Read This Before You Watch “The Lion King”

We continue our “Secret Shakespeare” media studies series this week by watching “The Lion King” (2019) a photo-realistic CGI remake of Disney’s animated 1994 hit. The movie, like its predecessor, draws some key plot elements from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet (1599-1601) and some lesser-recognized aspects from his play Macbeth (1606). Some observers have also noted similarities between a couple main characters “The Lion King” and a their counterparts in Shakespeare’s history plays Henry IV Parts 1 and 2.

I wanted to include this film in our series because of how widely it’s considered to be influenced by Shakespeare in general, and perhaps by Hamlet in particular. Clearly, “The Lion King” deserves our attention, but we should go into this week realizing that the movie will present us with some interesting questions about the scope and the limits of that influence.

So, what are the similarities between “The Lion King” and these various Shakespeare plays?

In Hamlet, the main character is a young prince whose father, the king, is killed by his uncle. Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius not only claims the throne out from under his nephew and tries to shoo away the rightful heir. Once he’s king, Claudius quickly marries Hamlet’s mother, the queen Gertrude, in order to further secure his position as king. The ghost of Hamlet’s father urges him to take revenge on the uncle and reclaim the throne. Hamlet has a strong love interest named Ophelia, who he is expected to marry, but the grief-stricken Hamlet rejects her and Ophelia commits suicide by drowning, which only then worsens the mental state of young Hamlet who did in fact love her. Hamlet has a number of friends who guide and help him, but at least a couple of these are false friends who betray him to his uncle. Eventually Hamlet does manage to kill his uncle, but Hamlet dies too the bloodbath at the end of the play.

While some of “The Lion King” matches that story pretty closely, other elements are clearly at odds. Supposedly, in an alternate ending to “The Lion King,” Simba dies and his death scene includes one of the most famous lines from Hamlet, “Good night, sweet prince.” However, that’s not a version of the movie ever released to the public, and it’s hard to imagine modern audiences being very pleased with that outcome. So, for us, the biggest difference here remains that Hamlet is a tragedy while “The Lion King” has a happy ending.

Shakespeare’s play Macbeth also features a man who kills the king to take his throne. In order to secure his position, Macbeth hires a group of murderers to kill another nobleman, Banquo, whose ghost appears in the play and whose children have been prophesied to take the crown from Macbeth. In this bloody play, Macbeth sort of loses his mind as he tries to kill off everyone who threatens his rule. At the end of the play, Macbeth dies when his enemies unite against him.

Clearly the character of Macbeth has a lot in common with Scar in “The Lion King.” In fact, the actor who plays Scar in Disney’s “Lion King,” Chiwetel Ejiofor reportedly drew inspiration for his performance directly from the character of Macbeth, which seems very appropriate if you’re looking at the story from Scar’s point of view. But in the “The Lion King,” Simba is clearly the main character. And, as the protagonist, Simba learns his life lessons and triumphs in the end.

Both Macbeth and Hamlet are tragedies. They end badly for all concerned. By contrast, “The Lion King” features a few deaths (most notably the murder of the king), and our hero faces a number of hardships as he struggles with grief at the loss of his father, but the overall arc of the story leads to Simba’s victory over these challenges as he reclaims the throne and takes Nala as his queen.

Yet another mark of Shakespeare’s influence on “The Lion King” appears in the relationship between Simba and Pumbaa the warthog. In the plays Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, Shakespeare shows the young prince Hal falling under the sway of Sir John Falstaff, an older soldier of questionable character. One of Shakespeare’s most popular comedic characters, Falstaff is a bawdy prankster who teaches the impressionable Hal about the dubious virtues of drinking, gambling, and womanizing. In one of his more famous speeches, Falstaff dismisses the notion of “honor” as an empty word, a sham, a way tricking people into doing things, and ultimately nothing more than a sad epitaph upon people who have died fighting for worthless causes. Not surprisingly, prince Hal must turn away from Falstaff’s debauched lifestyle in order to become a proper king.

In my discussion questions this week, I’ll ask you to consider all these different echoes of Shakespeare we hear in “The Lion King.” As you watch the movie, try to hold these various elements in the back of your mind. Think about the progress of Simba’s story from being just an innocent young cub to becoming the lion king. What challenges does Simba face? Who are his friends? Who are his adversaries? As Simba encounters a broad range of attitudes and worldviews, what does he finally adopt as his own life philosophy?

Published by Chuck Caruso

writer of dark fiction (crime, horror & western noir), literary & textual scholar (american gothic, noir, po-co, sf), and cultural critic

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