Will Shakespeare and Disney: arguably the two most influential creators ever. Sure, one is an Elizabethan playwright and the other is a billion dollar corporation, but Mr. Shakespeare and Mr. Disney have created art that has proven to stand the tests of time.
Unsurprisingly, Disney has been influenced by the great playwright and have thrown many Shakespeare references into their films. But one stands above the rest: The Lion King is a painfully obvious retelling of Hamlet: Prince of Denmark. It’s practically fanfiction (kinda… sorta… not really) (totally) and I’m about to tell you why.
This meta has been broken down by characters, easily identifiable by their amusing headings. Due to the length of this post, I refrained from giving Gertrude/Sarabi, Ophelia/Nala, and Horatio/Rafiki entire sections to themselves.
Introduction: Lets Get This Party Started
We shall begin at the beginning, as so many stories do. In its simplest form, the catalyst in both stories is: king killed by jealous brother. Claudius poisons daddy!Hamlet in the ear, while Scar shoves Mufasa off a cliff… into a wildebeest stampede. It’s all very dramatic. The death of their fathers’ propels Hamlet and Simba into action (or delays it—you’ll get it soon, I promise) and drives the story.
Hamlet and Simba: Just Can’t Wait to Be King… Kinda… Sorta… Not Really
When the play Hamlet begins, Hamlet’s father has already been murdered and Claudius sits upon the throne. Hamlet has just returned home from school and is grieving his father’s death. Worse, his mother tells him that it’s time to stop mourning and he should get on with his life (spoiler: this pisses him off). The opening scene is two guards discussing what will happen with the pressures of war with Norway mounting and their new king un-obliged to do anything about it. This sounds awfully similar to the lions vs hyenas conundrum Disney sets up in The Lion King very early on, as well. But we’ll get to that later.
Simba’s beginnings are far gentler than Hamlet’s. Simba is a naughty child.
He loves his father very much and looks forward to the prospect of being king. His father is his mentor. The father-son relationship is established so strongly that we all bawl our eyes out when Mufasa is killed (if you don’t, I’m side eyeing you).
By doing this, the focus shifts from a tale of revenge (Hamlet) to one of a young prince growing up (The Lion King).
In coming of age stories, parents usually have to bite it in order for the child to learn how to make adult decisions. Oops.
With the death of their fathers’ the course of Hamlet and Simba’s lives are changed. Hamlet refuses to believe his uncle could do such a thing, despite being told by this the ghost of his father. ghost!Hamlet also tells his son to avenge him. So, great, basically poor grieving Hamlet was just told, “Your uncle killed me! KILL HIM! Blood be damned!” There’s also a line about ghost!Hamlet unable to leave purgatory until he’s been avenged, which, woah, major guilt trip. Understandably, Hamlet wants to be sure of everything before he does something irreversible. Henceforth spawns Shakespeare’s longest play, full of Hamlet intellectualizing and philosophizing and seeking to delay action for as long as physically possible (seriously), looking for irrefutable proof of his uncle’s guilt. Hamlet’s uneasiness and indecisiveness makes him wonder if he is a coward, thus more soliloquies are desperately needed.
“This doesn’t sound like The Lion King!” you cry.
Yes, I know. Just bear with me.
Hamlet delays action. Well guess what, Simba does, too! When Mufasa is killed, Simba is terrified of being blamed for the death. His guilt claws at him (get it?). And it doesn’t help that good ol’ Uncle Scar is there whispering in his ear (CLAUDIUS POISONED HAMLET IN THE EAR). Simba runs away. He’s convinced he’ll never return, in effect, delaying action. On his journey he meets Timon and Pumba and if you thought four hours of Hamlet was long, years go by for Simba before he takes any action. His childhood, quite literally, passes. He grows up! And gets a mane! In essence, I like to believe this was a nice homage to Hamlet and his pages of poetic waxing while also keeping the film to a standard run time (and the attention of all those kiddies!).
(Side note: roughly 1,000 lines of speech are said per hour during a play and Hamlet is around 4,000 lines. Thus, we get four hours.)
Okay, done, boom. Hamlet and Simba both delay action, dragging out the conflict. Where Hamlet is concerned with proving Claudius’ guilt, Simba wants to forget all his problems (Hakuna Matata!).
In his quest to uncover Claudius’ motives, Hamlet uses his grief as a cover, acting out in crazy ways to convince everyone he’s losing his mind. Hamlet wants Claudius to feel that he is not a threat to Claudius’s newfound throne. Hamlet’s madness allows Claudius a sense of relief: he’s won, the next in line is not a threat. Simba staying away has the same affect on Scar: Scar believes he’s emerged victorious. But here lies one of the main questions of Shakespeare’s play: Is Hamlet insane or is he just pretending to lure the truth out?
I have my own opinion, just like everyone who has ever read or seen Hamlet, but this is not the place for that discussion. The parallel I want to draw here is when Simba is reunited with his bff and ultimate soulmate Nala.
After the initial spell of happiness has worn off, Nala wants to know why Simba’s been hiding out for so long. Their argument is basically Nala asking Simba if he’s gone insane (ta da!).
See the lines: “What’s happened to you? You’re not the Simba I remember. … Just disappointed. [You’re starting to sound like my father] Good, at least one of us does.” It does not go to the extremes like in Hamlet, but there is still this subtext. It may be one of the weaker ones, but I do think it is worth noting. However, this scene still ties back into both Hamlet and Simba’s indecisiveness and reluctance to live up to the legacies their fathers’ have left for them.
What happens once Hamlet knows Claudius is guilty? How does Hamlet’s arc intersect with Simba’s? After delaying action for so long, Simba has gotten comfortable in his new life, as seen multiple times in the film and in his argument with Nala. Simba doesn’t want to go back. What happens next for Simba is what happened to Hamlet at the beginning of the play: the ghost of his dad pays him a visit. The timing of this is excellent because Simba is most in need of guidance here. Just like, oh, yes, Hamlet was pretty distraught at the beginning of the play and in need of guidance then.
“Remember me,” in act one, scene five is Disney-fied into “Remember who you are.” The plot of revenge in Hamlet further continues to transform into a coming of age story.
(Yes, that is Mufasa. Don’t judge me.)
The Lion King may be the most creative of them all [animated movies]—it digs down to the heart of the story, carefully removes the skeleton of the plot and Hamlet’s drive for vengeance, and wraps those elements in a world of talking animals and upbeat musical numbers.
Hamlet doesn’t quite jump into action the same way Simba does, since now he begins his long process of snooping around and looking for proof (spoiler: he hires a bunch of actors to create a play (it’s a play within a play!) that will feature a brother killing his brother to become king.).
For Simba, though, this encounter brings him back to the Pride Lands and solidifies his goal to unseat Scar as king.
The Lion King’s screenwriters excised Hamlet’s heavy emphasis on philosophy and political maneuverings; Simba never launches into ‘to be, or not to be’ speeches, but he shares Hamlet’s indecision in living up to his father’s legacy.
Not anymore! Simba returns and there’s a big final confrontation just like there is in Hamlet. Because this is a Disney movie, there is a far happier ending for Simba and co. than there is for Hamlet.
The similarities between the Danish prince and lion are quite striking. For me, these parallels are the most compelling.
Daddy!Hamlet and Mufasa: Daddy Issues (& Ghosts)
Poor, poor Hamlet and Mufasa.
Also, Shakespeare get a random name generator or something. The play is called Hamlet. The main character is called Hamlet. Then there’s daddy!Hamlet. Getting back to the point—
We see absolutely zero of daddy!Hamlet and a little of ghost!Hamlet, but from reading between the lines, we can gather that he was a pretty decent king. His ghost appears clad in armor, maybe a symbol he was a strong and confident ruler. Mufasa, though, gets way more screen time.
We also see the Pride Lands—it’s beautiful, in full bloom, and all the animals show up to rejoice at the continuation of Mufasa’s line via the birth of Simba. Mufasa and his clan are well-liked.
In contrast, when Scar becomes king, the Pride Lands are barren, dying. Everyone is starving. The same thing happens in Denmark when Claudius becomes king: war is brewing with Norway.
As you are well aware at this point, both are killed by their brothers and both visit their sons as ghosts. However, daddy!Hamlet visits Hamlet several times, while Mufasa only pays Simba one holiday. Because Disney cut the revenge aspect of Shakespeare’s play, the messages conveyed during these interludes had to be changed, as well. This was already touched upon in the previous section.
Daddy!Hamlet and Mufasa are the driving forces behind their sons. They become symbols. Whether Hamlet and Simba are acting or not acting, everything ties back to the father sized hole left on their hearts.
Claudius and Scar: Never Trust Your Uncle (also, a lot of Scar gifs)
Muahahaha, the evil ones!
The second child that did not get enough love.
Claudius and Scar have been corrupted morally and crave power. As was previously established, they murder their brother and, here’s a new piece of info, they take their brother’s widow as their new bride. This is never explicitly stated in The Lion King (kids movie flag waves), but it can certainly be implied in the way he defers to her for status reports.
The Broadway version, though, has Scar set his sights on Nala, which isn’t quite the same, but still a close enough parallel.
[x] [animation of the Broadway song]
It is overtly clear in the play, though, which is something that fuels Hamlet’s madness (or fake-madness?) and anger. In defense of Hamlet, I think this can totally be excused because who would NOT freak out if your mother marries your murdering uncle shortly after your dad’s death and then tells you to stop mourning? Moving on…
Murder methods were different, outcomes identical.
Similiar to how Claudius drives Hamlet mad (or does he?), Scar physically drives Simba away from the Pride Lands. But even mentally, for awhile there, Simba was clocked out of royal affairs. Our plot diverges here because the play has Hamlet tailing Claudius closely, while Simba has zero to do with Scar, and as such, the feline villain is absent for a fair amount of the film.
The glimpses we do have of Scar show him living up the life and debauchery… kinda… sorta… not really (kids movie flag flies). So there’s no debauchery, but there is plenty of twisted happiness emanating from Scar. Claudius, too, is throwing banquets in his honor and enjoying the pleasure of his new wife. However, Claudius begins to show remorse—or at least guilt—for the murder of his brother (spoiler: Hamlet’s convoluted play worked). Claudius prays to God for forgiveness (spoiler: Hamlet can’t kill him now—his soul is purged! He’ll go right to heaven! HAMLET WAITED TOO LONG and now must wait (some more) till Claudius commits another sin. That could take ages. Revenge is so hard, guys.).
If Scar ever feels anything besides joy over the success of his plans, this is never shown.
Scar takes his lack of regret a step farther and taunts Simba during the final battle. He’s still reveling in killing his brother and the fact that he successfully manipulated Simba his entire life into thinking it had all been his fault. Though things would have been so much better for Scar if life had gone this way:
These villains meet their ends, ironically—wonderfully— by poison and getting thrown off a cliff. Sound familiar? Tis exactly the method each one used to kill their brother. And in a fun turn of events, Claudius’s murder of daddy!Hamlet was super straight forward (poison in the ear), meanwhile Disney concocted this whole scheme of luring Simba to the gorge, then starting the stampede, then getting Mufasa to come rescue his son, and when he (and Simba) didn’t die in the stampede, Scar had to finish it off (shoving him off the cliff) and tie up the loose end (manipulating Simba). But for the climax, these situations are flipped.
It is now Claudius going to elaborate measures to execute his nephew: there’s to be this big sword duel and there will be poison, and Hamlet will drink the poison, and the blade of his foe will also be poisoned just in case.
(this gif was captioned “Hamlet the sore winner” and it amuses me to no end)
Unfortunately, things do not go to plan and four out of the five people in the room end up dying (spoiler: Horatio (Rafiki, basically) lives). Hamlet cuts Claudius with the sword and also has him drink from the poisoned chalice. Thus, Claudius dies via poison. Whereas in The Lion King, Simba and Scar are fighting it out and Simba knocks him over the edge. This doesn’t actually kill him, but it is the last contact Simba and Scar have with each other before Scar is torn apart by the hyenas.
I always liked this little detail in the storytelling structure. It also makes sense in terms of where our narratives start. We don’t witness daddy!Hamlet’s death or any build up leading towards it. When the play begins, he is dead and Hamlet is where our focus should be. It would be disappointing to learn about a whole plot after the fact. But The Lion King begins before the murder. We need that to be built up. Who Simba was before his dad died is important. And who he becomes after is even more important. Meanwhile, the arc of Hamlet has been working towards the final confrontation between Hamlet and his uncle, while The Lion King has been working towards Simba embracing who he is. The vengeance of Hamlet has been reconverted for Disney purposes.
To tie up this section, lets just say that Claudius and Scar were both ass hats that got what they deserved. Peace.
Rosencratz & Guildenstern and Timon & Pumba: Foils of Friendship
I have no love for Rosencratz and Guildenstern, so I’m not going to talk about them much. Basically, they’re Hamlet’s friends, they let him have a good time, allowing the reader/theatergoer to know Hamlet’s life is not all doom and gloom. In The Lion King, we have Timon and Pumba, also the comic relief.
Their bug eating ways are a welcome relief from all the crying and sobbing and heartbreak and Simba’s angst. These distinct duets are actually foils of each other, as I shall illustrate below.
Each group of friends plays their own hand in what happens to Hamlet and Simba. For R&G, they are “secret” servants to Claudius, reporting on Hamlet’s moves.
Hamlet tolerates them, but is aware he has no real ally in them. Instead, their presence reminds him of the action he has failed to take and Claudius continues to sit on the throne, fueling his melancholy disposition. Timon and Pumba instead try to get Simba to forget about his troubles.
But when his past comes roaring back (get it?), they are eager for him to push that aside. They laugh when Nala explains to them the magnitude of losing Mufasa, what’s happened to the Pride Lands, how Simba has to go back and be king. There’s actually a slight similarity here. R&G are semi-working with Claudius, while Timon and Pumba unknowingly further Scar’s aim by keeping Simba away from the Pride Lands for so long.
In the end, though, I see them as foils because Timon and Pumba eventually come around and help Simba defeat Scar.
So what happens to Rosencratz and Guildenstern? You may be wondering this since you are very familiar with the fate of Timon and Pumba, now besties with the new king of the Pride Lands. And if R&G and Timon and Pumba are foils, then clearly they got the opposite of a big shiny Happy Ending.
Hamlet has them killed. Backstabbing is hard to forgive, which is exactly what R&G do. I mean, maybe. We don’t really know. Shakespeare doesn’t tell us. And Hamlet, through his fake madness (or real madness), treats his “friends” in a hot and cold manner. Ultimately, Claudius gives them a letter that has Hamlet’s death warrant inside and they’re told to journey to England with him. Hamlet finds out about this letter and switches the name to R&G and sends them on their merry way.
Hamlet and Simba’s friends/sidekicks both play roles in the lives of these young princes. Albeit, slightly different ones, but they still run parallel to each other.
TOTAL WAR: Denmark VS Norway and Lions VS Hyenas
Here we go! We’ve finally reached that little plotline I threw in at the very beginning. Are you excited? I’m excited. Disney turned the Norwegians into hyenas! They also turned Hamlet into a lion instead of Pumba (get it?), but I digress. (Someone should have put me on the creative team of this movie.) (But that would have been impossible since TLK came out a year before I was born. I don’t think I was even a fetus yet.)
The Lion King shows us from the very beginning that the lions and hyenas (cats and dogs, anyone?) don’t get along. The hyenas are not welcome in the Pride Lands, which is why they are so easily swayed by Scar, who promises them the lay of the land for their loyalty.
When baby!Simba (aka bratty!Simba) traipses into the Elephant Graveyard all pompously, the hyenas have no qualms about ingesting baby!prince. The scenery of the graveyard is really creepy and not an appealing place one would want to spend their time. In contract to the Pride Lands, especially. Mufasa rescues his son and scares the hyenas off and increases the tension between both groups.
The conflict in The Lion King is over land. Guess what the conflict in Hamlet is about?
Have you guessed yet?
Are you guessing?
You must have guessed.
If you said LAND, DING DING, YOU ARE OUR GRAND PRIZE WINNER. You get to finish reading this meta! Yes! Great prize. Really, you’re so lucky. So many people would kill for this opportunity. Poison in the ear or theatrical wildebeest stampede would for sure be their MO.
Okay, so Norway is pissed at Denmark. Over land. And the fact that daddy!Hamlet killed King Fortinbras in order to accomplish this acquisition of land, but oi, don’t lose sight of this. The conflict is over land. And now baby!Fortinbras wants the land back and Shakespeare seriously needs to buy himself one of those books that list all the baby names.
Norway’s army is marching towards Denmark with Claudius on the throne and not doing anything about it.
With Scar’s reign of terror, hyenas are destroying the Pride Lands (this is why you can’t have nice things. The graveyard probably wasn’t even a graveyard until you got there.). The food supply has dropped and the weather is grey and awful and Scar really messed everything up. There are skeletons everywhere (kids movie flag be damned). Scar doesn’t see anything wrong with this picture, instead blaming it on the lionesses, saying they’re not hunting hard enough.
The political maneuverings in Hamlet matter much more, as Hamlet ends up dying just as Fortinbras arrives on his doorstep.
Hamlet’s last words include giving control of the kingdom over to the Norwegian prince who has also lost his father and is fighting in his honor (a parallel within a parallel, huh Shakespeare?). However, Disney doesn’t shy away from integrating this subplot of Hamlet into The Lion King. This shot in particular is a one man army vs an entire army:
Who can forget Scar’s amazing song “Be Prepared” where the hyenas mimic the very distinct Nazi march?
No one, that’s who. The hyenas are meant to represent an army and that provides an added layer and depth to the story.
Conclusion: Hamlet Should Have Been a Musical
As we have now gone through in painstaking detail, Hamlet and The Lion King share a lot in common. From the wounded princes to the murdered kings and nasty uncles, there’s a lot of rich storytelling here that entrances audiences to this day. I love the liberties Disney took with the play, craftily shaping it into this wonderful film. It retains the core of Hamlet while also telling its own story in the process. The way Hamlet and The Lion King mirror themselves in narrative structure also amuses me: Hamlet seeing his father in the beginning, Simba at the end; Claudius’ easy plan in the beginning vs his meticulously plotted final act vs Scar’s deception in the beginning to his straightforward end at the climax.
I’m tempted to dub The Lion King ‘Hamlet without Hamlet’.
To know one is to know the other, because Simba’s plight would never have been born if not for Hamlet’s tragedy.
The Lion King as an interpretation of Hamlet was the topic of my English Term Paper my senior year of high school. I originally covered this, as you can see by the access dates below, two years ago. When Mel and I started the site, I knew right away I wanted to revisit this as a stronger writer and reader. I thought it would be a simple case of editing my term paper and tweaking certain areas, but when I dug the document out, I was cringing so hard. I knew immediately I would have to rewrite the whole thing. The above piece is double the size of the original paper and the only thing that is the same is the final line of the conclusion, also the final line of my original paper.
Maybe I’ll do another rewrite in two years.
Greydanus, Steven. “The Lion King: 1994.” Decent Films Guide. <http://www.decentfilms.com/reviews/lionking>. 20 December 2012.
The Lion King. Screenplay by Irene Mecchi and Jonathan Roberts. Dir. Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff. Perf. Matthew Broderick, James Earl Jones, and Jeremy Irons. Walt Disney Studios, 1994.
McElveen, Trey. “Hamlet and The Lion King: Shakespearean Influences on Modern Entertainment.” The Lion King Unofficial World Wide Web Archive. 17 April 1998. <http://www.lionking.org/text/Hamlet-TM.html>. 20 December 2012.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. 1600. Ed. A.R. Braunmuller. New York: Penguin Books, 2001.
The majority of Hamlet gifs are from the film version with David Tennant.
Comment below with your opinion! I love debating about this subject, so don’t be shy. Your opinions matter to me. I love Hamlet and The Lion King and could talk about this forever.