The Julius Caesar Connection

Julius CAESAR (William Shakespeare, 1599)

Let’s first consider some of the basic similarities:

  • Caesar’s doom is foretold to him in the play by a soothsayer (“Beware the ides of March”). Tony warns Danny and Wendy against the hotel, and shows Danny the bloodfall with a painting next to it entitled December Afternoon. Also, there is the Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are subtext, which strongly suggests Jack was doomed from the start.
  • The ides of March means the middle day of March. Jack dies either on the evening of the 13th of December, or some time on the 14th. That’s pretty close to the 15th.
  • Jack owns and proudly displays a copy of Caesar’s biography, and only smokes Marlboro cigarettes, which always bore Julius Caesar’s famous phrase “Veni, vidi, vici” (“I came, I saw, I conquered”) on the pack (The brand name of the pack is almost always pointed directly at the camera, most notably in the below shot, when Jack is having his murder nightmare). Incidentally, in the novel (on page 48), Jack says this phrase to his friends after getting his first short story published in Esquire.
  • Caesar is (spoiler alert) murdered(!) on the ides of March in Scene III, Act I, which is just under halfway through the play, and Jack offers to give his “goddamn soul for just a glass of beer” at 64:10, six and a half minutes before the middle of the film (making this the 45% mark, for the record (oh, while the 42% mark is Danny in 237 during Jack’s Marlboro nightmare!)). I think this soul offering could be argued to be the moment the Jack we thought we knew dies, and the moment monster Jack is finally born. If not the moment he downs his first drink, at 66:22.
  • The ghost of the murdered Caesar returns to haunt the fuck out of Brutus’ conscience, and of course this is a main concern of The Shining. Hauntings and whatnot.
  • Having not done a full review of the play (since Grade 10, anyway), but only briefly the scene of Caesar’s murder, it’s hard to say if Shakespeare was as concerned as Kubrick and Nabokov and Dostoevsky and Carroll with the notion of story structures that mirror themselves. That said, the play’s most famous line, “Et tu Brute” is a (slightly imperfect) mirror of sound. (EH) (TU) (BR) (UT) (EH) Was this Shakespeare’s way of having Caesar tell Brutus “You’re through the looking glass now, boy”, while passing through the looking glass of his own mortality? I can also spot lines like Cassius’ “Pardon, Caesar; Caesar, pardon” which bear a similar effect. Another line: “What trade, thou knave? Thou naughty knave, what trade?”
  • Perhaps most notably, Julius Caesar is famous for being titled after a character who would seem to be the perspective character for the audience, but who is murdered by (among others) Brutus, who will go on to have multiple times as much dialogue as Caesar. In any event, our sense of who the hero or perspective character of Julius Caesar is is rather muddied by its dramatic nature. Similarly, no one should end The Shining wanting to see themselves in Jack (mesmerized as we are by his devolution into minotaur/fox man-beast), but Wendy isn’t as special as Danny, and Danny goes mute at 58:30, and remains Tony until either 121 minutes or 129, depending on how you look at it. Hallorann is too far removed, and while you can make a case for the hotel and its ghosts being a strong character in the film, it’s hardly where we’re placing our empathies.
  • Also, while Shakespeare used Plutarch’s Lives to inform all the factual elements of the assassination of Caesar, he played around with the facts for dramatic effect, just as Kubrick fiddled with King’s novel for his own purposes. (I hope the honour of being compared, by Kubrick, to Shakespeare, is not lost on King, if he learns of this)
  • The film has at least one full-on Julius in the film, in the form of a poster of Dr. Julius Erving, hanging in the radio room near the 1/3 mark of the film. The month of July is named after Julius Caesar, and that’s the month photo Jack will live in forever and ever and ever. And there’s a painting which possibly partially depicts Mt. Julian, a name which derives directly from Julius.
  • There’s also a painting I discovered recently depicting the Kaiser mountains (the word “Kaiser” is the German derivation of “Caesar”). I did an extensive analysis of that painting within its section above, which will speak heavily to this section, but I don’t want to repeat any of it here, so head there for more.

There’s also the feeling held by some that Danny is consciously murdering Jack. I don’t think that’s true, because I think at that point, Danny’s ability to shine into Jack’s mind would let him know that Jack has already killed himself, he would feel the hollow at his father’s core. When he’s crouched in the labyrinth, terrified as he waits to see if Jack will fall for his ruse, he’s truly mortified at the possibility that it won’t work. That says to me that he sees this plan as 50/50, which it is. Jack could’ve turned left instead of right.

I think Kubrick’s depiction of Danny’s actions is so powerful that it can seem to the obsessive viewer as if everything Danny accomplishes by the end is cumulative, inevitable and intentional, but I doubt that’s meant to be the case.

Also, Caesar is killed by the conspirators, including Brutus, who goes on to become the play’s main figure. So if Jack’s “Give my goddamn soul” line suggests a kind of suicide, then second-half Jack is Brutus, and the hotel helps things along. Brutus commits suicide at the end of the play, and he is mourned by Antony (Tony?) who discovers his corpse, and honours him. Fun fact: the real Brutus killed himself in 42 BC (so maybe 42s aren’t just for world wars anymore…).

I’m not sure if this is a comparison that works for the play, but the effect of having no perspective character in The Shining goes two ways. 1) It invites us equally into the minds of the heroes and the villains, forcing us to make up our own minds about who we most relate to…or so that we abstract ourselves from the drama, and see it from more of an objective god’s-eye view (Would I kill Caesar? Would I go crazy and murder my family?). And 2) it highlights the way that these characters all have richly unspoken internal narratives–Jack never mentions seeing a ghost, Danny goes completely inside himself (except to be traumatized by Tony’s late-stage shines), and Wendy goes through the entire post-237 portion of the film aware that the “crazy woman” reported by Danny may still be at large somewhere.

Cassius, one of the other conspirators, and good friend of Brutus, also has himself killed by a servant after receiving the false word that his friend Titinius has been slain in war. Right before the murder of Caesar, Cassius says, “…I am constant as the northern star, Of whose true-fix’d and resting quality There is no fellow in the firmament.” The northern star is part of Ursa Minor, the constellation known as the “little bear”. I wonder if he relates to Hallorann, since Danny is not only seen being protected by bears, but in the mirrorform, as Hallorann is being axed, Danny rests on a bear pillow that blots out everything else around him. Also, in real life Scatman and Nicholson were good friends, and it was Jack who got Scatman the job.

(Also, at the risk of seeming paranoid, there’s a bizarre story in Shining lore about Kubrick having originally resisted using Crothers, and desiring to put Slim Pickins (the guy who rides the bomb in Dr. Strangelove) in the role, and Pickins refusing. This seems utterly unthinkable to me, since the subtext of racism is so central to the story, and Kubrick didn’t shy away from any other sensitive subject (nudity, graphic violence/murder, coarse language, war/genocide, incest, etc.). So perhaps this story was to throw us off the scent of the Jack-Scatman connection, or draw our attention to it.)

Jack delivers the entire soul-selling line into his hands. I thought for a while that this was a way to give some time to edit the line, and ADR it into the film later, or possibly a superstitious thing, like Nicholson didn’t even want to pretend to sell his soul so an impersonator would be brought in to ADR the line. But in fact, the last line of dialogue before the murder of Caesar is from Casca, who says, “Speak hands for me.” Coincidence?

When Jack emerges from his hands, the first thing he sees is Lloyd, the destroyer.

Also, the book Jack is trying to write is a quasi-autobiographical play when he arrives at the Overlook, so perhaps invoking Shakespeare (Wendy calls Jack “…the American Shakespeare!” in the novel) felt like the right thing to do. I also wonder if this is hinting at a certain Stendhal syndrome in Jack: sometimes described as being simply overwhelmed by the great beauty of masterpiece works of art, but which can also be understood as the impotency of an artist to create after coming face-to-face with artistic masterpieces, or with having their psyche confronted by the glut of masterworks that exist (as Stendhal found in himself after moving to Florence to become an artist), and which the artist might not feel sufficient enough to be ever be counted among. Stendhal syndrome as a term was actually coined in 1979, though it isn’t recognized as a legitimate medical condition. Nevertheless, I doubt any great artist lives bereft of the fear of losing their ability, or being forgotten by the crushing wheel of time.

So, Bruegel’s The Tower of Babel (1563), along with the ancient bog-wood art piece in the middle of the room (bog-wood is wood that’s fossilized over hundreds or thousands of years), along with whatever other clues might be in the unidentified journals tossed about here, might serve here as a symbol of Jack’s frustration with his moment in history. The “Veni, vidi, vici” on his Marlboros here (a half-smoked butt is still ashing in the tray), along with the New York Review of Books featuring two articles condemning the current president Jimmy Carter (one of which starts with some lines pulled from Julius Caesar), might have put Shakespeare on his mind, and choked up his will to create.

Orson Welles (remember the obscure connection to Citizen Kane?) did a version of Julius Caesar in 1937 where he played Brutus, which seems to have been one of the most raved about renditions of all time. He dressed the protagonists in uniforms similar to those common at the time in Italy and Germany, drawing a comparison between Caesar and Mussolini (in 1937!!!—I’m just impressed that he was that forward-thinking, and aware of the situation in Europe). It played for 157 performances (that’s 2:37 in proper time–just saying), which is fairly gargantuan as Shakespeare runs go.

It might seem like a stretch, but I doubt Kubrick would’ve been unaware of Welles’ achievement here (it showed at the Mercury Theatre in New York City, where Kubrick would’ve been 8/9 years old), so perhaps this operated on some level as inspiration for Kubrick’s buried WWII imagery. Note the way the backdrop resembles an abstract bird taking flight.

Fun fact: the earliest notable performance, according to Wikipedia, was when
John Wilkes Booth played Marc Antony in an 1864 performance.

One last thing: it occurred to me that Kubrick might’ve been cognizant of Shakespeare’s having somewhat eclipsed the significance of Caesar’s life (in the popular consciousness) by writing this play, which also served as a memorialization. I wonder if it crossed Kubrick’s mind that his Napoleon film could have the same impact, and perhaps that’s why it became so hard to do? The closest SK got to reproducing reality in a movie (after Spartacus, which he disowned) might’ve been Full Metal Jacket, which would speak to his mindset running up to Napoleon. I almost wonder if Barry Lyndon, The Shining, and Full Metal Jacket represented a ramping up toward tackling something as huge as actual history, for him.