Dream is neither a living being, nor a god. Like all his siblings, he is the anthropomorphic personification of an abstract concept, in Morpheus' case, dreams or the act of dreaming itself. When the first living thing in the universe dreamt, he was born, and as long as something in the universe dreams, he will continue to exist.
He appears as whomever is viewing him expects him to appear: a Martian sees him as a disembodied energy being, a cat sees him as a cat, humans see him as human and so on. To modern humans he is a tall, thin, pale skinned, dark haired goth, similar in appearance to the lead singer of The Cure, Robert Smith.
Morpheus was created by Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth and Mike Dringenberg and first appeared in The Sandman #1. Originally, Gaiman had wanted to revive the cast of Simon and Kirby's original Sandman series, however, when DC editor Karen Berger gave him the go-ahead to write a new Sandman series, her one rule was that he must come up with a new Sandman character as well. Thus, Dream of the Endless was born.
Morpheus would go through many changes over the years and although he appeared in other DC books, most of his development was done by Neil Gaiman during the main series. Initially, Morpheus is a noble, tragic hero that compares favorably to heroes in the Greek tragedies. He is sometimes slow when dealing with humor, occasionally insensitive, often self-obsessed, and is very slow to forgive or forget a slight. After the end of one of Morpheus' invariably disastrous romances, Mervyn Pumpkinhead remarks, "He's gotta be the tragic figure standing out in the rain, mournin' the loss of his beloved. So down comes the rain, right on cue. In the meantime everybody gets dreams fulla existential angst and wakes up feeling like hell. And we all get wet." Near the end of the Brief Lives story arc, Desire says of Dream, "He's stuffy, stupid, and thinks he knows everything, and there's just something about him that gets on my nerves."
When Gaiman’s Sandman series begins, Morpheus has been inadvertently captured by the magician Roderick Burgess, who was trying to capture Dream’s older sister Death in order to ransom her freedom in exchange for power and immortality. When Dream was offered this same deal he refused and instead waited patiently for his chance to escape. When Burgess died of old age (cursing Dream's stubbornness to the end), his son Alexander continued to keep Dream locked up. After 70 years of imprisonment within Burgess' magic circle, one of the guards near Dream’s magical cell fell asleep and Dream escaped into the guard’s dreams.
After exacting his revenge on Alex Burgess by condemning him to endless waking, Morpheus slowly makes his way back to his home in the center of the Dreaming, finding it dilapidated and nearly destroyed. His initial challenges are to rebuild his domain, reclaim his lost tools and corral all the dreams and nightmares that had run rampant in the both the dream realm and the real world during his absence. This sets off a chain of events that results in a softening of Morpheus' character as he sets about regaining his lost power. It is implied that before his imprisonment he was in some ways crueler and more blind to his flaws, and much of the Sandman series is focused on Morpheus' desire to atone for his past behavior, i.e. helping past lovers Calliope and Nada. It is perhaps his changing and moving forward that brings about the beginning of his end.
During the course of the series, Morpheus consistently strives for understanding of himself and of the other Endless, especially his elder sibling Death, but he is ultimately undone by his most tragic flaw, his innate inability to accept change. This is especially ironic considering that the nature of dreams are constant change. As Lucien remarks in The Wake when asked (by Matthew, the raven) "Why did it happen? Why did he let it happen?", "Charitably...I think...sometimes, perhaps, one must change or die. And in the end, there were, perhaps, limits to how much he could let himself change." In a last gut-punch of ironic underpinning, by the series final story arc Morpheus had become a kinder version of himself, more able to forgive, and better able to love.
While Morpheus was imprisoned, a pair of rogue dreams, Brute and Glob, resurrected the golden age Sandman and trapped him along with his living pregnant wife Hippolyta Hall (the Fury) in the dreams of an abused foster-child Jed who was kept locked in a basement. Dream banished the dead “Sandman”, freed Jed and told Hall that the child she was carrying had lived long in dreams and that one day Dream himself would come for him. Shortly after the child’s birth Dream visited him and named the child Daniel.
At another point Dream joined his sister Delirium on a quest for “The Prodigal,” the one Endless that had abandoned his realm and his responsibilities: Destruction. This quest eventually led them back to Dream’s son Orpheus who had existed for thousands of years as just a head. In return for the information of Destruction’s whereabouts, Dream agreed to kill his son, releasing him from his long imprisonment. Because he had shed family blood, he inadvertently set in motion a series of catastrophic events. He sent Loki and Puck, two legendary figures who had been hiding in the Dreaming, to fetch Daniel and bring him to Dream’s castle. In doing so, they put Daniel on a fire, burning away his mortality.
Hippolyta Hall went insane and with the help of the witch Thessaly, another extremely long lived human, went on a search for him. She encountered instead “The Kindly Ones”, the vengeful aspect of the three Fates (otherwise known as the Furies or the Hecate), and joined them. To stop them from destroying the Dreaming permanently, Morpheus accepts his fate and ultimately, his sister Death came for him.
At the moment of Morpheus' death Daniel became the new Dream. He maintained all of the previous incarnation's power and knowledge, but with a slightly different personae. When the wake and funeral are held, one of Morpheus’ servants, Abel, explains that it is not so much a person they are mourning, “but a point of view”. After Morpheus' body is sent to the afterlife by his siblings, Daniel Hall ascends the throne of the Dreaming as the new Dream Of The Endless.
Major Story Arcs
Given his near infinite lifespan, the background of Dream is sparsely known. What is known is revealed through many different story arcs during The Sandman series. At one point he fell in love with the queen of an ancient African tribe, but despite her feelings for him, she rejected him on the grounds it was not for humans to love his kind and he condemned her to hell for it. In ancient Greece he was married to the muse Calliope and they gave birth to Orpheus, the minstrel of legend. ( Calliope would later call on Dream to free her from imprisonment.) He gave guidance to Augustus Caesar. He made a deal with William Shakespeare that in return for two plays, he would give Shakespeare the gift of creativity to create works that would last through time. In return, Shakespeare wrote Midsummer Night’s Dream (which was performed for the Faerie) and the Tempest (which was the story Dream could not write about himself. “I am the Prince of Stories, Will, but I have no story of my own. Nor shall I ever.”).
He met the immortal Robert (Hob) Gadling once every hundred years for a friendly drink. He sent the agent Johanna Constantine into Post-Revolutionary France to rescue the head of his son, Orpheus. He made a bet with his sisters Desire and Despair over who was the most powerful by fighting over a man’s destiny, turning Joshua Edward Norton into Emperor Norton I, winning the bet and earning Desire’s enmity. At one point he was handed the key to Hell by Lucifer himself, but after hearing many petitioners he eventually handed the key back to two angels, Remiel and Duma, upon the explicit orders of The Presence itself.. All of these seemingly random adventures are expertly interconnected, revealing a deeper portrait of the protagonist Morpheus.