Some stories are so strong that they survive for centuries, and so universal that they appear in many forms and in different contexts. Recently, while I was watching Disney’s classic masterpiece The Lion King on TV, it came to my mind that the plot holds many similarities to Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Although my children consider themselves too grown up for watching animated features, their old dad enjoys them more than ever. William Shakespeare and Walt Disney are two of the most influential storytellers in human history. In my article about five elements of a story (and how to use them in a business presentation) I identified 5 key ingredients to ensure a consistent story, allow the action to develop and let the audience emotionally engage. Let’s have a look at how Hamlet and The Lion King compare…
The plot of both Hamlet and The Lion King is about a (young) prince whose father is killed by his uncle. The prince is exiled from his home and returns to revenge his father’s death and take the throne that rightfully belongs to him.
The protagonist role of prince Hamlet Jr. of Denmark is played by the lion cub Simba, while Shakespeare’s antagonist, the king’s brother Claudius, has inspired Disney’s animators to create the villain lion Scar. And did you ever look at the hyenas Shenzi, Banzai, and Ed as Rosencratz and Guildenstern?
Death, revenge, and justice are major themes in both stories. Both princes delay action, they overcome a moral struggle, and their faith only changes when their dead fathers reappear as a ghost. It has to be noted however, that most of the characters in Hamlet die, while Simba lives happily ever after with his youth friend Nala.
At first sight, the settings of both productions are completely different. One can hardly compare the African savanna with the medieval Denmark. But what if you start looking at Pride Rock as the King’s castle, and match the devastated Pride Lands that Simba discovers when he comes home to Shakespeare’s churchyard in act 5?
As they were addressing a different audience, the style of Shakespeare’s play vs. Disney’s movie is notably different. Playing around 1600 A.D., London theater visitors were the very rich, and the upper and lower middle class, while Disney’s movies are primarily addressing 20th century children and their parents.
But, as with many Disney films, The Lion King works on different levels and both children and adults will enjoy this animated classic for different reasons. You even don’t have to be a Shakespeare fan.
P.S. For those who wonder about the title of this post: “Nants ingonyama bagithi baba” is Zulu for “Here comes a lion, father.” They are the first words of the opening sequence of the movie… and, yes, I have seen the musical too.