Embedded within the Sandman mythos is a subplot about how Dream grants William Shakespeare his talent for playwrighting in exchange for two commissioned plays. That subplot begins in the interlude story from A Doll’s House, “Men of Good Fortune,” with a scene of Dream meeting Shakespeare for the first time and setting the terms of their arrangement (it’s a fun scene for anyone who’s studied a bit of Rennaissance era English drama with its nods towards the fact that Christopher Marlowe was a significantly more popular playwright who might have overshadowed Shakespeare if he had lived long enough to have more than five plays to his name). This issue, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” shows the first performance of the first play that Dream commissions, and it’s a really fun issue in many respects.
The basic premise is that the first play Dream commissioned is intended as a gift for the people of Faerie who have decided to remove themselves from the mortal world. Dream’s motivations for this gift are a little mysterious and generally left unexplained (he claims that he’s simply repaying a lifetime’s worth of entertainment that the Fae have provided him, though there’s also a subtle suggestion that Dream and Queen Titania have a more intimate past than either would like to admit; it’s a mystery that never gets answered in the series), but I suspect at least part of it has to do with Dream’s growing preoccupation with humans and his subconscious desire to better connect with them.
One scene which I think best illustrates this point is a conversation between Dream and Titania about the quality of Shakespeare’s play. Dream meditates on whether he’s done something wrong by making the deal with Shakespeare (likely in reference to the way Shakespeare is more preoccupied with his work than concerned with his relationship with his son), particularly since he doubts that Shakespeare fully understands the cost to himself. It’s a level of concern for a mortal that Dream rarely displays even in contemporary stories when he is ostensibly at the height of his empathic development. That Dream only expresses these concerns to Titania is an interesting detail, especially since she’s largely indifferent to Dream’s point.
Ultimately I suspect that Dream’s motivations for inspiring Shakespeare with this particular play are highly complex, containing Dream’s desire to repay and honor the Fae in a way that will last in the minds of the people that Dream’s most interested in and also illustrating a bit of Dream’s pride at story’s ability to be true without being factual. That second point’s an interesting thing because it demarcates Dream as existing in a liminal space between the realm of his elder brother Destiny, who knows everything that was, is, and will be, and his youngest sister Delirium, who knows all the things that Destiny doesn’t. Of course, that’s a topic for conversation later on when we finally get the formal introduction to all of the Endless in issue #20, which isn’t too far off now.
In terms of plot relevance, while the Shakespeare subplot is largely standalone within the Sandman story (it’s always struck me as more a statement of theme rather than anything specifically connected to what’s happening with the main characters), it does present a few details that will come into play later on. We meet Gaiman’s version of the Puck Robin Goodfellow, who decides that he’ll stay in the mortal world for his own amusement after seeing Shakespeare’s play, and we learn a very slight amount about the politics of Faerie, which will factor into the next major story arc Season of Mists.
But before we get to all of those fun things, we have to read one of my most favorite Sandman stories, which actually doesn’t have anything at all to do with Dream.