Who art thou? Who should thou be?

This is a headpiece which represents “Hamlet” by Shakespeare. It appeared in Eve, a famous London nightclub, around 1970.

This costume would most likely have been worn by semi-naked showgirls to entertain guests – thus – the elements had to be easily recognisable.

It features the ghost of Hamlets father, the castle tunnels and Joriks skull.

It signification should be obvious.

But is everything as it seems?

Mixed identities has been a core theme in most of Shakespeares plays such as Twelth Night and much of the 20th century literature. The fact that someone appears to someone else can almost be called an obsession in the Arts.

When one looks at Theatre, literature, sculpture and painting, this becomes very obvious. One example is Vertumnus and Pomona (1725) by Laurent Delvaux. It is a marble sculpture which represents a man, a woman and a child in an idyllic scene.  He is taking off his mask…

Vertumnus is a nature deity who can take on any form. He pretended to be an old woman in order to have access and seduce Pomona. He then takes off his mask to reveal himself as a youthful god.

Though this is a greek mythological tale, it does contain some symbolic elements – for who really shows their real face in the phase of seduction of any relationship? Be it a budding friendship or passionate courtship?

In life, our identity is a combination of different roles. You are a professional, a parent, a sibling, a friend, a partner… In each of these you need to exploit or hide different traits of your character.

In private, you would need to be more compassionate than you would be in a professional context for example. At work, you would not speak up against someone more senior, which you would do naturally.

But since we are always in a role, could we consider this our “identity”?

Society has many expectations which we need to fulfil in order to function in it. I have no doubt that an individual would be very different if they grew up sheltered from “modern life” with no pressure to have a job, education and dealing with technology. McLuhan , in “the Medium is the Massage”, states that every external element which affects the individual- whether direct or indirectly- are “an extension of the central nervous system”, becoming part of the man and therefore altering him from his original state. With this logic, in order to be able to see the fundamental self, man should never have had any external influences. This could only be in a very sheltered situation or in the very early stages of life.

The question of nature versus nurture is often raised, but is there such a thing as an individual in their natural state?

In the past, this has been a great interest for scientists and philosophers alike. Experiments have been done between genetically identical twins who were then placed in different environments and situations. But I believe this defies the point because we are constantly and always influenced by external factors. It is not a question of one person being different from another, but an individual being different from his true self. To answer this question, one must look within. In different situations, we alter ourselves to adapt to our surroundings. Adapt or die…

Django Unchained by Quentin Tarantino is a good example of the question I am raising. Stephen played by Samuel L. Jackson, is the black head slave of the Candie plantation. Because he spent his whole life faithfully serving the white family in their home, he has developed a strong, almost fatherly, bond with Calvin Candie (Leonardo diCaprio).

As a result of this, he controls the other slaves as his master would, even using severe bodily harm if necessary. Until his dying moment, he over-identifies with the white population of Texas of the 1850s, defending them till the bitter end. He completely takes on their beliefs and thereby their identity, forgetting his roots and his true self – both physically and mentally. Who are we? Who should we be Separate the mask from the face and thou shalt find a nonentity?

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