By Kelly Kanayama
The whole “great real-life genius man was inspired by this guy I made up” trope has never sat well with me.
I know we like to speak of da Vinci, Mozart, et al. as being touched by divine brilliance, and as a person of faith I understand the appeal, but the way it’s presented seems to do down the human capacity for brilliance that lies within so many of us. (In Christian terms, one might say that the light of God resides in every person, so we are all touched by divine brilliance in a way.) The notion that such-and-such genius man is only a genius man because they had a chance encounter with the Eleventh Doctor or whoever is troubling; they were ~chosen~, and you, poor benighted soul who has never written a symphony in a single day or painted a picture that now hangs in the Louvre or changed the face of poetry forever – you were not. So there is no hope for you to reach the heights of historic genius, ever. Especially if you are not a man at all.
That’s the unaddressed issue at the heart of Sandman #19, which details a very special performance of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for an otherworldly audience. Shakespeare and his troupe have come to Wilmington (in the Southeast of England – a fair distance both from London and from his home in Stratford-upon-Avon) to present his new play to his mysterious patron, Dream. They soon find themselves performing not just for Dream but for the entire court of Faerie, including King Auberon, Queen Titania, and several other folks who are surprised to see themselves represented in the play. Art for this issue is provided by Charles Vess, who draws some damn good faerie folk.
The fairies struggle to make sense of seeing fictionalized versions of themselves and those they know on stage. As the “real” Puck puts it, “This is magnificent – and it is true! It never happened; yet it is still true. What magic art is this?”
Dream explains thus: “Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.”
As annoying as it is to admit, Gaiman is right on the money. Every good story has truth to it: if not empirical, then emotional, spiritual, generational. Why do you think folk tales have stuck around so long? They reflect our fears and hopes back to us in narratives from those who have gone before.
But I’m not here to do a Gaimanesque THE POWER OF STORY shtick. Nor am I here to delve into the portrayal of the fairies in this issue – although you know what? I can’t let it entirely pass me by, because there’s something gratingly English about it that chaps my cheeks, if you know what I mean.
First of all, I’ve heard enough traditional stories and lived long enough in Scotland to know that you don’t fuck with the fair folk. That’s why they have so many names, because to even utter their true name is to invoke them, and you do not want that. The fair folk live by completely different rules, guided by moralities alien to us humans. In Sandman #19, Puck decides to cause some mischief by taking the place of the actor portraying him in the play (he gets away with it because the role requires wearing a mask. Plus magic, I guess). Oh ho! What magical japes!
There’s a hint of menace near the end, where he recites the last line of the play to the reader as his face fades into the dark until only his red eyes and sharp teeth are visible, but other than that his antics seem relatively harmless. Sending a man into a gentle sleep with magic and taking his place on stage is not what the fae do when they want to have some fun with the humans, according to the stories I know.
They’ll offer you up to hell. They’ll keep you in their kingdom for hundreds of years and never tell you how much time has passed, leaving you to find out only when you return to the mortal realm that everyone you ever knew is extremely dead. All I’m saying is, if these were supposed to be fairy fairies, the actor playing Puck wouldn’t just have come to all confused after the play; more likely he’d never be seen again. (Granted, the issue does imply that this is what happens to Hamnet, Shakespeare’s son: at one point we see him talking to Titania, who seems to be enticing him to join her in the Faerie kingdom by telling him how wonderful life is there, and then at the end of the issue we find out that the kid died at the age of 11. So I have to give Gaiman some credit there, except that I am revoking it times 10 because it feels disrespectful to do that with the death of an actual child.)
While watching the play, Auberon tells Dream that this will be their last visit to the mortal realm. “Things have changed, and will change more; and Gaia no longer welcomes us as once she did.” My first thought was: GOOD. There’s a reason people used to put horseshoes and other pieces of cold iron on their doors, you know? Keeps the fair folk at bay. And the reason you keep any being at bay is that they are dangerous.
But nooooo, the fairies not passing between their world and ours is presented as a bad thing here. Too much industrialization, maybe. People becoming disconnected from their natural environment. People forgetting the old pagan ways and spending too much time indoors to talk about Jesus, if you want to get 1970s-British-folk-arts about it. There’s no sense of real danger, of skittering across a knife edge when dealing with fairies; it’s all a bit Brian Froud, where the supernatural is a curiosity rather than something to be feared and respected. In short, although I can see where Sandman #19’s handling of the whole fairy thing is coming from, I think it would have benefited from a step back to examine its own cultural assumptions.
A moment of self-examination would also have helped mitigate the gendered presentation of tortured creative genius as a specifically male pursuit, not just in this issue but in the series as a whole. It’s worth noting that an earlier issue (which, like Sandman #19, was part of the Dream Country trade paperback collection) centers on a male author who buys a female Muse as a sex slave from another male author in order to unlock his creativity. Men are creators, you see. Women are sex objects, inspirations, wives and daughters to be pushed aside, not creators in their own right.
I don’t want to go full tilt into 👏WOMEN 👏CAN 👏EMOTIONALLY 👏NEGLECT 👏THEIR 👏LOVED 👏ONES 👏IN 👏THE 👏PURSUIT 👏OF 👏GENIUS 👏TOO, but you rarely see female creative genius depicted in this way. In popular media, genius men hone their craft at the expense of relationships with their families, friends, lovers, and so on, and while that isn’t presented as admirable per se, it is somehow understandable because they burn with the fire of inspiration. The wives and long-term female partners of male geniuses are “long-suffering,” able to understand that their men are geniuses but unable to wrap their limited [Ferengi voice] female minds around the expression of that genius. Imagine a movie where a woman did the same, neglecting her interpersonal connections for the sake of creating greatness.
First of all, a woman exhibiting such relational disengagement would be presented and/or perceived as so bad that it would eclipse even her most epoch-defining creations. If she had a husband or long-term male partner, he wouldn’t be “long-suffering”; he’d be venerated as a saint for taking on the majority of childcare and emotional labor for the household. Plus, portrayals of women pursuing genius always have to include a weird gender-essentialist add-on about weight or uteruses or something (e.g. Black Swan, Yennefer in Netflix’s The Witcher), which you don’t get so much with depictions of genius men. I mean, Shakespeare doesn’t spend Sandman #19 having a dick crisis; he just wants to write and have his writing echo throughout history forever, to which many of us, regardless of gender, can surely relate.
And this is what bothers me about the relationship between Shakespeare and Dream, his patron. Speaking to Titania, Dream describes Shakespeare as “a willing vehicle for the stories,” suggesting that the plays the latter writes are not entirely of his own devising. To which I can only say: PBBBBBBBBBBBBTTTTHHHHHHHHHHH.
That “chosen one” stuff is all right for guys who are made up, but come on; Shakespeare is real, and Western highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow culture – all the brow levels – have been steeped in his work for centuries. If that kind of genius only comes to the chosen, then you can forget ever leaving that kind of impact on the world with anything you create. It also edges a bit closer than I’d like to anti-Stratfordian arguments (I almost wrote “Stratford deniers” there), wherein the case is made that Shakespeare couldn’t have written those plays because no WAY could a non-rich non-aristocrat be smart enough or creative enough to put together something like Othello, right? Even if he did write those plays, he must have had some help from a more powerful source, because, again, not rich + not an aristocrat = not sufficiently talented to write anything good. It’s in the same vein as believing ancient aliens must have built the pyramids or carved the giant heads on Rapa Nui: not white + from a non-white population = not intelligent enough to make anything cool.
Clearly Shakespeare needs someone like Dream to come along. The two first meet in Sandman #13 – specifically, in a London tavern, while Shakespeare is praising his friend Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and bemoaning his own relative lack of talent. “I would give anything to have your gifts. Or more than anything to give men dreams, that would live on long after I am dead. I’d bargain, like your Faustus, for that boon.”
Of course, Dream overhears and makes the first move, asking him, “Would you write great plays? Create new dreams to spur the minds of men? Is that your will?” When Shakespeare answers, “It is,” Dream leads him away, saying, “Then let us talk,” while Marlowe sits and looks on.
Shakespeare’s language implies that he has made a sort of devil’s bargain; while Dream may not be the devil, he is not of our world, and is likely the closest to a devil that Shakespeare will ever encounter. In this light, his “chosen” status becomes a little less ideologically troubling, since in such a bargain there is always a price, and we non-chosen may count ourselves lucky that we’ve never had to pay it.
But unlike a deal with the devil, the deal with Dream doesn’t seem to ask Shakespeare to give anything up. Sure, he becomes increasingly disconnected from his family – and, as the final issue of Sandman reveals, from human experience as a whole, seeing even the most painful occurrences as fodder for his creativity – but he hasn’t signed away his soul on the dotted line. As Dream puts it, “the price of getting what you want, is getting what once you wanted,” which doesn’t sound great, but doesn’t bear the same weight of sacrifice as bargaining like Marlowe’s Faustus might. And I wonder: why not? Why not suggest that chasing something greater than oneself requires not just unintentional loss but conscious sacrifice?
Maybe a suggestion like that would undercut the self-congratulatory refrain about The Power of Stories that runs through Sandman. Or maybe it’s simply that we don’t like having to give things up in order to get something else, and it’s easier to believe that losing A in the pursuit of B is just how life goes, rather than a price we knowingly signed on to pay. (Doctor Faustus traded away his immortal soul, and we don’t talk about him nearly as much as we talk about Hamlet.) If we are creative practitioners, maybe it’s easier to believe that we deserve to be chosen, just like Shakespeare was chosen by Dream. All we have to do is hold out for some weird made-up goth guy to roll into our life, and then – only then – will we rise above the rejected masses; only then will we create something worth the memory.
Sandman #19 “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
Written by Neil Gaiman
Art by Charles Vess
Coloured by Steve Oliff
Lettered by Todd Klein
Kelly Kanayama is a writer and comics scholar who is literally writing the book on Garth Ennis. Don’t believe me? Have a look at her Patreon page here! You can also find Kelly on Twitter here!
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