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Splitting Heirs

Updated: Oct 31, 2019

There's no argument to be made. Please deal with it.

I mean, it’s not that I don’t like The Lion King. And realistically, it deserved an all-black cast the first time around, though for Jeremy Irons and John Cleese I’d make an exception. I’m just of the same mindset as Beauty and the Beast — it was already so good the first time, it really shouldn’t demand a remake. But I’ve always been troubled about The Lion King. Or, more specifically, troubled about how people talk about The Lion King, and how the creators have mislabeled The Lion King.

Drop everything you’ve heard. The Lion King is absolutely not William Shakespeare’s Hamlet with Africa-animals.

No. I don’t want to hear any of it. Don’t come at me. Enough. Drop it. It’s fake news. I’m sick of having this argument and I don’t want it to spring up again now it’s fresh in the press with a side-order of Beyonce stunt-casting.

I mean... they flared the eyes a bit but is there really any way to tell this lion apart from any other lion?

Okay. So you want to insist that The Lion King is a re-telling of Hamlet. Why? Because some king gets murdered by his brother who goes on to marry his sister-in-law? This is… well, it’s literally the only similarity, and even then it’s choppy.

Oh, snap.

We’re already off the rails because it was never really specified in the original cartoon that Sarabi and Scar were humping it out. I mean. The whole Lion society doesn’t really line up very well. Because Prides never get that large, and there’s only one alpha male. And he has free rein of all the lady-lions.

"Right in front of my salad?"

And if the alpha male does tolerate other lions, it’s because they are gay lions, and therefore not seen as a threat. (Scar is gay: nature-confirmed.) Furthermore, Sarabi and all the other lions, aren’t that happy about Scar being the new alpha-King. Also not a characteristic of Hamlet, where all the court and the queen adore Claudius and suspect absolutely nothing.

What it comes down to is a misunderstanding of what people think Hamlet is about. And this includes the directors in the commentary for the film. Most people assume that Hamlet is about a guy who’s father is murdered by his uncle, who then marries his mother and becomes king; he has to kill his uncle and avenge his father.

These are the folks who slept through high school.

Yes, this is a component of Hamlet’s plot, but it’s not what Ham ‘about’ — even if this is where The Lion King begins and ends. Now you’re going to scream at me: ‘Well duh, it has to be adapted’ which, sure. I guess? But The Lion King is lacking ALL the pivotal elements of story building that separate Hamlet from the torrents of other European, African, Indian, and East-Asian stories in myth and folklore that follow this general Oedipian premise. The creators likely just said The Lion King was inspired by Hamlet to give it a more intellectual push for the press tour. Disney's great at optics.

I’d like to apologize in advance for the over-use of phrases that involve ‘different’, ‘difference’, and ‘completely different’.

The theme of The Lion King is about sacrificing personal comfort for the sake of rising to a difficult responsibility in order to accomplish the greater good. The theme of Hamlet is ‘closet homo sucks at making decisions’. In all seriousness, Hamlet deals a lot with managing grief, the belief in omens, accountability, making difficult decisions based on no observational evidence, and descent of feigned insanity into actual insanity. Also… yeah, Hamlet himself is probably gay.

But so are half of the Men in Shakespeare, amirite? (Am I talking about Shakespeare’s body of works, or just his body?)

Okay, a lot of characters do line up if we want them to. Simba, Scar, Mufasa, Nala, and Sarabi are Hamlet, Claudius, Hamlet’s Father, Ophelia, and Gertrude respectively. But while these characters line up in their relation to Hamlet, the only character that has the same role in either story are Scar/Claudius.

I want to tally up the best and worst Ghost Dads in the history of fiction.

First of all, Hamlet’s father is only credited as ‘Ghost’. Indeed, Hamlet’s father is dead for the entire play. The audience never sees Hamlet’s father — we don’t know how he acts or how he talks or what he looks like; all we have is a visage that only Hamlet can see. This is drawn for the audience to question whether there is a supernatural element to the story… or if Hamlet is just grief-hallucinating.

You can argue that we’re never certain if Mufassa’s appearance in the clouds was a vision or a ghost. But the roles that these two ghosts have are different in messaging. First, Mufassa tells Sibma to ‘remember’ who he is and return to take his rightful place as king. Keyword is ‘return’ because Hamlet had already left and returned to from his education by the time he met Ghost-Dad (as he will be credited from here).

Ghost-Dad’s message to Hamlet was; ‘Your Uncle Killed me. He’s a dick. Your mom wasn’t in on it; don’t blame her. But be a lad and kill him for me.’ I mean, you gotta Disneyfy it, so maybe that’s worth a pass. But Ghost-Dad has a number of appearances to Hamlet, compared to gost-fasa's one.

Next is Sarabi/Gertrude. While Sarabi isn’t ever quite fond of Scar, Gertrude finds herself obliviously married to Claudius in a real hurry. Hamlet’s feelings toward his mother are complex — on one hand, he hates that she remarried so fast, but on the other hand, Ghost-Dad still urges him to empathize for her. Whenever Hamlet does begin to lay blame on his mother, Ghost Dad appears as a reminder. Simba… the only connection he has to his mother is when she has his tongue on him.

....ew I just read that back.

Nala and Ophelia are the most distant characters and in all honesty, the primary reason I separate The Lion King from Hamlet in the first place. Ophelia is a waif of a young woman, betrothed to Hamlet... ish. Their relationship is on the rocks. She doesn’t know why Hamlet is acting the way he is towards her (he gay), and why he has had a sudden shift in attitude (Ghost-Dad’s driving him crazy).

There is an immense amount of conflict between the two characters. Hamlet (maybe) picks up that Ophelia is being used by her father (Polonius - pivotal character for whom there is no Lion King Equivalent) and Claudius to try and spy on him. A reoccurring theme of Hamlet is confusion and uncertainty. Regardless, Ophela, through three acts, begins to see herself more and more as a puppet to all these men, and drowns herself in a river. Or she just gets really depressed and/or crazy. Kate Winslet rocks the role in the 1996 film adaptation. Nala has a much more active role; in fact, an entirely contrary role: to spur Simba into action. Though... still functioning as a plot device for the titular character.

But when Micheal Jackson does it, he's a freak.

And then there are these Titular Characters. Simba and Hamlet have some overlaps, but where Simba’s gauntlet is Hakuna Matata… Hamlet’s obstructive and destructive character trait is that he cares too much. Simba's is a refusal to make a decision; Hamlet's is being overwhelmed by questioning the right decision and possibly making the wrong one.

Hamlet also has the additional tension of being constantly around the man his Ghost-Dad accuses of regicide/fratricide, Simba spends years in exile believing himself to blame for the death of Mufassa. Simba doesn’t even learn his uncle is the real murder from his Ghost-Dad — Scar has to tell him that himself.

Hamlet’s driving emotional tug is the separation between his supernatural, intuitive awareness over his father’s murderer, and his intellectual need to find proof that Claudius actually did kill his father. Dragging out the process (instead of making a decision of Claudius’ guilt based on intuition, or of his innocence based on reason) is awful for everyone.

(It’s very human allegorical discussions like this that place Hamlet on such a pedestal. And a very poignant commentary on English parliamentary squabbling.)


Instead, Simba’s driving emotional drive is wanting to pretend like nothing bad is happening at all. The biggest difference is that Simba gets over his emotional barriers and leads The Lion King to a heroic triumph. Hamlet doesn’t really get over himself and is responsible for the eradication of the Danish royal line.

"No way I'm cleaning up this mess."

Aside from the core players, there are a bunch of characters that just don’t transfer over from one to the other. From The Lion King, you have Zazu, the Hyenas, Timone and Pumba, and Rafiki. From Hamlet, you have Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Polonius, his son Laertes, and Fortinbras.

Some characters more essential than others, and I concede, are not necessary to facilitate a parallel. But Hamlet’s murder of Polonius is a huge pivot in the plot. Both for Hamlet’s Exile from Denmark and absence from the play for the majority of the fourth act, but also the grudge Laertes has against Hamlet, and ultimately the cause for Hamlet’s death by poison.

Right. Gotta Disneyfy it though.

But where’s Horatio? I’ve heard some say that Timone and Pumba are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but their only role to the plot was so that Hamlet could be responsible for the murder of his own friends (polyamorus boyfriends) who had betrayed him. I guess Timone and Pumba could be a stand-in for Horatio? But who the hell is Rafiki supposed to be?

I mean... The Lion King is still kinda coded-gay...

Pivotal elements for Hamlet’s plot absent from The Lion King, such as Ophelia’s (much less questionable) insanity and subsequent suicide; and pivotal components of The Lion King are not mentioned in Hamlet, such as Scar’s misrule of the Pride Lands. If you are going to say that one story is a retelling of another, there need to be enough parallels to justify that. And just because killing your father and marrying your mother is part of it does not make it the same story.

Look, I’m not ragging on The Lion King. It’s a bit of a simpler story than Hamlet, but it’s still a very good story, with a lot more political commentary than Disney is usually accustomed to. (I mean, still reminiscent of an obsession Americans have for having a monarchy with the 'rightful' king.) I’m just saying… don’t say it’s Disney Hamlet. I mean, it would be cool if Disney took Hamlet and adjusted it to have a more moralizing happy ending — but that is not The Lion King.

If you absolutely need to draw a parallel to something Shakespearian, The Lion King actually dances along a lot of the same lines as Macbeth.

In Macbeth, there are a trio of witches who foresee for the Scottish Lord that he will become King. All he has to do is murder King Duncan and he can position himself next in line. The Witches also foresee that he himself will be usurped, and then the son of Banquo, named Fleance, will become the ruler of Scotland in the future. Macbeth kills the King, becomes King, and then orders his assassins to murder Fleance and his father. While Banquo is murdered, Fleance manages to escape and flees Scotland.

Fleance is not in the plot for the remainder of Macbeth, and the prophecy is left unfulfilled and fodder for a rare Shakespearian sequel. (According to Legend, Fleance never returned to Scotland, but his son, named Walter who is the mythological founder of the Royal House of Stuart in England and Scotland.) A key component of Macbeth is the Elizabethan belief that there is a natural order to things, and that violating the natural order causes upheaval in nature and the world. Given that England finally was beginning to recover from the chaotic War of the Roses, and no less than five men calling himself the rightful king (think Game of Thrones), the people were craving long-standing peace. With the iron-fisted stability of Elizabeth I, this puts some context in the belief.

Macbeth's murder of King Duncan throws Scotland into famine, storm, and plague in a very short amount of time. This, I find, is the key mirror to The Lion King. Whereas Hamlet’s objective was the murder the Usurper because he wanted to, Macbeth had to be removed from power because there was a greater threat to the nation as a whole.

Naturally, Macbeth, the protagonist of the story, is Scar. Though Macbeth is certainly not depicted as heroic — it’s only a ‘tragedy’ because the titular character dies. Simba would be Fleance, naturally. Though there aren’t actually a whole lot of other overlapping characters between the two. And yet in spite of that, Macbeth, and an alluded sequel to Macbeth, are much closer in tone and theme to The Lion King, than The Lion King to Hamlet.

But it’s one of those things like comparing every love story to Romeo and Juliet. When really, Romeo and Juliet is more about how a dysfunctional relationship destroys families. Among other things. I feel as if it gets a lot more credits than it deserves when really it’s as close to chick-lit as Shakespeare gets.

At the end of the day, the point is that High School English classes obviously don’t teach Shakespeare right. Or, maybe, that Shakespeare shouldn’t be taught in high school because it isn’t very accessible.

Why are we even teaching Elizabethan literature to high school students anyway? I like Shakespeare, but I also went out of my way to study it. Shouldn’t we be teaching students more relevant and current literature, to teach them about the current state of literature today, rather than a dialect of English that doesn’t exist anymore?

That's not me saying that most students are stupid, that's me saying that 400-year-old literature requires an impassioned preexisting interest in order to be understood properly. You need to be as passionate about history as you are about literature. Margret Atwood wrote: "Context is all" and there isn't enough context afforded in schools.

(Why are these Shakespere characters talking for 5 minutes about how dark it is? Because there was no way to control stage lighting. Because you can't show the audience that it's dark, you need to tell them how dark it is by making a huge deal of it.)

I mean, teaching The Lion King as literature makes more sense than teaching Romeo and Juliet to high school students. Make Shakespeare available to more specialized classes, sure, for the students who WANT the context and background for passed-down tropes in the literature that is written today. But don’t force The Bard on students who don’t care. Because then you’re just slowing down the students in class who do care, obviously, enough to write a two-thousand-word dissertation about how The Lion King is a great story, and not because it’s a version of Hamlet.

And because Disney ripped it off from Kimba the White Lion: a Japanese property where we can safely assume Shakespeare was of no significant influence.

When Matthew Broderick was cast as Simba, he told all his friends that he was vicing for a remake of Kimba. He just assumed.

“Good artists copy. Great Artists steal.”

-Pablo Picasso; accredited to him by Steve Jobs


Thanks for reading this argument that nobody asked for but had been following me around since grade 11. If you had as much fun as I did, give me a follow! Twitter: @NTHerrgott Instagram: nt.herrgott (...I really ought to make them the same handle...)

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