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As we discovered from watching “The Lion King” (2019), this movie clearly draws some key plot elements from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet (1599-1601). Like Claudius in the play, Scar murders his brother the king and chases off the rightful heir so he can claim the throne. Like Prince Hamlet, young Simba struggles to understand his place in the world while wrestling with grief over the loss of his father. Both Hamlet and Simba eventually figure out ways to challenge their uncles, but where Hamlet’s attempt to reclaim his father’s throne ultimately fails, Simba manages to overcome his uncle. The movie ends with Simba ascending to lead the pride of lions.
This happy ending – very different from the Shakespearean tragedies of Hamlet and Macbeth – confirms that the young prince Simba has the learned the lessons of “The Circle of Life” taught to him by his father Mufasa. According to the worldview espoused by this song, the world has a natural order. Life is grand and important, but we must each rise to play our proper role. Simba must become the lion king.
As we saw from watching the brilliant David Tennant perform the graveyard soliloquy from Hamlet about “poor Yorick,” the prince in that play is never able to move beyond the idea that everything we do is essentially meaningless. Similarly, the “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech by Macbeth expresses the idea that even if we attain our goals, those are quickly stripped away and we die. In Macbeth’s view, the story of anyone’s life is just “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
“The Lion King” sets its regal “Circle of Life” attitude in direct opposition to the notion that life lacks meaning, an attitude played to comic effect in the movie with “Hakuna Matata,” a bouncy song that describes the “problem-free philosophy” preached by Pumbaa the warthog. In his sorrow and his inexperience, young Simba finds himself attracted to this idea because “it means no worries.” But Simba always has his doubts as he recalls the lessons his father taught him. When his girlfriend and future queen Nala appears to confront him with the larger consequences of his carefree lifestyle, Simba rises to the occasion and shoulders the burdens of responsibility.
In the movie, Pumbaa trails along behind Simba during this transition, untroubled by this sudden change of attitude. But then, Pumbaa never worries about anything. Hakuna Matata after all. Perhaps he always knew that his young friend would have to return to his father’s more responsible attitudes in order to become king. In any case, we can see how this transition by Simba follows the shift in young prince Hal away from the influence of Sir John Falstaff in the Shakespeare plays Henry IV Parts 1 and 2.
So, yes, “The Lion King” definitely possesses a number of Shakespearean elements, but it doesn’t not faithfully follow the plot, nor wholeheartedly adopt the worldview, of any single play, certainly not a tragedy like Hamlet or Macbeth.
Join me next week as we take a look at the movie “She’s the Man” (2006), a modern retelling of Twelfth Night, one of Shakespeare’s many comedies to feature mistaken identities, blurred gender roles, and lots of witty banter.