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I never foresaw that llamas would become so ingratiated into my daily existence.  I honestly only ever thought about llamas when I was watching the Emperor’s New Groove and that was the extent of it.  I now own a llama that wears a bow-tie, talks in the voice of Project Runway Model host Tim Gunn, and have been challenged by one to read every play written by William Shakespeare.  Life is a strange oddity, but I’ll take it over the alternative any day of the week.

Working at a Public Library has its own advantages and disadvantages, the former being greater than the latter.  Yes there are frustrating patrons, yes there are long periods of tedium interrupted by bursts of endless tasks to perform, and yes there are literally thousands of books I’m not allowed to read while I’m on the clock.  But with each of these negative realities there are many more advantages that make this gig not just worthwhile, but a real passion.  I love helping a child find the exact book they wereLLama diagram looking for (usually something by Rick Riordan, though Diary of a Wimpy Kid makes a close fucking second place).  I love working with the 3D Printer and explaining it to children, parents, and even regular adults that are just fascinated with it.  I love making displays for authors like Truman Capote, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, and of course William Shakespeare.  But best of all I love my job because my co-workers are like a family to me and everyday I’m working for the library I feel like I’m home.

Which of course leads me back to the llamas and then eventually Shakespeare…and then eventually Neil Gaiman. 

One of my coworkers, a woman named Brenda Choy, is absolutely obsessed with llamas.  Whether it’s Sid the Llama, who has an actual online following, Bernice Llama, who has her own facebook page, or else the dozens of llamas stacked around her computer monitor, anyone and everyone who works at the Public Library at some point encounters the “llama department.”  And while some co-workers roll their eyes and/or sigh at all this silliness, I’ve welcomed it to the point that I now own my own llama.  His Pride 2018 4name is Xavier, he wears a bow-tie, and he’s fabulous.  This llama material isn’t just a lead-in however, because along with communicating regularly with the llama department, I’m also occasionally collaborating with them, and during one of the many numerous conversations I had with Brenda it eventually came out that I’ve never read all of Shakespeare’s plays, but I’ve always wanted to.

It’s come about now that I’ll be, starting in the month of May, reading every play by William Shakespeare and filming myself in a pseudo-Masterpiece Classic homage to each play starring llamas.

Beat that Alan Cumming.


Alan Cumming Grumpy

This has led to a bit of over-preparation on my part, because while most employees would simply say they’ve read the play and then do a quick video, I can’t be that person.  I’ve already begun purchasing every play Shakespeare ever wrote, I’ve begun listening to nonfiction Shakespeare audiobooks, and I’ve started collecting actual books about the life and work of William Shakespeare.  And while I may get around to writing about all of it, I thought about one reference to Shakespeare that has assumed a significant meaning in my life.The Sandman - Dream Country v3-081

Dream Country is the third of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman Series, and it holds a special place in the entirety of the run because it is most famous for the story about the cats.  I’ll probably get around to writing about that one later on, but for the time being Dream Country is important because the third chapter of the book is about Shakespeare and his company performing the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  This performance is important largely because the audience is the actual host of Fairy Folk observing a human’s interpretation of their race before they retreat from the world of men.  It’s also important because, like so many of the humans who encounter the Lord of Dreams, the story of Shakespeare is about personal sacrifice at the expense of dreams, and Shakespeare, it’s revealed, has made such a dream for himself.

Morpheus says as much to Lady Oberon during the performance of the play:

“We came to an…arrangement, four years back.  I’d give him what he thinks he most desires—and in return he’d write two plays for me. The Sandman - Dream Country v3-063

This is the first of them.  (11).

The reader does not really need an explanation past this, for if they bother to only read this one lone comic book in The Sandman Epic they receive all the real explanation that is needed.  The Immortal Bard William Shakespeare has entered into an arrangement with a real immortal being, The Lord of Dreams, in order to become a successful writer, in fact a brilliant author.  What the reader misses is in fact that this is a small reference to an earlier book in The Sandman series titled Men of Good Fortune.

In the previous volume it’s a single chapter that, like many of the small independent works of The Sandman run, appears to be completely random.  But, as with so much of this comics series, it sows a narrative seed that will eventually grow into it’s own independent story while also feeding the main body of the larger narrative.  Dream meets a man he has entered into a contest with, once every 100 years.  While he is meeting this man, named Hob, he overhears a young playwright named William Shakespeare speaking with Kit Marlowe, the most famous and talented playwright of his age.  Dream listens to Hob’s bragging, but his ears catch wind of the conversation and one quote by Shakespeare strikes the reader:

God’s Wounds!  If only I could write like you!  In Faustus where you wrote—“To God!  He loves thee not!  The God Thou serves is thine own appetite, wherein is fixed the love of Beelzebub.

The Sandman - Dream Country v3-085To him I’ll build an altar and a church, and offer lukewarm blood of new-born babes.” 

It chills the blood.

He follows this with a revealing statement to Marlowe:

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.

It seems lately that whenever I appear around my friends and coworkers an expression is uttered over and over again.  “Speak of the devil,” to which I am compelled to reply, “and he will appear.”  I try my best not to speak in my pathetic attempt at a Bane impression when I do this, but I am an attention whore at heart and so anything to make me look foolish is just too good to pass up.  Still this social interaction is a chance to reflect on the nature of cliches and their nasty habit of being cliches for a reason.  Will Shakespeare is revealed to be painfully mortal in this passage, just another aspiring artist who observes the success of others and covets it rather than dedicate themselves to their craft.  And Gaiman, to his credit, does an incredible job of humanizing Shakespeare, while also using his particular set of genius, to turn Shakespeare back into some sort of myth.The Sandman - Dream Country v3-066

The story of individuals offering up something to the great trickster/temptor is one as old as time.  Whether it’s Satan, Loki, Odysseus, Puck, Mbeku, Genies, Maui, or even Coyote, human beings have always created narratives in which there is some supernatural being who manages to prey and manipulate weaker minded people to perform deeds against their own self-interests.  This has tended sometimes to be appropriated by religion to justify pushing morality onto it’s subjects, but if one looks a bit deeper at this frequently occurring trope the reader is able to see that the pattern is it’s own explanation.

At some point everyone is tempted by their dreams to become, and at some point everyone gets had.

Gaiman’s Shakespeare becomes a human being, but also a mythic soul because he becomes a man who has achieved immortality, but at the expense of his own life.  At the very end of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, once Robin Goodfellow has given his now iconic speech and thus fufilled Gaiman’s contractual obligation to remind you that dreams are something of a theme in The Sandman universe, the reader is told plainlyThe Sandman - Dream Country v3-065 that Hamnet Shakespeare, the only son of William Shakespeare, died in 1596 at the age of eleven years old.  This is not creative re-writing of history as most of the comic is.  Gaiman is in fact steeping his characters in the real history of their place and time, and Hamnet Shakespeare did in fact perish leaving Shakespeare as the sole male relative in his family.  Many have speculated how this death ultimately impacted Shakespeare, and some have hinted that his play Hamlet is a poorly veiled effort to explain his grief.

But Shakespeare the man isn’t my concern for this essay because Shakespeare the myth is something far more interesting.  And so I have to return briefly to the llamas.

I recognize that it may be foolishness to become so emotionally invested in what is ultimately a lifeless toy.  Yet my own llama, which was a gift from Brenda not long after my friend Savannah killed herself, has become something of an icon to me.  It’s a physical, material object, but in it’s own form and shape it’s a reminder that I’ve found a space and place that gives me purpose and drive.  I strive, everyday, to make the Library a better place for having me in it, and though I don’t always succeed, this passion fosters itself in a desire for personal self-improvement as well.  I’ve always wanted to read the collected works of William Shakespeare, often for the selfish reason: simply to say I had. The Sandman - Dream Country v3-083But now it feels like it’s serving a larger purpose.

Shakespeare is a figure and an idea in the culture, a symbol of intellectualism, or too often pseudo-intellectuals who wish to appear smart.  Every intelligent wannabe hipster can cite at least one Shakespeare quote that they think is appropriate, which often times it isn’t.  And the ability to cite Shakespeare is so often equated with intelligence that it becomes galling to those  of us who don’t understand the reference.  This is getting into the idea of intelligence as a form of commodity and I would love write further on this, but that would be getting even more off topic.  The connection here is, while I am beginning my reading into Shakespeare, his work, his life, and the commentary that surrounds him, I managed to find one book which seems to say it best. 

Harold Bloom is many things, most of them obnoxious, but his book Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human does have many incredible things to say about the life and work of Shakespeare, and considering The Sandman and Midsummer Night’s Dream there was one quote that seemed to say it best, or at least offer up a unique perspective I had never considered before. The Sandman - Dream Country v3-075

In his introduction to the book Bloom muses about the cultural and social impact of Shakespeare’s work and he observes the man’s unique place:

Shakespeare’s works have been termed the secular Scripture, or more simply the fixed center of the Western Canon.  What the Bible and Shakespeare have in common actually is rather less than most people suppose, and I myself suspect that the common element is only a certain universalism, global and multicultural.  […]. Yet I hardly see how one can begin to consider Shakespeare without finding some way to account for his pervasive presence in the most unlikely contexts: here, there, and everywhere at once.  (3)

Whether one likes or outright despises the plays of William Shakespeare, what cannot be taken away from the man is that his visions and dreams have lingered after him, becoming the sort of cultural foundations for so many great works of art.  What is The Lion King without Hamlet?  What is Dead Poet’s Society without Midsummer Night’s Dream?  What is Kiss Me Kate without Taming of the Shrew?  And what is Harold and Kumar go to White Castle without…

Harold and Kumar

Okay that last one is actually The Odyssey, but the point is Shakespeare matters because he’s lasted and become a fixture in the society and culture.  “To be or not to be” can be quoted by almost anyone, and the “beast with two backs” was a line in the opening scenes of Othello.

Shakespeare has become, in his own beautiful fashion, a sort of myth.  And the entire career of Neil Gaiman is itself one long love-song to myth.  Which brings me back to Sandman because while the character of Dream has become itself a beautiful myth for the modern age, and Morpheus himself a kind of trickster in the vein of Satan or Puck, Gaiman allows him often to speak in riddles and philosophy that make the Sandman series into the sublime art it is.  In the closing pages of MidsummerThe Sandman - Dream Country v3-073Night’s Dream King Oberon and Queen Titania are speaking with Dream, asking him why he commissioned the place from Shakespeare in the first place.  His response is almost Shakespearean:

You have asked me why I asked you back to this plane, to see this entertainment.  I…During your stay on this earth the faerie have afforded me much diversion, and entertainment.  Now you have left your own haunts.  And I would repay you for all the amusement.  And more: They shall not forget you.  That was important to me: that King Auberon and Queen Titania will be remembered by mortals, until this age is gone.

King Auberon thanks Dream, but reminds him that the narrative is not based on actual facts.  Dream responds:

Oh, but it IS true.  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. The Sandman - Dream Country v3-082

There are many facts about William Shakespeare that, because of the fault of record keeping and the chaotic nature of life itself, have been lost and so many of the facts of William Shakespeare have been lost to writers and historians.  There is a great sadness in knowing that we will never know as much about the actual life of the man William Shakespeare, but there is still the art.  The plays, the dreams, live on.  And in the course of human events Shakespeare has become, as Harold Bloom said, a kind of secular magnet.  Shakespeare is a myth for the modern age in the way he continues to inspire the language, the visions, and the characters that are fostered and created.

Dream Country, and Midsummer Night’s Dream are just another example of how the Immortal Bard has inspired the latter generation of artists.  Gaiman’s comic is a love letter to William Shakespeare, because rather than simply borrow he creates from the mythic quality of the man, reminding his reader that while Shakespeare was a mortal man, he was a man who laid the dreams that lived after him.  He makes this mythic, almost unapproachable figure into someone flawed and human.

Dreams have a price.  And the men and women who pursue them must needs know this if they begin their journeys.  I’ve lost myself so much time, typing away at my keyboard, aspiring, doubting, and dreaming.  And while the dream in my head is to achieve the title of writer, Gaiman is brilliant in reminding me that the dream is the reality.  Writing like this, everyday, every weekend, getting in my 300 words is the dream.  It costs me my time, it costs me the pleasures of spending time with others, and often times it costs me most of my happiness and satisfaction.  But I chug another cup of coffee, content in my dreams, knowing that I’ll get another paragraph in before bed, and at least one scene read in Twelfth Night.

Such dreams are made by little decisions, and little actions that live on long past the moment that I was.

The Sandman - Dream Country v3-080

 

*Writer’s Note*

All quotes cited from Dream Country were cited from the Vertigo paperback edition.  All quotes cited from The Doll’s House were taken from the Vertigo Paperback Edition.  All quotes cited from Shakespeare:Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom were taken from the {} paperback edition.

 

**Writer’s Note**

If it hasn’t been made explicitly clear, I LOVE The Sandman Series just as I LOVE the collected works of Neil Gaiman.  The man really hasn’t disappointed me yet and when I recently sat down to read A Midsummer Night’s Dream again I was forced to make pause as the final recitation of Puck’s monologue.  It’s a scene that has been borrowed, repeated, stolen, and re-imagined numerous times, and I admit freely I used it to make an end in my own first novel.  There’s just something to the lines.

But reading the book again I was struck by this small moment and I actually felt tears form in my eyes.  The only real word was sublime.  I don’t know how the man does it, but damn, there just isn’t anything like Neil Gaiman.

The Sandman - Dream Country v3-084