Rembrandt, Hamlet and the question of identity

“There’s something of Rembrandt in Shakespeare,” wrote Vincent van Gogh in 1880. He saw Shakespeare’s language as “the equal of any brush trembling with fever and emotion.” Other thinkers, such as critic Hippolyte Taine and poet William Ernest Henley, have also commented on the link between Shakespeare and Rembrandt. Although operating within different cultural frameworks, they have a kind of artistic brotherhood which transcends their differing contexts.

I started to think about the similarities between the two when I was reading an extract from William Hazlitt’s ‘Hamlet’. Hazlitt, a 19th century essayist, argues that ‘Hamlet’ is such a great play because, in the character of Hamlet, Shakespeare embodies all of humanity. “The distresses of Hamlet are transferred, by the turn of his mind, to the general account of humanity,” he writes.  This reminded me of something Andrew Graham Dixon quotes when talking about Rembrandt’s ‘Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul’ in his series ‘the High Art of the Low Countries’ (which was recently repeated on the BBC). I re- watched it, and found that the quote is from the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne:

“Every sort of contradiction can be found in me, depending upon some twist. Timid, insolent, chaste, lecherous, talkative, taciturn, tough, sickly, clever, dull, brooding, affable, lying, truthful, learned, ignorant. I can see something of all that in myself, depending on how l gyrate”.

Graham-Dixon uses this in relation to the idea that, by the end of his life, Rembrandt is “questioning the very notion of identity itself”.

I was lucky enough to see this portrait at the National Gallery’s exhibition ‘Rembrandt: The Late Works’ in 2014. The sense of scrutiny is striking. Rembrandt paints himself looking out at the viewer with the same expression he might have had looking into a mirror- his eyes are piercing, his eyebrows are raised, and his lips are pursed in concentration. The dexterity of his brush has captured every effect that age has had on his face, but his subtlety means that this does not distract from the unchanging features that make his face his own. Those dark eyes are recognisable from one of his earliest self-portraits: ‘Artist in his Studio’. And all the self-portraits, young and old, have that same bulbous nose.

In light of Graham-Dixon’s comment, it is ironic that Rembrandt paints himself here as a definite Biblical figure- and therefore someone whose identity is unquestionable. For me, this indicates a fascination with individuality, as Rembrandt is placing himself within the guise of another and yet scrutinising his own underlying sense of selfhood. He seems to be asking- if we place ourselves, fictionally or genuinely, into a definite role, how does this relate to our sense of self? And from this comes the further question… what is a sense of self?

Rembrandt’s portraits and self-portraits from throughout his life show the same preoccupation with relationship between identity and acting, between guise and reality. He depicts himself as an artist and as a self-made man of the Golden Age, but also as a beggar and as the Prodigal Son.

He paints his son as a monk, his wife as the goddess Flora, and a couple (whose names are unknown) as the Old Testament couple Isaac and Rebecca. He loves to dress up his subjects in Oriental costume- a suggestion of identities as figures from the Old Testament. His little painting of his lover Hendrickje bathing, in the National Gallery, has a rich red and gold garment lying discarded in the background, leaving us to wonder whether she is Hendrickje, or Susanna, or Bathsheba- or all three at once.

In a broader sense, Rembrandt is fascinated with the guises of mood. His etched self-portraits have him jovial, raucous, sullen, calm, puzzled, studious, and surprised.

His Biblical paintings, too, show the whole spectrum of human morality with empathy and compassion. He depicts salvation with sin in mind, and sin with the knowledge that redemption is possible.

Montaigne, in his assertion that “Anyone who turns his prime attention onto himself will hardly ever find himself in the same state twice” is thinking along the same lines as Rembrandt.

He is thinking along the same lines as Shakespeare too. Shakespeare’s protagonists have that same restlessness to their identities, the same three-dimensionality, even to the point of paradox. This is perhaps most true of Hamlet. Shakespeare’s probing of Hamlet’s identity and fascination with acting runs parallel with the work of Rembrandt.

Hamlet is best described in terms of his contradictions- the same contradictions described by Montaigne and depicted by Rembrandt. Hamlet is both the noble philosopher loyal to his father and with an acute sense of duty, and the cruel and sexually-obsessed narcissist. He has his name to the intensely philosophically poignant ‘To Be or Not To Be’ , arguably the most famous speech in the English language, and yet many of his remarks are blatantly lewd and bawdy. Overthinking renders him incapable of enacting his revenge, and yet he is equally capable of rash and thoughtless action. He is sometimes anarchically funny (at the expense of others), but this comes as a jarring contrast to the moments when his tragic qualities come to the fore.

He’s a character whose identity is always in flux: it is perhaps no coincidence that Shakespeare was a contemporary of Montaigne. Shakespeare, like Rembrandt, is exploring the changeability, the unpredictability, the chiaroscuro, of the human soul.

This is true outside the play itself- there have been as many different interpretations of Hamlet as there are aspects to his character.

‘Hamlet’ shows Shakespeare to be as fascinated by identity as Rembrandt- and in the same way, as fascinated with acting and guise. Like Rembrandt, he demonstrates how show and authenticity can overlap. Hamlet’s famous ‘antic disposition’- his feigned madness- rather than leading him to put on a false persona, instead gives him the license to say and do exactly what he wishes. Therefore it becomes increasingly clear that his actions are the products of freedom from inhibition. Like Rembrandt’s portraits, the performance becomes a platform, rather than a concealment, for his true identity.

Hamlet is also preoccupied with deception versus authenticity in others. He challenges the true nature of his father’s ghost, wonders at the hypocrisy of the king, and undermines the integrity of his mother’s mourning for her dead husband.

“The spirit that I have seen/ May be a devil- and the devil hath power/ T’assume a pleasing shape”

“…one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.”

“..a beast that wants discourse of reason/ Would have mourned longer…”

The Players form a crucial part of the play because they reflect this preoccupation. When they arrive at court, Hamlet shows “a kind of joy”. He remarks again on the integration of fiction and reality, saying that the players should “hold a mirror up to nature.” In their pretence, they should reveal reality.

One of Hamlet’s most famous lines is the simple exclamatory- “what a piece of work is a man!” This endless fascination with what it means to be an individual makes Rembrandt and Shakespeare two of the greatest chroniclers of the human condition- in all of its complexity.

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