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  • Writer's pictureNick Herrgott

Splitting Heirs: The (mis)Comparison between ‘The Lion King’ and ‘Hamlet’

This blog was first published in 2019 in the advent of the 'live-action' adaptation of 'The Lion King.' Neither my opinions on the CGI visuals of the remake, nor the story's initial comparison to 'Hamlet' have changed. But these days I'm not as passionate about refuting the comparison.


Title card—classic photo of a hamlet actor holding a lion's skull.

It’s not that I don’t like ‘The Lion King,’ but I’ve always been troubled about it… Or, more specifically, troubled about how people talk about it… and how the creators have done a lot to push that comparison. Drop everything you’ve heard. ‘The Lion King’ is absolutely not William Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ with Africa-animals. 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 fresh coat of CGI paint that gives us an insight into seeing what taxidermy'd museum animals would look like if they could move.


The horror.


I'm still not sure why the comparison is pushed so strongly. A prince's father is murdered by his uncle, who then marries his mother? This basic premise, which seems to be the only main parallel between the two works, is not exclusive to 'Hamlet' either.


The analogy of a Lion pride also doesn't line up very well, even under the assumption that this is adapted. A pride of lions don't usually get as large as it is indicated in the movie. And if the alpha male does tolerate other lions, it’s because they are gay lions, and therefore not seen as a threat. Which… would mean Scar would have to be a gay lion. Which also disqualifies the parallel between Claudius and Gertrude.



Furthermore Sarabi and all the other lions aren’t that happy about Scar being the new King. Also not a characteristic of ‘Hamlet,’ where all the court and the queen fall in line. Hamlet has to conspire with himself because he cannot trust that anyone else would share his regicidal conspiracies and ideations.


What it comes down to is a misunderstanding of what people think ‘Hamlet ‘is a story about. And this includes the directors in the commentary for the film. Most people assume that ‘Hamlet’ is about a guy whose father is murdered by his uncle, who then marries his mother and becomes king; he has to kill his uncle and avenge his father. Which is one of those bird’s-eye-views of the text that ignores the finer details of what makes this work so iconic.


A component of ‘Hamlet’s plot does not necessarily specify what it is about—even if this is where ‘The Lion King’ begins and ends. Now you’re going to insist that any work needs to be adapted, then... I guess? But ‘The Lion King’ lacks the most 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 outline. Cynically, 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.


Especially when more absurd Shakespeare adaptations can be found in ’10 Things I Hate About You,’ ‘She's the Man,’ ‘Do Revenge,’ and others.


The theme of ‘The Lion King’ is about sacrificing personal comfort for the sake of rising to a difficult responsibility to accomplish the Greater Good. The theme of ‘Hamlet’ is ‘closeted, sensitive gay man sucks at making decisions and so everybody dies’—more or less.



Marge Simpson in the Simpson's parody of Hamlet.
"No way I'm cleaning up this mess."

To say nothing of the fact that one is a theatrical tragedy, and the other is a theatrical comedy. (Though I’d actually make the additional claim that ‘Hamlet’ is funnier—there’s a reason that even Shakesperian tragedies can be so easily adapted into teen comedies.) In all seriousness, ‘Hamlet’ deals a lot with managing grief, the belief in omens, accountability, making difficult decisions, and the descent of feigned insanity into actual insanity. Also… yes, there is textual evidence that supports Hamlet himself being a little bit gay.


A lot of characters can 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.


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, how he speaks, or what he looks like; all we have is a visage that only Hamlet can see. This allows the audience to question whether there is a supernatural element to the story… or if Hamlet is just hallucinating.


You can argue that we’re never certain if Mufassa’s appearance in the clouds was a vision or a ghost. However, 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. And Ghost-Dad’s message to Hamlet is less about taking a rightful place and more about vengeance.


I mean, Disney needs to make it fit the brand, so maybe that’s worth a pass. But Ghost-Dad has several appearances in Hamlet, but Mufassa only appears once.


Next is Sarabi/Gertrude. While Sarabi isn’t ever quite fond of Scar, Gertrude finds herself obliviously married to Claudius very quickly. 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 with her. Whenever Hamlet does begin to lay blame on his mother, Ghost-Dad appears as a reminder. Simba… has virtually no connection or interaction with his mother whatsoever.


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 young woman betrothed to Hamlet, though their relationship is on the rocks. She doesn’t know why Hamlet is acting the way he is towards her (he’s gay), and why he has had a sudden shift in attitude (Ghost-Dad’s driving him a little bit insane).


There is an immense amount of conflict between the two, as Hamlet (maybe) picks up that Ophelia is being used by her father and Claudius to try and spy on Hamlet. And that Ophelia does or does not actually love Hamlet, and vice-versa. Though I’d say that there’s less of a case to be made about Hamlet having romantic feelings for Ophelia, After all, he does compare himself to be like a brother to her. A key theme of Hamlet is confusion and uncertainty; many of these elements can vary depending on actors and direction.


Regardless, Ophelia, through three acts, begins to realize more and more that she is a puppet to all these men, and drowns herself in a river. Nala has a much more active role, in fact, an entirely contrary role, though still functioning as a plot device for the titular character. Her role though is much stronger and serves to spur Simba into action.


And then there are the titular characters. Simba and Hamlet have some overlaps, but where Simba’s mantra is 'hakuna matata.' Hamlet’s obstructive and destructive character trait is that he cares too much. Simba’s challenge is that he is not aware that a decision needs to be made, but does not spend very long questioning this decision when he realizes he needs to make it.


Prince Hamlet is locked in stasis from being overwhelmed by questioning the right decision. As I said, Hamlet has the additional tension of being constantly around the man his Ghost-Dad accuses of regicide, and Simba spends years in exile believing he is to blame. Simba doesn’t even learn his uncle is the real murderer 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 did kill his father. Perhaps, as a reading of the texts, he seeks to demonstrate to himself that he isn't insane before murdering someone because of a supernatural apparition. But the text also articulates how dragging out the process is awful for everyone. It’s very human allegorical discussions like this that place Hamlet on such a pedestal. And a very poignant, likely very deliberate 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.


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 & Guildenstern, Polonius, his son Laertes, and Fortnibras.


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


Right. Gotta ‘Disnify’ it though.


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


Ann-Marie McDonald focused the entire plot in her stageplay, ‘Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet),’ around the idea that Shakespere’s comedies and tragedies follow the same pattern—if it were not for the presence or absence of a character trope called ‘the wise fool.’ However… Rafiki is somewhat ineffectual to the plot—almost himself functioning as a member of the audience—and while an interesting character, does not hold the same kind of role that a Shakespearian wise fool would.


I’m not criticising ‘The Lion King’ for any of this. It doesn’t need to be based on a literary classic to be valid. It’s a bit of a simpler story than ‘Hamlet,’ but it’s still a very good story, with a more political commentary than Disney is usually accustomed to. Granted, it would be inspired 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.’



The three witches and Macbeth.


In ‘Macbeth,’ there are a trio of witches who foresee that the Scottish noble 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 as King by Fleance, the son of Banquo. Macbeth usurps the King in an act of regicide, and then orders his assassins to murder Fleance. The same prophecy that saw Macbeth taking the throne also forsaw that Banquo's line would replace Macbeth. While Banquo is murdered, the youthful Fleance manages to escape and flees Scotland.


Already, the comparisons seem to fit much more snugly, no?


Fleance is not in the plot for the remainder of 'Macbeth,' and the prophecy is left unfulfilled and fodder for a rare Shakespearian sequel which either does not exist, or has been misplaced to history. Various hither-to forgotten plays and sonnets by Shakespeare are occasionally recovered to this day. (According to Legend, Fleance never returned to Scotland, but his son, named Walter, who is the mythological founder of the Stuart Royal House of 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, with the iron-fisted stability of Elizabeth I, this belief makes a little bit of sense.


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—the play is qualified as a tragedy because the audiences' sensibilities can be modelled based on what happens to the protagonist. Simba would be Fleance, naturally. Though there aren’t actually a whole lot of other overlapping characters between the two. However, the stronger comparison, and I would say the far more significant from a literary standpoint, is the tone and the themes presented in these works.


This comparison I feel is much more defensible, and still accomplishes the objective of this cartoon having connections to literary cannon. It's also important to note that 'Hamlet' cannot be 'Hamlet' without being a tragedy for him. The Scottish play can be a heroic play if we view Macbeth as a villain, and take into consideration an eluded if not foreshadowed victory for Fleance.


But when it comes to Shakespeare, people seeking possible Shakespearian references normally gravitate towards the more popular of his stories. What, with nearly every star-crossed love story being compared to 'Romeo and Juliet.' And especially with ‘The Lion King,’ I find it very difficult to observe as an adaptation of Hamlet... namely because the more clear inspiration for ‘The Lion King,’ to the point of willful imitation, is 'Kimba the White Lion.' Which, as a Japanese property, we can likely, though not certainly, exclude Shakespeare as a notable inspiration.



Promotional immage for Kimba the White Lion.
Mathew Broderick apparently origionally thought he would be doing voice work for the American version of this.


“Good artists copy. Great Artists steal.”

-Pablo Picasso (as misquoted by Steve Jobs)

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