Written by Galen Cuthbertson
In the universe of Disney factoids, saying that “The Lion King is a remake of Hamlet” is one of the brightest stars. It’s got all the things that make a Disney factoid great: it’s about a classic film, it feels a little conspiratorial, and it makes you feel pretty clever when you share the theory with other people.
Unfortunately, it’s unclear how true this factoid actually is. The Walt Disney Company has spent a lot of time talking about the influence of Hamlet in interviews over the years, but should we believe them? A cynic might suggest that the main motivation for spreading this narrative is prestige. Disney benefits hugely from popularising some variation of the “Lion King is Hamlet” line. Shakespeare carries a lot of cultural capital and status, Hamlet even moreso. It’s one thing to be the highest-grossing traditionally animated film of all time, but being “basically a Shakespeare play” would seem to elevate The Lion King from ‘very popular pop culture’ and into ‘something that definitely counts as Art’. If fans believe that The Lion King is genuinely a kid-friendly, less-bloody, animated musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy, Disney gains pretty substantially. So how closely does The Lion King actually parallel Hamlet? Let’s dig to the cases that people often make:
1. It’s Not Easy Being Prince
Both Simba and Hamlet are royalty. Both The Lion King and Hamlet depend on that fact. They’re both the oldest child of the King (before their respective fathers die) and in line to the throne. In both The Lion King and Hamlet, the title is itself a play on this: Hamlet’s (dead) father is referred to as “King Hamlet” in the play, and the whole of The Lion King centres on the question of which character is the (rightful) Lion King. Think of it this way: The Lion King and Hamlet would sort of suck if they were just about ‘some average non-royal lion hanging out in Africa’ or ‘some middle-class kid in Denmark’.
2. Claudius is Scar
In both Hamlet and The Lion King, ‘The Evil Uncle Who Kills The Father And Takes The Throne For Himself’ is a central figure. Scar and Claudius kill their brothers, fake an innocent accident, take the throne for themselves, and cast their nephews out. Scar may be a lot more animated (wink wink) than Claudius, but he’s just as guilty.
3. Nala is Ophelia
Nala is absolutely The Lion King’s Ophelia. Sure, Nala isn’t beset by grief and madness. Sure, she doesn’t drown. And, sure, it’s a lot clearer that Simba loves Nala and isn’t just faking it for other reasons. But both Nala and Ophelia are treated as Hamlet/Simba’s unsurprising romantic interest: their families are intertwined, the characters around them expect their relationship to develop, and the workings-out of the romance keeps the plot moving along. And for the record, yes, the gender politics of Nala/Ophelia is definitely at least a little bit icky.
4. Timon & Pumbaa are Rosencrantz & Guildenstern
These guys are the quintessential side-kicks. They’re carefree and fun. You can’t always remember which name goes with which character because in some sense they’re one character. In the case of Hamlet, though, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are working for Claudius and (at least theoretically) spying on Hamlet. Timon and Pumbaa aren’t quite such duplicitous guys. Is this just another case of Disney turning a Renaissance Revenge Tragedy into a child-friendly film? You decide.
5. Rafiki is Horatio
In the most controversial Hamlet to Lion King character analogue, Rafiki is Horatio. The primary piece of evidence, here, is that Rafiki brings Simba to the ghost of his father in the same way that Horatio brings Hamlet to the Ghost. Rafiki also connects the royalty of The Lion King to the world beyond the Pride Lands in a way that’s pretty similar to Horatio’s bureaucrat/diplomat/man-about-town role in Hamlet. Unlike Horatio, of course, Rafiki is (a) much older, (b) funnier, and (c) more of a mentor than a friend. Plus, The Lion King would have been a pretty different movie if it started with the Ghost in the way that Hamlet does, which leads us to …
6. That Whole Ghost-of-the-Father Thing
This is a tricky point. Both Simba and Hamlet are driven by the ghosts of their fathers calling for revenge. Both appear in a cold, midnight setting and say things along the lines of “remember me” and “mark me” and “you’ve forgotten who you are”. Ideally in a deep, booming, haunt-y sort of voice. Yet in the case of Hamlet, the ghost is pretty explicit. He basically says “My brother killed me, and it’s your responsibility to kill him right back”. No such luck in The Lion King, where Simba’s take away is ‘I guess I better go back home and stop living the high life with Timon & Pumbaa’.
7. The Foreignness of Elsinore (and the Pride Lands)
Hamlet is set in Elsinore, in Denmark; The Lion King is set in the vaguely-placed Pride Lands of East Africa. Both of these are home for their characters, of course, but probably quite foreign to their intended audiences. Rather than writing a revenge tragedy about English royalty (and risking the wrath of the actual English royalty of the time), Shakespeare sets his story in a place that most of Early Modern London’s theatregoers could only imagine: continental Europe. He does this in a lot of plays. The setting is foreign, exciting, and (from a production perspective) safe. East Africa may not be much like Denmark, and Disney didn’t really have to fear censorship or punishment from an offended King, but the logic of The Lion King is similar.
8. Delaying Action
Hamlet and Simba both spend a good chunk of their respective stories doing very little. Their fathers have been killed, and in some sense they’re motivated to act, but they delay. In Hamlet, this involves a lot of talking-to-actors and pretending-to-read. In The Lion King, it’s mostly musical montages and bug-eating.
9. Skulls and Graves and Stuff
One of the most famous scenes in Hamlet is set in a graveyard. In it, Hamlet meets and talks with clown-like gravediggers, holds a skull, says “Alas, poor Yorick”, and generally becomes more aware of life and death. The Lion King’s elephant graveyard scene has its clown-like hyenas, and its looming skull that makes Simba aware of mortality and the passage of time. It’s a stretch, admittedly, but the parallel is there.
1. The Lion King is full of lions.
Also, everybody dies at the end of Hamlet. Tragedies are always more fun that way.
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About Galen Cuthbertson
Galen is an MPhil Candidate in English Literature at the University of Adelaide. His research focusses on the applications of digital methods to the analysis of Early Modern playtexts. He has a particular interest in the social networks of Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedies. Galen is a member of the Shakespeare Matters course team and assisted in the design and build of the course.