Can you feel the Shakespeare love tonight?

The Lion King
Disney’s The Lion King (2019)

I care not.
         Henry IV, Part 1

Hakuna matata.
         The Lion King

The creators of the original animated Disney film The Lion King have made no secret of their plot’s debt to Hamlet. Originally conceived as a sort-of “Bambi in Africa,” it quickly became clear the characters, themes, and relationships were developing unmistakable echoes of Shakespeare’s great tragedy, which the film’s creators decided to lean into.

Consider all the similarities:

  • Simba, like Hamlet, is a prince —
  • — whose father, the King, is murdered —
  • — by his uncle.
  • Simba’s father appears to him as a ghost.
  • Simba struggles with indecision.
  • Simba is sent away by his uncle.
  • Finally, Simba, like Hamlet, returns to the kingdom —
  • — and kills his uncle —
  • — avenging his father’s death.

Early drafts of The Lion King made even more direct reference to Hamlet. An obscure academic journal called (let me check my notes) Oprah Magazine reveals that Simba, like his Shakespearean inspiration, was originally meant to die (a head-scratching choice for a family film that somehow made it as far as the storyboarding stage) and that his evil uncle Scar would say to him Horatio’s famous line, “Good night, sweet prince.”

But The Lion King is not simply (in the words of NPR’s Glen Weldon) “Hamlet with fur”; it also carries unmistakable echoes of Henry IV Parts 1 and 2. In many ways Simba resembles Prince Hal more than Hamlet, in that he’s also a headstrong prince who disobeys his father but ultimately learns to accept responsibility and claim his throne. Simba must also defend his kingdom against a rival antagonist who raises an army and foments rebellion, and he makes friends with creatures of questionable character: Timon the meerkat, who takes his name from the title character of yet another Shakespeare play but more closely resembles Hal’s best mate Poins; and Pumbaa the warthog, who, in all his gluttonous, flatulent corpulence, is clearly modeled on the great Sir John Falstaff.

The Lion King
Disney’s The Lion King (1994)

The 2019 animated version of The Lion King (yes, it’s animated, albeit in a photo-realistic style) carries associations with even more Shakespeare works. Chiwetel Ejiofor says he based his interpretation of the villainous Scar on his performance of the title role in Macbeth. The playful banter and directness between Simba and his best friend and future queen Nala resemble the seriocomic relationship between Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. And comedians John Oliver, Billy Eichner, Seth Rogen, and Keegan Michael Key bring a comically meta-textual and self-referential quality to their scenes reminiscent of the mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Nor is The Lion King the only Disney film inspired by Shakespeare. Henry IV’s central tension of a young man who shirks his responsibilities with his fat lazy friend is also clearly the model for the characters of Mowgli and Baloo in The Jungle Book. Like Prince Hal, the ‘man-cub’ Mowgli is torn between two opposing father figures — Bagheera the panther and Baloo the bear — and learns that he must grow up and leave the childish pleasures of the jungle and return to the ‘man-village’ from which he came.

In fact, one could go so far as to argue that Walt Disney is clearly the modern-day Shakespeare. Both men were populist entertainers on the leading edge of their respective entertainment mediums who made a lot of money by rewriting history and stealing existing stories and making them their own. They both believed strongly in the dramatic power of dead parents, and told tales depicting an unwavering belief in the absolute rightness and power of a hereditary monarchy. It’s only sad the Elizabethan playwright’s “Shakespeare Prince” merchandise was never as successful as the “Disney Princess” line.

It’s also probably not an exaggeration (Editor’s Note: Yes, it is) to say that, in fact, all Disney movies are inspired by Shakespeare. The airy shape-shifting spirit Ariel from The Tempest was turned into a little mermaid in, um, The Little Mermaid. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is obviously just Richard III relocated to Paris. Petes Dragon is clearly based on King John because nobody’s ever seen either one. The antics of the long-lost twins in The Comedy of Errors surely inspired The Parent Trap. And there’s a lengthy exegesis still to be written about how The Winter’s Tale became the epic musical Frozen — but I’ll let it go.

Honestly, given its status as a major tourist destination, it’s a wonder that Stratford-Upon-Avon hasn’t been re-named Shakespeareland.