The first time we meet the character of William Shakespeare in Neil Gaiman‘s The Sandman series, he is striking a deal with Morpheus, the eponymous sandman, master of dreams and prince of stories. Morpheus agrees to give the young Shakespeare the power to write tales that will persist long after he’s gone, but there is a price. There is an undeniable diabolic undertone to the whole arrangement; Kit Marlowe even happens to be in the pub with Shakespeare at the time, and Shakespeare not coincidentally invokes his Dr. Faustus before going to make his own Faustian bargain with Morpheus. This diabolical tone will set the backdrop for the rest of the Shakespeare episodes as the series uses him to interrogate the cost of telling great stories.
I’m more interested in exploring the relationship not between Shakespeare and the Sandman, but between Gaiman and Shakespeare. Gaiman fits into a long, long tradition of artists who have adapted or been inspired by the Shakespearean canon. These artistic relationships have proven just as necessary for Shakespeare’s survival as they are for his adapters. As Rita Felski has written, “Artworks can only survive and thrive by making friends, creating allies, attracting disciples, inciting attachments, latching on to receptive hosts” (584). I admire Felski’s thinking here: the sheer variety of relationships she imagines between artistic works and their posterity. Thinking along Felski’s lines, I wonder what kind of relationship do Gaiman and Shakespeare have. Are they friends or allies? Is one a parasite on the other? Or perhaps we can understand Gaiman’s relationship with Shakespeare as his very own kind of deal with the devil?
Let’s examine four works: Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest, and Gaiman’s Sandman homages to these plays (Dream Country: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Vol. 2 #19 and The Tempest, Vol. 2 #75, but hereafter referred to by their Sandman seriation numbers—19 and 75—to differentiate them from Shakespeare’s originals). I consider the ways Gaiman interacts with Shakespeare, and trace how that interaction has changed over time. #19 was written in 1991 towards the beginning of The Sandman’s run while #75 was written in 1996 at the very end of it, corresponding roughly with how Midsummer and Tempest come from the beginning and end of Shakespeare’s career. In that gap of time, there was a significant shift in both how pop culture generally engaged with Shakespeare and how comics were received as an artistic medium. Gaiman fell neatly at the crossroads of all these changes, and he had matured as a writer during those five years . His relationship with Shakespeare also shifted over time; it may be more accurate to speak of Gaiman’s deals with the devil.
Critics tend to treat The Sandman’s two major engagements with Shakespeare as being of a piece, and not without reason. Both #19 and #75 come from a collaboration between Gaiman and the comic artist, Charles Vess, both pay tribute to and recreate Shakespeare’s plays, and both are chiefly interested in using metafictional resettings of those plays as a way to comment on storytelling and storytellers. Despite their similarities, #19 and #75 employ two fundamentally different formal approaches, leading to their having two distinct takes on their common themes. Whereas #19 inhabits A Midsummer Night’s Dream and expands its characters and themes beyond Shakespeare’s original, #75 is more interested in exploring the life of (a largely fictionalized) Shakespeare and references to The Tempest are primarily used as a way to shed light on that life. In #19, the person of William Shakespeare exists only as a secondary character in the expanding drama of his A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In contrast, in #75, The Tempest mainly functions to adorn the hagiography of William Shakespeare as written by Neil Gaiman. In brief, #19’s emphasis is in recreating A Midsummer Night’s Dream while #75’s is in recreating Shakespeare.
A Brief History of Shakespeare Adaptations
To understand Gaiman’s use of Shakespeare in The Sandman, it’s helpful to look at Shakespeare’s larger history in comics. Gaiman is, of course, far from the first comics author to engage with Shakespeare. In his essay, Michael P. Jensen, “Shakespeare and the Comic” situates Gaiman inside a long history of comics adapting, referencing, and otherwise appropriating Shakespeare. Jensen notes that different authors have found themselves using Shakespeare for many different reasons over the course of the medium’s history.
Starting in the 1940s, comics were seen as a useful pedagogical tool for young students. So many early publishers produced comic adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays in the interest of helping introduce these iconic texts to young readers who might not yet be sophisticated enough to handle Shakespeare’s originals (388-390). Beyond these pedagogical exercises, there have also been some notable manga adaptations, which put Shakespeare into meaningful (and sometimes hilarious) dialogue with Japanese culture (396-499). After the ’50s, there were increasingly more references to Shakespeare in comics, which sought to use his cultural capital to gain legitimacy for the medium (400-403).
If there’s anything like a constant in comics adaptations of Shakespeare, it’s the intrinsic tension between the visual nature of comics as a medium and the pressure to remain faithful to Shakespeare’s original, complicated language. Comics tend to work best when the verbal element is paired down enough to complement and support the pictures rather than dominating them, like “partners in a dance” to use Scott McCloud’s idiom (156). This requires significant curtailment of Shakespeare’s highly wrought dialogue, which leads to a conflict with our cultural enshrinement of Shakespeare and his language. Historically, comic artists who wanted to adapt Shakespeare needed to navigate some compromise between the Charybdis of the comic medium and the six-headed Scylla of critical demand shrieking for faithfulness to the original text (incidentally, this latter figure is how I tend to picture Harold Bloom).
Sometimes this compromise is successful, and sometimes it is not. Jensen notes how comics producers CI suffered when they tried to respond to the critical backlash against comics in the ’50s by including more of Shakespeare’s dialogue in their adaptations: “In an effort to please educators, CI used Shakespeare’s dialogue instead of paraphrasing it … This requires a wordiness that uses more panels to show the same incident, and word balloons often cover a third to half of those panels” (390).
In his study of cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare, Douglas Lanier notes that this extreme emphasis on textual fidelity was largely eroded in the ’90s. Visuality became the primary overriding value of cinema at that time, and Lanier notes that in adaptations like Kenneth Branagh‘s Hamlet and Henry V, Romeo + Juliet, Prospero’s Books, and “other Shakespeare films of the day, the range and density of pictorial allusiveness, the visual literacy they assume of their target audiences, firmly resituate Shakespeare in the regime of the (moving) image, not that of the word” (106).
Lanier also argues that this freeing Shakespeare from the word into images led to an explosion of Shakespeare comics adaptations (109-110). It is as if, once freed from the burden of Shakespeare’s language, comics artists were finally free to explore some of the expressive visual possibilities in combining their medium with Shakespeare’s stories. Gaiman’s two Shakespeare adaptations span neatly over this period of transition from word to image. #75, despite including about as many direct quotations from Shakespeare as #19, does indeed embody this new emphasis on visuality.
The Sandman fits into this history in many other ways. Still, probably the most notable is that it was the first comic adaptation of Shakespeare to be recognized as a form of serious and prestigious art. #19 became the first comic to win the World Fantasy Award for best short story, netting Gaiman a huge amount of critical acclaim and dramatically increasing his audience’s size (Castaldo 104). DC Comics would capitalize on this prestige and use The Sandman as the flagship property for its new imprint, Vertigo Comics, intended to publish more highbrow, literary work.
It’s fitting that Gaiman would choose to revisit Shakespeare in #75, the finalé to this trailblazing series. The difference between #19 and #75 is the difference between Gaiman as a new writer cutting his teeth and making his name by experimenting with the medium, and Gaiman as an established writer looking back at the legacy he’s accrued for himself over the years. These perspectives can be read into #19 and #75, and they both explore two related but distinct modes of adapting Shakespeare.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The Sandman #19 consists primarily of a fictional restaging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the story, Shakespeare has agreed to write two plays for Morpheus as part of their bargain, and the first of these is Midsummer. #19 begins with Shakespeare and his acting company travelling through the countryside to show the new play. Morpheus appears and opens a portal between dimensions and invites the fairy realm’s denizens to see the new play, which he has commissioned from Shakespeare for them. To the company’s surprise, they must premiere Midsummer for Titania, Oberon, Puck, and many other characters on whom the play is based in attendance.
The peculiar thing about Gaiman’s treatment of Midsummer here is that he does not merely create an adaptation of it, but nor can #19 really be described as only a reference, a critique, or even a commentary on Midsummer. Rather, what #19 does is emulate and reproduce Midsummer in a way that extends the logic of the original play, disseminating its meaning, and projecting it into new contexts.
Joe Sanders observes that Gaiman, while working on the script for #19, fretted a lot about separating the various layers of the comic. The comic’s action shows what’s happening backstage of the play, the play itself, the play within the play, and the characters in the audience watching and commenting on their doppelgangers on the stage. Gaiman was worried it would be difficult to keep all of these pieces separate (238). Vess’s interpretation of Gaiman’s script does an excellent job of maintaining enough demarcation between these layers so that they remain legible to readers. Still, he’s not completely successful, and this is no mere accident.
Sanders writes, “As these attempts to separate ‘levels’ in the story show, the levels resist separation. They want to blur into each other, smearing together roles, personalities, and motives, so that we see the same human concerns from different angles, in different shapes” (238). The crowning moment of this metafictional slippage comes at the point in the comic when the real Puck knocks out the actor playing him, steals his Puck mask, and starts to play the role of himself (Gaiman, “Midsummer” 15).
As Julia Round notes, this kind of layering “not only sustains the plays’ traditional interpretations and performance legacies … but also incorporates them into a broad discussion of the nature of literary creation. In this sense The Sandman transforms Shakespeare’s works into a metafiction that comments both on his life and on the nature of literary creation and storytelling” (97). The one area where I disagree with Round is the implication that Gaiman introduces these metafictional elements when what he really does is extend them.
Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was already deeply metafictional, already composed of layers threatening to slip into each other. Midsummer consists of multiple levels of action: the lovers in the woods, the two rival camps of fairies, the rude mechanicals staging their play, and the Athenian body politic represented by Theseus and Hippolyta. Whereas these layers are ostensibly separate, the play’s entire action is predicated on their tendency to slip into each other. Of course, sometimes those levels threaten to slip out and engulf the audience as well; let us not forget that the entire fifth act is dedicated to staging the schlocky play within a play (complete with Mystery Science Theater 3000-style commentary from our players turned audience). We see this as Theseus delivers the metafictional line par excellence, “The best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst / are no worse if imagination amend them” (5.1.208-209).
In #19 Gaiman extends this logic of narrative nesting and its metafictional commentary on the nature of dreams and fiction, to include new contexts. Namely, Gaiman extends it to include both the old folkloric origins that inspired Shakespeare’s Midsummer and include his new comic universe. Even Gaiman’s choice to have Puck as the boundary-bending trickster most prone to slip between the levels of the story reflects his original role in Midsummer ,where he tied together the disparate action of the fairy realm, the four lovers, and the rude mechanicals staging the play within a play together by way of his interfering mischief. A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream was always layered; Gaiman merely added a couple layers more.
Returning to the question of textual fidelity in Shakespeare adaptations, note that #19 uses a huge number of lines from Midsummer copied verbatim. Shakespeare is even named as a collaborator on #19’s credits page. Tom Peyer, the assistant editor for Sandman, once made a joke about how Gaiman was assisted with #19 by a hot new comics talent, Will, and that Will might have gone on to one day write the definitive Batman comic had he not been dead for 300 years (qtd. in Round 95).
Preserving huge swathes of text from Midsummer is in keeping with the puritanical demand to preserve Shakespeare’s language. Still, what’s so delightful about Gaiman and Vass’s work in #19 — the text does not slow down the flow of the comic and Gaiman always finds ways to bring new life to the old lines. A great example is towards the end where Gaiman has his Puck repeat the epilogue by his counterpart in the play verbatim. However, whereas in the original Puck’s lines was a warm and charming farewell, Gaiman and Vass combine their Puck’s sinister nature with a disturbing art style to bring out an altogether more menacing overtone from the words. Now Puck’s pleasant goodbye is transformed into a threat by Puck to use the blending of fiction and real as a means for him to escape into the real world (Gaiman, “Midsummer” 23); if Shakespeare’s original theme in Midsummer was about how easy it is for dreams to come into reality, then Gaiman’s addition seems to be that nightmares take the same road.
All of this is to say that #19 sustains a very deep, formal engagement with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It extends the play’s nesting logic, its metafictional qualities, its use of folklore, and it squeezes new meaning from Shakespeare’s language by putting it into new contexts. #75 functions in a similar way, but its formal engagement with The Tempest is more limited than #19’s relationship with Midsummer, and towards different ends. #75 does not so much extend Tempest’s formal structures as it uses references to it and its themes to retroactively anoint it as the last great play of the prototypical artist, “William Shakespeare”.
The best way to describe the relationship between #19 and #75 is as thematic inversions of each other. Both are interested in using Shakespeare’s work to explore the relationship between fiction and reality, and both use the plays to comment on Shakespeare’s life and vice versa. However, in #19 the emphasis is placed on the play while in #75 it’s squarely on Shakespeare’s biography.
Whereas #19 is dedicated to restaging a “theatrical” version of Midsummer, #75 rather follows Shakespeare through his daily life as he goes about writing The Tempest. We see Shakespeare interacting with his daughter, his wife, and his friend, Ben Johnson. We watch him go to his favorite pub where some sailors charge the locals money to see the mummified body of an Indian from the new world. Finally, we watch Shakespeare finish writing The Tempest, the second play in his bargain with Morpheus, and we watch him go with Morpheus into the dream world to take a cup of wine and discuss with him what he’s been doing all his life.
In #19, Shakespeare’s character is a small role that gets absorbed into the larger action of the play (quite literally: in #19, Shakespeare acts the role of Theseus). In #75, however, his biography dominates the story. Some of The Tempest’s settings, themes, and language are appropriated as a way to comment on Shakespeare’s life, but this pales in comparison to the deep level of formal engagement that #19 has with Midsummer. Rather, #75 just sprinkles its pages liberally with quotations from The Tempest, and these are barely legible most of the time as the majority come straight from Shakespeare’s “manuscripts.”
Perhaps the most telling of the differences between how #19 and #75 use Shakespeare is the way in which they engage with Shakespeare’s language. As I’ve said, #19 includes a significant amount of Midsummer’s dialogue and engages with it in a non-trivial way wherein Gaiman’s characters meaningfully interact with Shakespeare’s language and actively recontextualize it. #75 also includes a huge amount of text from Tempest, but it’s functioning in a very different way. Whereas #19 presents Shakespeare’s dialogue through the actors’ word bubbles, the majority of #75’s quotations from Tempest are delivered through handwritten manuscript pages. This, of course, corresponds with #75’s setting as the story of Shakespeare’s writing The Tempest.
This stylistic choice leads to a number of interesting consequences for the way #75 engages with Shakespeare’s language. First, rather paradoxically, this emphasis on writing qua writing is in keeping with Lanier’s chronology of Shakespeare adaptations becoming increasingly visual during the ’90s. By rendering Shakespeare’s language into ornately scribbled handwriting, Vess and Gaiman effectively transform Shakespeare’s writing from readable text into visual decoration.
I’ve always found the manuscript panels very difficult to decipher in my readthroughs of #75 because of the semi-illegibility of the handwriting, the general density of Shakespeare’s language, and because the quotations have been abstracted out of the play’s larger narrative. I still think the manuscript bits look cool and work well as pictures, but I usually just skip over them in order to get on with the story.
Even on occasions where The Tempest’s dialogue is rendered clearly, it’s not working in the same way as it does in #19. We can still understand #19’s use of Midsummer’s dialogue even if we’ve never read the play, because #19 does much to preserve and recreate Midsummer’s original narrative context. By contrast, #75 only provides a very brief summary of The Tempest and sprinkles references to it haphazardly throughout in a way that is unconnected to The Tempest’s larger structure.
There’s even a point where the comic seems to poke a little fun at this: Shakespeare bursts in on his wife to recite some of Prospero’s lines following the masque from Act 4 Scene 1—one of the few moments in #75 where The Tempest’s lines are rendered in easily legible word bubbles. Shakespeare gives an impassioned performance of the lines, even seeming to transform into Prospero for one panel. After he finishes his wife responds by telling him to go chop wood so she can finish cooking the goose (Gaiman, The Tempest, 26-27). Anne Hathaway’s non-sequitur here might seem a bit callous, but it’s not such an unreasonable response when your husband bursts in on your chores all of a sudden to randomly recite lines from the middle of a play that no one has read.
Much like Hathaway here, we find ourselves having these lines flung at us largely out of the play’s narrative context. Also like Hathaway, we are encouraged to read them not so much as parts of The Tempest, but as verbal indexes of their author’s character; We don’t care about these lines have to tell us about Prospero, but only what they have to say about Shakespeare, the great playwright wrestling with his last play.
This brings me to my second point: not only is Shakespeare’s language in #75 more visual than textual, but it’s also more emblematic than functional. While Shakespeare’s dialogue in #75 is difficult to read and fails to lock into The Tempest’s larger context, it still gives us the sense of Shakespeare’s presence, effectively studding #75 with many little magic packets of Shakespeareness. The Tempest is popularly accepted as the last play Shakespeare wrote by himself, and this reputation made it the ideal subject for Gaiman’s closing meditation on artistic greatness and grappling with one’s legacy.
We may have trouble reading the manuscript fragments and we have little chance of making sense of it if we haven’t already read The Tempest, but that hardly matters when we are not intended to take the text for itself, but rather as the last great lines of the master descending into the veil of his twilight years. This is underlined by the aesthetic of the manuscript paper, we get to see The Tempest as imprinted by the master’s own hand (or Vess’s facsimile of it, anyway). #75’s use of quotations from Tempest functions almost like a signature, or even like magical charms used to summon Shakespeare’s presence throughout the comic.
The ultimate irony is that the Shakespeare we see in the comic is more or less a fiction created by Gaiman out of a collection of personal myths, half-substantiated biographical details, and pure invention. The Tempest was not the last play that Shakespeare had a hand in writing, he likely never saw a mummified Indian in a pub, and what the actual man thought about his life and his life’s work writing is ultimately unknown.
Why did Gaiman choose not to recreate The Tempest as he did with Midsummer, and instead use it merely as a fulcrum to open up the details of a fictionalized Shakespeare’s life? It is probably because at the end of his wildly successful run with The Sandman, Gaiman was simply looking for an avenue to tell the story of what it felt like to be a creator swallowed up by his own success. Annalisa Castaldo observes that by writing the last comic in the series about the end of Shakespeare’s career, Gaiman effectively invites the reader to compare Gaiman’s own work with that of Shakespeare’s (106-107). Castaldo further argues that Gaiman, Shakespeare, and Morpheus ought all to be read as analogous for each other and that The Sandman is largely a commentary on the personal alienation that the great artists and storytellers must suffer in order to deliver their “shadow-truths” to the world (109).
John Pendergast tries to push back significantly against this reading of Gaiman as promoting these myths of Shakespeare as the lonely, suffering genius. While I agree with Pendergast’s general resistance to that myth, I think his desire to save Gaiman from it leads him into a bad reading. He cites as evidence of Gaiman’s resistance to bardolatry the fact that, in #19, Gaiman chose not to present the popular myth that A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream was premiered at an aristocratic wedding (189). This is a weak argument, however, and can be easily countered by simply acknowledging that Gaiman was happy to repeat other Shakespeare myths, such as he had a hand in writing the psalms in the King James Bible (Gaiman, “The Tempest” 24) or that The Tempest was his last play.
Gaiman was clearly willing to either adapt or abandon common myths about Shakespeare’s life dependent purely on whether they fit the message he was trying to promote; in #75, Gaiman made use of the myth of Shakespeare as the lonely, alienated genius as a way to describe his feelings he had upon finishing The Sandman.
In order to help describe the nature of Gaiman’s two different relationships with Shakespeare, let’s return to Lanier. In his article, Lanier observed that after the’ 90s weakened the association between Shakespeare and text, there was an explosion of international, non-English language adaptations of Shakespeare. He explains that this was because:
“The shift of gravity from text to image … paves the way for Shakespeare to go fully global. Once Shakespearean narrative could be disembedded from Shakespeare’s words, it became far more readily available for translation into all manner of languages and cultural contexts … Shakespeare can be relocalized in new cultural contexts without filmmakers needing to address the politics of adapting the master texts of a former master.” (108)
This new ability of creators to take on the former master without having to “address the politics of adapting the master texts” is the primary difference between #19 and #75. When #19 was written, comics were still working to prove their worth as a medium and there was a general cultural imperative to remain faithful to the text of Shakespeare. Hence, Gaiman wrote a comic that engaged very closely with Midsummer’s language, its themes, its characters, and its formal structures in a bid to demonstrate the competence of comics as an artform. Because Shakespeare at this time was still so closely identified with his text, the only way for Gaiman to access Shakespeare and his cultural capital was to engage very closely with that text.
By the time #75 came around, Gaiman had already won himself and his comics real cultural acclaim and Shakespeare’s association with the exact letter of his plays was significantly weakened. It was now possible for Gaiman to appropriate the aura of Shakespeare without having to hew so closely to the plays themselves, and thus #75 plays rather fast and loose in its engagement with Tempest while still comfortably claiming for itself the person and the legend of Shakespeare. The Shakespeare that #19 deals with is textual while the Shakespeare of #75 is an altogether more amorphous iconic / “biographical” subject.
Throughout this essay, I have shown the different ways that Gaiman has made use of Shakespeare in his work, but I reiterate that this kind of use of one artist by another is never simply a one-way street. While Gaiman benefitted tremendously from using Shakespeare, Shakespeare was also largely revitalized and even changed by the engagement.
In #19, Midsummer’s themes, settings, characters, and language are thrust into new contexts that extend its formal structure and proliferate the play’s meanings. In #75, the biography of Shakespeare is retold so as to reaffirm him as no mere man, but the archetypical creative genius struggling under the weight of his own alienation. In both engagements, Shakespeare comes away with more exposure to an audience that likely wouldn’t have encountered him outside of high school English class, and his work is translated into some powerful new idioms.
To close, let’s return to the subject of deals with the devil: did either of Gaiman’s engagements with Shakespeare have a diabolical aspect? To answer that question, I’d like to share an amusing comment I recently saw on an Eric Johnson video on YouTube: “I heard Eric Johnson made a deal with the devil. No one knows what Johnson got, but the devil got guitar lessons” (Jochem). Much the same is it with Gaiman and Shakespeare. Gaiman was dependent on Shakespeare for material and for a node to engage with the literary canon, but Shakespeare, despite all his genius, is still dependent on Gaiman (along with his many, many other adapters) to help realize and perpetuate his reputation and his work. Shakespeare is recognized as one of history’s great writers, but it is only by the work of Gaiman and the many millions like him reading, reacting, reciting, rewriting, referencing, recasting, and recreating Shakespeare that the man that was can be transformed into the Bard.
* * *