Remember Who You Are: Shakespeare’s Lion King

Simba, son of the strongest lion king of the animal kingdom Mufasa and his wife Sarabi, will inherit the Kingship of the Pride Lands. But his jealous uncle Scar wants to take away from him what is rightfully his—his family, his kingdom, his pride. After the long years, the Ghost of Simba’s father tries to point him the right way…

Wait a minute! It seems like a familiar plot. Let me see. Yes, here we are. Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark, the son to the late King Hamlet, and nephew to the present King Claudius… and so on. Do you want more evidence? Look at the plot. It’s similar, as is the famous monologue, “To be, or not to be, that is the question.” Where does this appear in The Lion King? Do you remember what adult Simba told Rafiki? “I know what I have to do. But going back means I must face my past. I’ve been running from it for so long.” Simba, like Hamlet, doesn’t want to meet with his past and doesn’t know what to do, what to think, or how to be.

Also like Hamlet, Simba is impossible to imagine without bright antagonist.

Simba: “Well, somebody once told me that the great kings of the past are up there, watching over us.”

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Mufasa’s younger brother and Simba’s uncle, Scar, takes the throne like Shakespeare’s Claudius. Scar in The Lion King is more impressive than Claudius in Hamlet, maybe because Shakespeare does not focus on the newly made Danish king, or maybe because the whole play builds around only Hamlet’s experiences, but we don’t know Claudius that well. Scar is a different story. Smart, ambitious, arrogant, and tricky Scar secretly dreams of power. He sets a trap for his brother and nephew, luring Simba into a gorge and having the hyenas drive a large herd of wildebeest into a stampede that will trample him, thus getting rid of Mufasa, who tries to save his son. Then he convinces Simba the tragedy was Simba’s fault and advises him to flee the kingdom.

Claudius never envisioned such evil! But Scar and Claudius both have one substantial flaw. In transgressing the family values, they can’t lean on anyone. “I’m surrounded by idiots,” said Scar, surrounded by traitor hyenas. Claudius could say the same thing about his court.

Scar: Long live the king.

Murdered by his brother, Simba’s father, Mufasa, King of the Pride Lands, returns as a ghost to tell Simba the most important words in his life. “Remember who you are. You are my son, and the one true king.” Mufsasa liberates his son from a life of leisure and sends him on a journey toward manhood… err, lionhood. Mufasa is a kinder ghost than the king in Hamlet; the shadow of Hamlet’s father asks the Prince to avenge his death and then take the rightful throne. In Hamlet we see very enterprising Ghost while Simba’s father is imbued with light and nobility.

Mufasa: “The great Kings of the past look down on us from those stars.”

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What’s a story without the heroes’ friends? Do you understand whom I mean? The inimitable Timon and Pumba with their unforgettable moto Hakuna Matata! Timon, a wise-cracking and self-absorbed yet somewhat loyal meerkat who becomes one of Simba’s best friends and adoptive parents. Pumbaa, a naïve warthog who suffers from flatulence and is Timon’s best friend and also becomes one of Simba’s best friends. Who is the prototype of our brilliant friends in Shakespeare’s play? Maybe, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern? Yes, they have something in common. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are childhood friends and schoolmates of Hamlet, summoned to Elsinore by Claudius and Gertrude. But as we know from the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not true friends to Hamlet—they betrayed him! Our beloved Timon and Pumba remain with Simba until the end, because they’re real friends, and this is Disney!

Timon and Pumba: “King? Your Majesty! I gravel at your feet.”

“It’s not ‘gravel.’ It’s ‘grovel.’”

The Lion King shows what a huge impact of Shakespeare’s play had on the Disney animators. It also reminds us that fantastic plots have a huge number of different interpretations. Disney made Hamlet accessible to children, in a bold and memorable way, and it’s really wonderful.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Marianna Kaplun was born in Moscow. She is candidate of philological sciences specializing in the first Russian drama and theatre of XVIIth century. She’s also a film and TV critic by calling. You can find her essays on her Facebook page, Twitter, and on Lumiere. She also blogs in English and Russian. 

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