What do you call yourself? (Perchance to Dream)

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Content warning: suicide.
“To be or not to be: that is the question. Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them: to die, to sleep no more; and by a sleep to say we end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep. To sleep, perchance to dream; aye, there’s the rub, for in that sleep of death, what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause.”
–Hamlet, Act III, Scene i

“Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”
–Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii

It’s October 19, 1992, exactly a week after “Mad as a Hatter” and two days before “The Underdwellers,” so see that episode’s entry for charts and news. Today’s episode of Batman the Animated Series is widely hailed as one of its best, and not undeservedly so. The only real negative to “Perchance to Dream” is that it pales in comparison to a much later episode with essentially the same plot, Justice League Unlimited‘s “What Do You Get for the Man Who Has Everything,” but the JLU episode has the advantage of a dozen years of refinements in animation, character development, and improvements in storytelling technique, plus it’s based on an Alan Moore comic. It’s just not a fair comparison to make, even if it is essentially inevitable.
Let us focus, then, on this episode, with the knowledge we will be revisiting its themes later. The highlight of the episode, as has been commented on by multiple critics, is clearly the climactic scene where Bruce Wayne confronts Batman in the church tower. This is, of course, a reversal of the battle between Batman and Man-Bat way back in “On Leather Wings.” There, Batman was the human and Man-Bat the Bat; here, Batman represents the Bat and Bruce Wayne the man–interesting given that later episodes will make clear (most explicitly in Batman Beyond‘s “Shriek,” but implied numerous times in other episodes) that Batman thinks of himself as Batman first, and Bruce Wayne is simply one of his masks.
But here, in his dreams, he is Bruce Wayne and only Bruce Wayne–Bruce the businessman, whose parents are still alive, who is engaged to a Selina Kyle with no criminal record. He may be Batman, but he wants to be Bruce Wayne–Bruce Wayne is who he is when he’s free.
Interesting, then, that once he determines that he’s trapped in a dream, he immediately identifies Batman as his captor. The relationship between man and Bat is far more complex in this episode than it is usually depicted–typically, we have identified the Bat as the protector fantasy, as something dreamed up by a frightened child to defend him from the world of crime and violence. But here it is shown to be equally a captor.
Of course he dreams of having his parents back. Who wouldn’t! But far more telling is that he dreams of being engaged to Kyle–a woman whom he courted as Bruce Wayne and rejected as Batman. It is Batman that sent her to prison, Batman’s rigid code of right and wrong, morality and duty, and adherence to the law (except laws regarding vigilantism and due process, of course) that keeps them apart. In a world where he doesn’t have to be Batman, he can be with her. He can have a family. He can, in his own words in this episode, be “free.”
Because, of course, to be protected is inherently to be constrained. A protector will not allow you to go places or do things they judge unsafe. The violence the protector directs against the dangerous other can just as easily be employed against the transgressive self. Bruce Wayne cannot date a criminal–a revolutionary–while also being Batman, let alone become one himself.
So which world is really the story being told by Batman to contain Bruce Wayne? Is it the one where Batman is a shadow of the Mad Hatter, or the one where Batman is a shadow of Thomas Wayne?
And the answer, of course, is both. They’re both fictions, both stories, because Batman is a fictional character and all fiction is equally fictional. All stories are, by definition, stories.
But what is a person–a real person, any person–but a self-insert story told by a lump of meat? Identity, personhood, self, soul–they’re all stories we tell ourselves, serials that unfold one day-long episode per day over a lifetime. Is Batman any more or less real than Froborr, my online persona?
No: all fictions are equally fictional. All stories are stories.
The title of this episode comes, of course, from Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, the beginning of which I quoted above. In that scene, Hamlet is no longer willing to live the life he has, and contemplates suicide. He is, mostly, in favor of the idea–but as he remarked earlier in the play, he is plagued by nightmares, and fears that the sleep of death will contain nightmares worse still.
Batman is Bruce Wayne’s nightmare. He has turned it outward, so that it can terrorize his enemies, the enemies of the social structures within which he feels comfortable, but it is nonetheless something he has built from fear. He knows, even this early in his career, that he will almost certainly die as a result of his heroics, and he is resigned to that possibility. After all, for all his wealth, his power, his adventures as a superhero, his life is still something he can describe as “the nightmare.” Like an inverted Hamlet, he is king of infinite space, and it is meaningless because of his bad dreams.
And can you blame him? He saw his parents gunned down in front of him when he was eleven years old! Of course his life has been a nightmare ever since. Of course he has turned that nightmare outward so it can haunt others. And of course he sees death as waking up–that, after all, is when his nightmare ends, when he finally zigs when he should have zagged and dies at the hands of “some punk with a gun.”
Batman has been around, in one form or another, since 1939. He may well be the longest and most elaborate suicide attempt in history.

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2 thoughts on “What do you call yourself? (Perchance to Dream)

  1. Wow, I just got done reading the volume of Tom King’s current Batman run called “I am Suicide”, which makes the exact same claim as you’re making here, that Bruce Wayne becoming Batman was an act of suicide, and then I come across it here.

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