member of the Endless longing to negate his nature and end his life. The reason why he commissions Shakespeare to pen a Comedy and not a Tragedy is for the expressed purpose of seeing himself leaving, experiencing that tangibly, before he ultimately commits suicide. Yet in having an ending of his own, Dream finally can have his own story. All stories need a “happily ever after,” and he finally got what he wanted, at last.
And so it ends, that I find myself writing my last exposition on Sandman. In my Absolute Editions, I had the ability to read some of Neil’s Afterwords on his work and in some way felt inspired to write my own. I am no scholar of lasting impression, but my work is still a part of me and I cherish it nonetheless. I want to thank the Sequart Staff for the bi-monthly slots they have afforded me for this column, for putting up with my paranoia and nitpicking, and, above all, for being a conduit for my favorite author to read my work and approve of it. I want to thank Julian Darius for his words of encouragement and guidance, for helping me become a better writer and scholar, and for disagreeing with me, amicably. Lastly, I want to thank my ever-supportive wife for her editing work of these articles, for teaching me how to mechanically separate thoughts, and for showing me, once and for all, the supremacy of the Oxford Comma. This marks the completion of my first major work for Sequart, perhaps to be followed by a Sandman book? Perhaps… All endings mean is a new beginning.