It’s a moderately well known trivia knowledge that The Lion King was adapted from Shakespeare, which makes it perhaps the most successful canonical Disney animated film that was not adapted from a fairy tale. It’s a pretty good fact to know; growing up in the Disney Renaissance period, it’s now fun as an adult to look back and realize that the children’s classics I watched were actually fairly intelligent pieces of art that took direct influences from Shakespeare, the most renowned playwright in the English language (incidentally, from the English Renaissance).
A lot of people point to either one specific Shakespearean tale, or a combination of two Shakespearean tales. The most common answers I’ve heard is either Hamlet, or a combination of Hamlet and Macbeth.
That’s not how I see it.
Not to say it isn’t inspired from Hamlet or Macbeth. Surely, the basic narrative of the son and rightful heir of a good king being deposed, and being called upon to take the throne, comes from one or both of these works and was used as an influence for tropes in The Lion King. But I disagree with the idea that it is a direct adaptation of one or the either, or even a complete combination from the two.
Instead, I see a lot of other Shakespearean ideas that were contained in The Lion King, which are neglected because the famous great tragedies hold such sway. In my opinion, The Lion King is a broad adaptation of a general Shakespearean story, with specifics that come from many different Shakespeare plays, tragedies, histories and comedies. And because these aren’t side references, and many of them are fundamental to the story and conflict, they don’t deserve to be dismissed against a clearer narrative. So let me go down the various ideas that will allow you to understand.
Hamlet: The Doubting Prince
This is fairly easy – the prince’s father the king is murdered, and his fratricidal uncle (who nobody realizes is guilty) conspires a way to take the throne illegitimately. The prince is in a major conflict of hesitation, but is moved to avenge his father by the ghost of his father.
Maybe Hamlet wouldn’t have hesitated so much if his father had the voice of James Earl Jones, with the building strings to soothe the usual tension of creepiness with meeting his ghost. Certainly, the basic comparison is quite valid. Simba is Hamlet and Scar is Claudius. The film actively cues the audience into the references, with some lines and visual gags. It’s so easy, the argument is really how exclusive this play is as a source for The Lion King.
Another subtler reference is the idea that Simba is assuaged into submitting the status quo by his two friends, Timon and Pumba. That he has two friends when one would suffice, and their role in the story, draws some comparison to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Hamlet. In fact, people will often say that The Lion King is a loose but direct adaptation of Hamlet.
There is a serious problem with that theory, though. The most important, certainly, is that Lion King has very little of the psychology of Hamlet, which is probably the greatest contribution of the play to the western canon. Simba’s hesitation to act comes from his own guilt, and his ignorance of Scar’s guilt. Hamlet does not regard himself as responsible for his father’s death; instead his hesitation arises from a more existential quandary, and his struggle against his contemplative nature and some doubts about his own sanity. Simba runs away from the Pride Lands. Hamlet stays until he is sent away, calling the palace of Elsinore his prison, and escapes only in his mind and his calculated act of insanity.
Simba has a healthy friendly relationship with Nala, his love interest, that results in matehood after Nala puts pressure on Simba to return home. Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia… well, she’s not a strong-willed character, she’s used as a pawn for the king, and when Hamlet rejects her attempt to pacify him with romance, he tops it off by murdering her father, which leads her to suicide. Healthy dynamic, not so much. Simba still loves and honors his mother Sarabi, and he feels guilty that he has to confess to his (framed) responsibility for Mufasa’s death. Hamlet is exceedingly bitter against his mother for marrying Claudius and giving him the opportunity to rob Hamlet of his rightful succession, viewing it as an act of faithlessness on par with adultery and an insult to the memory of the deceased king, giving him more internal conflict.
Scar’s fratricide has no bearing on his limited conscience, and he revels in the power he squanders. Claudius is clearly guilty about the murder, and he goes out of his way to maintain his facade of grace and keep his guilt a secret. And of course, per a Disney film, Scar is the only main character that dies in the climax and everyone else lives happily ever after. Hamlet overcomes his hesitation too late when his death is pending, and most everybody dies except Horatio.
Some people might attribute this to looseness, and point out that it’s a Disney film, but it’s a serious problem for anyone that wants to say that Lion King is Disney’s Hamlet. For a play whose conflict is as internalized as Hamlet’s, and whose most notable contribution to Western canon is the popularization of the internal psychological conflict, for The Lion King to have so little of the internal conflict undermines the primacy of Hamlet as a source for The Lion King. But that opens up the opportunity that The Lion King was taking ideas from other Shakespeare plays…
Macbeth: Chain of Being as Circle of Life
A lot of people point out the Macbeth comparison, but often times they mention it only as an enhancement for the Hamlet comparison. In Macbeth, for example, the murder of Duncan is actually a turning point in the action of the play, and the cover up and false accusation is imperative to the tale, whereas in Hamlet the murder of Hamlet’s father is an event prior to the action of the play. The fact that you can witness the murder of Mufasa, and the conspiracy by Scar, and his attempt to frame the son as he flees in exile, draws close comparison with Macbeth, and his attempt to frame Duncan’s son Malcolm. Similar to Macbeth, Scar’s malevolence goes beyond the murder, from his use of (hyena) military power and his attempt to frame the innocent prince and force him into exile. And the narrative of righteous invasion by the rightful heir, the climax of The Lion King, is more applicable to Malcolm than Hamlet.
But actually, there’s a much more important, yet often overlooked element that The Lion King borrows from Macbeth. You see, Macbeth operated off of a very specific medieval idea called the ‘chain of being’, or scala naturae, as it was known in Latin. The belief emerged from Neoplatonic corporatism (FYI, corporatism refers to a belief that society should have formal divided parts that compliment the function of the whole like a body, or corpus, and has nothing to do with the modern business model) that there was a natural order to a society. At the top was God (naturally), and below the hierarchy of heaven was the hierarchy of human society, with the king of divine right at top, followed by the princes and nobles, knights and military, freedmen and artisans and merchants, and then the serfs and slaves. Everything was ordered by a divine mandate and rightful hierarchy, not by a Hobbesian commitment to a Leviathan social contract. Importantly, because everything is ordered top-down from God to all of God’s creation – even nature – then to upset a single part of the society threatens to throw the whole system into chaos, like a breaking chain.
This is a core element of Macbeth. Because Macbeth’s conscience is poisoned by ambition, temptation and paranoia, he neglects to realize that not only does is his power grab morally wrong, but it throws the order of all Scotland into chaos – politically and environmentally. In Act 2 Scene IV, Ross and the Old Man discuss the strange omens of the night, a meditation that contrasts with the fast-paced action of the prior scene, which establishes the discovery of the dead king Duncan, Macbeth’s calculated accusation and murder of the innocent guards, and the subsequent fleeing of Malcolm and Donalbain to England and Ireland respectively. It extends the conversation that Lennox had with Macbeth, where Lennox remarks on strange things the night before, all of which represents upheaval of every aspect of the natural order – including nature itself. The horses are eating each other; the farmers are hanging themselves because they believe too much food is produced (resulting in a supply-side price collapse), the daytime is turning dark and stormy, and owls are killing falcons (Macbeth has a… thing for birds). All it took was one action on behalf of Macbeth, and all of nature is disturbed. And Macbeth has so detached himself from reality as a way of assuaging his conscience that he doesn’t realize the ultimate futility of his bloodshed until the very end. Not only is his kingdom about to be overthrown and he is faced with death, but he diminished the very goal he and his wife were attempting to accomplish at all. He fails to make the connection that there is no point to having power if the very thing he wishes to have power over, Scotland, is defiled of its honor, and is so destroyed by his tyranny that the country will be completely useless to rule for as long as he rules it. His gains are frightfully temporary, and in attempting to keep them, for all the suffering he causes, he loses everything else; his honor, his sanity, his wife, and his own life (and implicitly, his salvation). Why? Because he failed to respect the natural order, and he broke the chain, and sent his world into chaos.
This idea is just about perfectly inserted into The Lion King as the circle of life. As a natural setting, the idea of a natural order, or an ecosystem, works very well. And the responsibility that the lions – the stand-ins for the nobles – have over the ecosystem is an imperative part of the philosophy. It’s a bit strange, of course, that the birth of Simba is passionately honored and celebrated by his future lunch, but at the very least Mufasa points out that Simba’s future authority comes with considerable responsibility for respecting the natural order. And like the chain of being, the natural order works its way up to the heavens, as the good kings are rewarded with a place among the stars, while their bodies are given to the soil in service of the herbivores. It’s a careful cycle of stability, that Mufasa diligently explains to his son, even while Simba doesn’t appreciate it. Of course, Scar is not motivated by and doesn’t acknowledge the circle of life; he murders Mufasa, forces Simba to flee, and attempts to murder Simba (more than once) with the hyenas, who serve the story broadly like the assassins in Macbeth (and similarly, at least in the case of Fleance, they fail). With the heir presumed dead, he establishes himself as the king of the pridelands, and enforces it with the loyal military might of the hyenas, which he treats as equals with lions.
And what happens? The entire circle is disturbed and the Pride Lands turn into a wasteland.
It’s often derided as ridiculous, that Scar becomes king and somehow his policies create a drought. Strangely, I always found that scene fairly understandable, at least more than its equivalent in Macbeth. It makes sense that the hyenas might overstay their new position, consume too many prey and overdrink the water, leading to a migration away from the Pride Lands. Perhaps it might not explain a whole drought, but then again, Mufasa’s right there in the heavens; maybe he’s got access to the rain tap. Or maybe he puts in a request with the utility management of the sky; I dunno.
Anyhow, the criticism misses the whole point: that the devastation of the Pride Lands is symbolic of the consequences of Scar’s act of injustice, and his disregard for the wellbeing of the Pride Lands. And like Macbeth, his apathy for the problem is striking, and it indicates that the person who would murder the king in secret to obtain the throne has no place to rule. The Circle of Life is one of the most fundamental elements to the philosophy of The Lion King, and it is a prime mover of the plot; Simba comes to realize that the only way the Pride Lands will return to the correct order of balance is if he returns and takes his rightful place. He is the only one with the legitimacy that could motivate a rebellion, and implicitly his regime is endowed with the approval of the Circle of Life. He has to embrace who he is, and confront his responsibility, guilt and fear; running away only threw his home into chaos.
The reason why I’m spending so much time on it is because a lot of people think of Macbeth as a sort of enhancement for the Hamlet influence, a way for us to see Mufasa get killed and for Simba could go into exile, as a way of externalizing the Hamlet conflict more for a Disney film. That isn’t the case; the influence of Macbeth has its own firm contribution for which Hamlet has no equivalent. In fact, I’d argue Macbeth‘s philosophy has more bearing on the content than Hamlet‘s psychology, while Hamlet‘s plot is perhaps more similar than Macbeth.
One of the major problems with a Macbeth comparison is that Macbeth is about, well, Macbeth. And Macbeth himself is going through its own great psychological study. At the beginning, he is an honorable and admired thane in high moral standing, but at the end he is a deranged bloodthirsty tyrant. That change from good old boy to the greatest evil his side of Hadrian’s Wall is one of the play’s major focuses and fascinations. By contrast, Scar goes through no major character change. He starts out evil and scheming, embittered by his status as the brother to the king with power so close yet out of grasp, and becoming king doesn’t notably change his character. He isn’t even that bloodthirsty; just detached. If only there were a Shakespeare character that was applicable, who was the brother to the king and managed to murder his way to power, a character who didn’t go through any major character change, who was born scarred and evil. Oh, right.
Richard III: Determined to Prove a Villain
Even if you haven’t read Richard III, there’s a good chance you’ve read the “Now is the Winter of Discontent” speech. And that speech is Scar in a nutshell. Change around some of the politics, and Scar could have delivered it practically verbatim. Scar, of course, is played by Jeremy Irons, a Royal Shakespeare Company actor, and every part of the voice performance is just the sort of malicious performance you’d expect of someone vying to play Duke of Gloucester. Mufasa is as true and just as Scar is subtle, false and treacherous. He revels in his wit and intelligence, and considers himself superior because of it. He is malicious to the core, without any compassion. When he speaks to the young Simba, he delights in his own ability to be insincere and devious. Every time he speaks to the hyenas, he makes sure to express his disdain. He has no interest in sharing in the peace and prosperity of the Mufasa-ruled Pride Lands; he sits idly in the shadows. And beyond the massive chip on his shoulder because of his place in the bloodline, he is literally deformed. Maybe not the full hunchback, but a scar, which is so pivotal to his character that it forms his name.
In fairness, a lot of his elitist self-absorption, wit and irredeemable malice bears striking similarities with other Disney villains. We might not have to conclude he is Richard III as a lion, when we could easily say he is Jafar as a lion, or Captain Hook as a lion. He’s not even very different from other Disney villains who are anthropomorphous big cats from the genus panthera. (Taxonomy joke!) Scar’s very similar Shere Khan from The Jungle Book, and he even bears some of the disinterested egomaniacal avarice of Prince John from Robin Hood, who was literally made a lion.
But the connection to Richard Gloucester is more than just incidental to villains who use identifiable tropes, many of which Richard III established or served. Shere Khan regards himself as invulnerable, but Scar clearly isn’t. Like Richard, he has to ascend to power by relentless and ruthless scheming; he murders his own brother, who actually tries to come to him for help. Now in Richard III, the brother is actually George, Duke of Clarence, not the king, and Richard has assassins murder him. However, it is an imperative plot point in Richard’s power grab, and since he calculates that he won’t have to murder Edward IV, he goes instead for George. Also, George begs the assassins to go to Richard, thinking Richard would pay ransom and buy out his brothers’ murder contract to save George’s life. They reveal before killing George that Richard was the one who hired them after all. This is similar to how Mufasa asks Scar to help him up, while Scar outright pushes Mufasa into the stampede, making sure to let him know who was responsible before Mufasa’s death.
Long live the king. Remember those happy childhood days?
Again, much of how Scar associates himself with Richard Gloucester is in the tactic. He does not pride himself on his strength or ability. He finds his worthiness in his cunning and subtlety, and his ability to get others to do his bidding. He uses the hyenas as assassins and political allies, and uses them to target his brother, and his nephew, even while he convinces Simba to confide in him falsely. Princes in the tower anyone?
Also, Scar, like Richard, hardly changes his character at all, and is so malicious as to border on insanity. Once he is challenged by the true prince – which in the play is established, somewhat questionably, as Henry Tudor – he comes swiftly to his demise. (Although not by Simba’s own hand. He is killed, as seen in shadows, by his own hyenas.)
Beyond the character of Scar, and his relationship to Mufasa and the hyenas, there isn’t much to say about comparing Richard III to The Lion King. But what about Simba? He’s the protagonist of the film, the guilt-ridden runaway prince. If Scar had a famous Shakespeare character define his main character traits better than Macbeth or Claudius, perhaps Simba might have his own.
Henry IV, Both Parts: Prince Hal and Falstaff
Keep in mind, I haven’t read either part of Henry IV, so I’m going mainly off of what I can gleam from basic cultural knowledge.
The ultimate dilemma that Simba faces is not like Hamlet’s psychological grapple, and it has more definition than Malcolm’s in Macbeth. Simba is quickly defined in the beginning as a playful, immature, and largely irresponsible prince. This manifests itself early with his fantasies about being king, but it takes a darker turn when his guilt over his father leads him to run away from ascension to the throne. While his flight may have been explained by the initial shock and emotional heartbreak, his willingness to stay in the jungle under the guidance of Timon and Pumba indicate a deeper vice that he has to overcome in order to take his place in the throne. He has to learn to accept responsibility, to respect the order and the destiny of his ascension to the throne, even if it means he has to leave behind the happiness of the simple carefree life under the motto “Hakuna Matata”.
Which is largely the same as the character arc of Prince Hal in Henry IV, part 1 and 2.
King Henry IV is disappointed that his son, Prince Henry a.k.a. Hal, hangs around taverns with low-lives, and Hal himself makes clear that he wants to leave his posse soon. Yet he is still entranced by the lush hedonism of the play’s most notable supporting character, Sir John Falstaff.
The dynamic between Hal and Falstaff is the apparent model for the dynamic between Simba and the duo of Timon and Pumba. Timon and Pumba apparently separates Falstaff into two parts, with Pumba playing the goofy lovable portly appetite for life, while Timon provides the talkative cynical braggart that intellectualizes his escapism and feigns understanding the world better than he does. Simba uses Timon and Pumba as an escape in the middle, just like Hal uses Falstaff in the beginning, and his arc comes in learning to overcome the temptation of a carefree life and face his destiny. The philosophy of “hakuna matata”, or “no worries, no problems”, is also similar to Falstaff’s virtue skepticism, and his critique of notions of honor and valor.
However, it should be noted that in spite of his cowardice and skepticism of honor, Falstaff does fight on Hal’s side in the end against the rebellion of Hotspur, and similarly, Timon and Pumba, despite being greatly out of their league against the hyenas, do fight and provide a comic relief in the movie’s climax when Simba battles Scar. And Simba, like Hal, regains his honor and becomes a better person, and ultimately a better king of the Pridelands. (Hal, incidentally, became Henry V, who was perhaps the most fondly remembered king in Shakespeare’s time given his phenomenal success against France in the Hundred Year’s War.)
There are lots of other small things to point out in the comparison between The Lion King and the pantheon of Shakespearean ideas. Zazu, to my eye, resembles Malvolio in The Twelfth Night. Rafiki combines the comic wisdom and loyal companionship of Shakespeare’s archetypal fool, perhaps most notably used in King Lear, with the magical authority of Propsero in The Tempest. But ultimately, the goal of this post is not to catalogue all of the Shakespeare elements that are in The Lion King but to demonstrate that the film is not confined to one simple adaptation or story. In fact, it is best understood as a complex amalgamation of various Shakespearean ideas and tropes, which in many ways makes it a much more sophisticated film than at first glance.
Shakespeare is one of the most important artists, in any medium, in all of history. Beyond simply creating a treasure trove of stories earning both popular fascination and critical claim centuries after their inception, he was one of the most important individuals in creating the modern English language and establishing it as a global force of communication and expression. He demonstrated the beauty in the composite if awkward prose of spoken English and created the works that gave an incentive for continental elites to learn the language of his island nation. His plays form much of the common thread of English-speaking culture, similar to how the Grimm’s Fairytales serve as a common thread for the countries of German influence – not to mention Disney films themselves.
Likewise, making a play that went back to the source material of Shakespeare, and did so with a keen eye for the wealth of influences, created one of the most notable Disney films in the renaissance era, and one of the films of my childhood that I still adore as an adult, and which millions children will adore for years to come.