Hamlet and The Lion King
Many perceive The Lion King, Disney's most successful movie to date, as Disney's only original movie; the only movie not previously a fairy tale from one country or another. This, however, is not the case. While The Lion King seems not to be beased on a fairy tale, it is in fact strongly based on the play Hamlet by William Shakespeare. Disney writers cleverly conceal the basic character archetypes and simplified storyline in a children's tale of cute lions in Africa. To the seasoned reader, however, Hamlet comes screaming out of the screenplay as obviously as Hamlet performed onstage.
The characters in The Lion King closely parallel Hamlet. Simba, the main character in The Lion King, embodies Hamlet, He is the son of the King and rightful heir to the throne. The King of the Pridelands, Mufasa, parallels Hamlet Senior, who is killed by the uncle figure. In The Lion King, the uncle is Scar, and in Hamlet, the uncle figure is Claudius. Laertes, the henchman and right-hand man of Claudius, becomes, in the movie, the Hyenas, Bansai, Shenzi, and Ed. The Hyenas collectively act as hero-worshippers to Scar, loyal subjects, and fellow doers-in-evil. They support Scar completely, just as Laertes supports Claudius. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are the comic reliefs of Hamlet, and in The Lion King, this role is fulfilled by Timon and Pumbaa, who are a meercat and warthog, respectively. Both sets compliment each other, complete each other's sentences, act as caretakers to Hamlet/Simba, and are comical to the point of being farcical. The role of Horatio, Hamlet's right-hand man, is fulfilled in The Lion King by Nala. Nala concentrates on the aspect that Simba is the rightful King and that it is his responsibility to ascend to the throne. She is his best friend and someone whom he trusts. Just as Horatio loyally follows Hamlet, Nala is completely loyal to Simba. Not only are there ties of friendship, but there is also an element of respect and reverence in both friendships. Horatio and Nala both know that they are friends and loyal followers of the rightful king.
In The Lion King, the plot mirrors the plot of Hamlet as well. In the very beginning, Hamlet Senior is poisoned by Claudius, who then ascends to the throne and marries Hamlet's mother Gertrude. Similarly, Mufasa is thrown to his death by Scar, who goes on to become King of the Pridelands and leader of the pack, thus "marrying" Simba's mother, Sarobi. In Hamlet, Hamlet is absent for much of the action because he is away at college. He only returns when something needs to happen that only he feels he can solve. Simba also is not in the Pridelands, but rather in the jungle, when Scar is King and causes problems. He only returns when he is needed most. Both Princes return to claim their honor.
In both pieces, the ghost of the father comes into play. In Hamlet, Hamlet Senior comes to Hamlet Junior and tells him that the rightful heir is not on the throne. In The Lion King, Mufasa's ghost comes to Simba and tells him the exact same thing. In both cases, the dead fathers tell their sons that something is amiss. Both sons seek to claim their rightful places after some nudging from their fathers and best friends (Horatio and Nala, who reaffirm that Hamlet and Simba are the rightful kings).
At the final scenes, the uncles attempt to follow through with killing their nephews. In Hamlet, Claudius attempts to poison Hamlet Junior, just as he poisoned Hamlet Senior. In The Lion King, Scar again tries to push Simba off of a cliff, the same way he killed Mufasa. However, neither of these attempts work. Finally, it is none other than the uncles' right-hand men that condemn them to death. Laertes turns on Claudius, telling Hamlet that it was Claudius who used the poison. The Hyenas turn on Scar, doing him in after years of loyal service. Finally, Claudius is killed by Hamlet, and Scar is essentially killed by Simba. In the very end, the rightful king is restored to Elsinor (Fortinbras) and to the Pridelands (Simba).
While many say that Disney stories are simple and child-like, The Lion King is a mirror of a complex literary work. There are eight-year-old children that know the basic plot to Hamlet, because Disney has introduced it to them. Disney has in fact created a masterpiece, a contemporary retelling of Hamlet for the younger set. While children can enjoy the story of a lion and his jungle pals, they will later read Hamlet and realize the striking similarities. Teenagers and adults, having already read Hamlet, realize deeper meaning in a seemingly simple Disney movie. This is the true magic: meaning for everyone.
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