Skip to main content
Shakespeare & Beyond

Can you feel the Shakespeare love tonight?

The Lion King
The Lion King
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.


Disney Studios killed Bambi’s mother. And the poor kids just had to suck it up. Dumbo is separated from his mother traumatically. So, they wanted to kill Simba? No problem. Fortunately, a better ending won out.

Mary Jane Schaefer — July 26, 2019

I’d say Disney was more of a contemporary Diaghilev than a Shakespeare equivalent.

Montague Gammon III — August 7, 2019

Diaghilev? He was a child of privilege who spent much of his life in Europe working on great sweeping ballets and operas; both Disney and Shakespeare crafted their stories, however fantastical, for the people.

Deborah Doyle — August 11, 2019