Our assignment was to read the final two issues from Dream Country. Alan Scott reviewed A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Mike Schilling reviewed Façade.
A Doll’s House recaps here: KatherineMW took on the first two issues, then the next two issues. KatherineMW and Jason Tank then reviewed the fifth and sixth, respectively. Mike Schilling reviewed the final two issues.
Dream Country recaps here: Glyph reviewed Caliope and Jaybird and Maribou reviewed Dream of a Thousand Cats in the first review post for Dream Country.
It’s very difficult to discuss this book without discussing the next one (or the one ofter that, or the one after that), if you want to discuss something with a major plot point: please rot13 it. That’s a simple encryption that will allow the folks who want to avoid spoilers to avoid them and allow the people who want to argue them to argue them.
We good? We good! Everybody who has done the reading, see you after the cut!
So, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
For the second time, we will meet William Shakespeare, who we previously met in “Men of Good Fortune”. There, he made a bargain with a dark stranger to become the world’s greatest playwright.
We begin on the Sussex Downs, by the Long Man of Wilmington. This is, of course, a real place. And all of the actors we’re about to meet (with one possible exception) are real people. In 1593, the Theatres of London were closed due to an outbreak of plague, and the acting companies were forced to tour the countryside. The one we see here is Lord Strange’s Men. The following year, many of the actors of this company (basically all of the ones we’ll meet during this story) will form a new company, The Lord Chamberlain’s men, in which Shakespeare was a partner for the remainder of his career.
Shakespeare speaking with his son Hamnet, is interrupted by Will Kemp, the company’s clown. His bit of business with a pork pie is soundly vetoed. And then a stranger is spotted at the top of the hill. It is, of course, Morpheus.
Morpheus addresses Will Shekespear. The irregular spelling is perfectly appropriate: Shakespeare was known to have spelled his own name in a variety of different ways. And we have a little exchange about the hill having long been a theatre. “Before the Normans?” Shakespeare asks. “Before the Humans” is the reply. One of my favorite lines in all of Sandman.
And now we meet Richard Burbage, the company’s leading actor, who originated many of
Shakespeare’s most famous roles. The “lover most tragical” Burbage will play is presumably Romeo – The play is thought to have premiered in 1594.
Back to Hamnet, who is now with the boy players. When your high school English teacher taught you that female roles were played by boy actors, it may have escaped mention that those “boys” were sometimes as old as 24. Gaiman’s characterization of these young men as drag queens isn’t without historical basis, though I don’t think there’s any evidence that Henry Condell (in the red dress) was a boy player. Condell (who is about 17 in our story) would later become a partner in the Chamberlain’s Men and was involved with the publishing of Shakespeare’s plays. Tommy (in the green dress) is the one player whose historical counterpart I can’t identify.
And now enter the fairies. We meet Auberon and Titania. And a much darker version of Puck than we’re familiar with from the play. And we learn that Dream has yet another name: Lord Shaper. The play begins, and Shakespeare starts to realize exactly what he’s gotten himself into.
Notice the juxtaposition of the “pale companion” line with Morpheus in the last panel on page 7.
Next, we’re introduced to our own little fairy chorus. Skarrow, Peaseblossom, and a blue fairy who goes unnamed. Skarrow’s first line sounds archaic, but they quickly transition into very modern, lower class pattern of speech. Explaining the twists and turns of the play like it’s a soap opera. Which basically, it is. And providing us with an understanding of how fairies view mortals.
There’s Kemp again. He is, of course, playing Bottom. Is that a pork pie he’s holding?
The play goes on. The fairies see themselves acted upon stage. It’s a story Titania recognizes.
And here we see Hamnet on stage. Hamnet plays the mortal child who Titania has adopted, and who is the source of friction between the fairy king and queen. The real Titania develops an interest in the boy.
Backstage, a conversation between Hamnet and Tommy. Shakespeare is strangely distant from his family since he made a pact with Dream. And a foreshadowy conversation about Hamnet’s death. Onstage, a scene between Titania and Bottom, and finally it’s time for the intermission.
Burbage asks the fairy king for gold. Puck decides he’s like to play Puck. Shakespeare is complimented by his patron, and then learns of Marlowe’s death. Dream is characteristically cold about a mortal’s death.
The play resumes. Auberon explains that the fairies will not visit earth again. Will is taken with how well Puck is being played, not realizing, of course, that Puck is doing the playing. And Hamnet has been told wonderful tales by the Fairy Queen.
“Lord what fools these mortals be”, says Puck at the end of page 17. And it’s true. Everyone’s been talking, and nobody’s been listening. Particularly Shakespeare, who is ignoring his son. But he’s certainly not the only fool here.
The play continues. And Dream explains why he made his bargain: Through Shakespeare, the Great Stories will live for another age. Has he done the right thing? Has he done right by Shakespeare? “The price of getting what you want, is getting what you once wanted”. But Titania’s not even paying attention.
On page 20, there’s a great sequence that juxtaposes lines about the madman, the lover, and the poet against various characters. As Theseus (played by Shakespeare) speaks of the madmen, beset by devils, we see the sinister red eyes of the fairies, more strange and malevolent than Shakespeare ever imagined. Next, he speaks of the lover who sees beauty in “a brow of Egypt” while Hamnet looks at the father he never really knew. This, I think, is a reference to the “dark lady” from the Sonnets.
Shakespeare’s sonnets are carefully arranged into two sections. The first group of sonnets is directed towards a character called the young lord by Shakespeare scholars, and imply a homosexual romance. But the second group is written to a character known as the dark lady (for references to her complexion: “If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun”, from sonnet 130, is one such.) Is the “brow of Egypt” line subtly implying that Shakespeare’s romance with a real-life dark lady is partly responsible for Shakespeare’s distance from his son? Or am I just reading to much into things?
After the madman and the lover, he speaks of the poet, showing both the players and the fairies as the “forms of things unknown” bodied forth by imagination. And showing dream as “the poet’s pen turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name.”
Dream explains his gift. By commissioning the play, he has ensured that though the fairies leave this world, that the world will not forget them.
But now it is time for them to leave. But not Puck of course. Oh no, he is staying. The mortal world is much too fun. He too, departs into the shadows, as he recites the closing lines of the play: That the whole thing, is perhaps, only a dream.
The players wake, alone on the hillside. Was it merely a dream after all? No, but of course Auberon’s gold was only illusion.
And then we are at the end. And we are told that Hamnet Shakespeare died a few years later. I don’t think we are meant to believe it. I think the child that died in 1596 was a fairy changeling. That the real Hamnet Shakespeare was spirited away by Titania. That Hamnet Shakespeare, who played Titania’s mortal child in the play, who was fed a magic by the fairy queen, who was told such wonderful tales, and whose father was so blind and deaf to him; that he is kept as a pet in a fairy court.
Dream said that Shakespeare would pay a greater price than he knew. Here, at least, is a part of it. In order to be the one to tell the Great Stories to our age, Shakespeare lost his son.
But there’s another story hidden here, and another price payed. After all, Shakespeare was not the first one to tell the Great Stories. On page 10, Titania told how she “Heard this tale sung once, in old Greece by a boy with a lyre.” On page 20, one of the possible entertainments from Theseus’s wedding feast is highlighted: “The riot of tipsy bacchanals tearing the Thracian singer in their rage.”
Two issues ago, we learned that Calliope and Dream had a son. “That boy-child who went to hades for his lady-love, and died in Thrace, torn apart by the Sisters of Frenzy for his sacrilege.” Orpheus of Greek myth. The one who told the Great Stories to the previous age of man. Who was the previous vessel of Dream’s will. Shakespeare, it seems, is not the only one who paid the price of a son.
Façade is well named. It’s very much a story about appearances, with the main symbol being the mask. Its main character is Rainey Blackwell, who’s also well-named: her life is never sunny, and her darkness goes deep. She is actually yet another obscure DC Comics hero, Element Girl, who has the ability to transmute herself into any chemical element (her full name is, of course, “Urania”). This power has had a dreadful effect on her appearance; she looks almost like a corpse, with crepe-like, dead-white skin. This depresses her so that she hides in her rooms, her only human contact being phone conversations with Mulligan, the functionary who arranges her disability checks. She dreams sometimes of what changed her: exploring a pyramid, whatever remains of the god Ra gave her this power to aid in his fight against the serpent Apep. That dream is worse than any nightmare, and Rainey would much prefer simply to cease to exist. (A callback to Dream’s comment that he is far more terrible than his sister.)
Unexpectedly, Rainey gets a call from Della, an old co-worker, who invites her to lunch. Rainey transmutes herself to her old appearance, a pretty woman with a smooth, unlined face (now made of silicates), and flowing, orange-red hair (the color of uranium oxide, sometimes used as a dye). Accompanied by repeated wordplay about putting on her face and facing the world, Rainey goes forth. At lunch, Della reveals that she’s pregnant by her married lover. He is of course going to get a divorce and marry her , but in the meantime she can’t tell a soul, because he works for the same company.  Rainey, on medical retirement, is a safe confidant. What Della is most scared of is that, at 36, she’s too old to have a healthy child. Pointing to a group of retarded children, she says that she’s freaked out about having a freak. This freaks Rainey out so badly that her mask (literally) drops, and she runs screaming back to her apartment to hide. She’s abandoned her purse with her keys in it, and to get in has to incinerate her doorknob by transmuting her hand into magnesium. She tries to phone Mulligan, only to find that he’s been transferred away. All that’s left now is suicide. If only someone with her powers had a way to do that.
Now, another character enters. A pretty, charming, Goth-looking girl, who offers to talk about Rainey’s problems. They discuss Rainey’s masks (which she uses for ashtrays, once they’ve come off), and how she’d like to die, but all the things she’s thought of won’t kill her, and would just make things worse. The girl reminds Rainey of another one like her who died in a volcano, and Rainey realizes who the girl must be to know that. And she’s thrilled, thinking that Death has finally come for her.
No such luck, though. Death had come for her upstairs neighbor, and just stopped by to chat. Death describes some of the horrors she’s about to deal with: civil war in Africa, and the destruction of a far-away planet. As in her previous appearance, she describes this as a job she has to do, and this time looks forward to when the last living thing dies and she’s finally done. But none of it makes any impression on Rainey, who’s interested only in her own pain. Death can’t take her, but she does give Rainey a clue: Since Ra changed her, Ra can release her. Ra is not the brightest bulb (pun intended), since he’s still recruiting soldiers to fight a serpent who died thousands of years ago, but he’s still a sun god: Rainey needs to ask the sun for help.
She does just that. Behind the mask of the sun, she sees the face of Ra. Looking upon it, she’s no longer hideous; she is (pun somewhat intended) radiant. The sunlight is intense enough to turn her into a pile of ash. (That’s two bad habits that work out well for her: smoking, which had made her feel human, and looking into the sun, which finally released her. Both involve ashes. ) She’s gone now. Death wishes her a cryptic “Better luck next time”. Rainey’s phone rings. It’s Mulligan, finally returning her call (too late.) Death puts him off with a series of literally true evasions , and ends with a Prisoner-like “Be seeing you”, which is appropriate in at least two ways: First, he’s a spy who wants information, and won’t get it. Second, it’s again literally true.
1. Yeah, sure he is.
2. After enough references to “the company” and “company policy”, we realize that they all work for the CIA.
3, E.g, Rainey doesn’t live here any more.