How Does “The Lion King” Echo the Story of Shakespeare’s Hamlet?

Not only does The Lion King (1994) share many similarities to the Biblical tales of Joseph and Moses in the Old Testament, but it also shows many parallels to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, written between 1599 and 1602.

BothThe Lion King and Hamlet revolve around the inner workings of a royal family, one of which is located in the African outback and the other in the Kingdom of Denmark in the late middle ages. Ruling kings Mufasa (James Earl Jones) and King Hamlet are slain by their usurping brothers, Scar (Jeremy Irons) and Claudius, respectively. Down the road, the murdered kings’ sons, Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Matthew Broderick) and Prince Hamlet, are forced to decide whether to accept the new order or take up arms - as one asks, “to be, or not to be.”

Simba and Hamlet both have adolescent romantic relationships that falter due to family drama. Simba’s love interest is Nala (Moira Kelly). From a very young age, the two are best friends, but their budding romance is interrupted when Simba must flee Scar. Years later, the two reunite and rescue the kingdom together; at the film’s conclusion it is revealed that the new king and queen have a child. Hamlet’s relationship with his love interest, Ophelia, is a little more complicated, as Hamlet later kills her father, Polonius. There is also much scholarly debate over whether Hamlet truly loves Ophelia or is simply using her for his own personal gain.

Both the princes also spend some time away from home on the advice of their plotting uncles. Scar insists that Simba “run away and never return,” after blaming the cub for the death of his father, and Claudius encourages Hamlet to travel to England. In exile, Simba runs into Timone (Nathan Lane) and Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella), who help him to find his temporary footing. Timone and Pumbaa bear a resemblance to Hamlet characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, childhood friends of the titular character who are summoned by Claudius to spy on the prince and ascertain the cause of his apparent madness. But while Simba goes on to avoid his sadness joining in his friends’ happy-go-lucky life for a short time, Hamlet leads a life of isolation and self-loathing and discovers that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have really been sent to enable his murder (they carry a letter ordering his execution; whether they know its contents is unclear). The Prince of Denmark outwits his useless friends and leaves them to be executed instead - their death famously happens offstage. (Tom Stoppard later used the line “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” for one of his well-known plays.)

Clearly, Hamlet’s world is more infested by his uncle’s treacherous allies. Mufasa’s widow, Sarabi (Madge Sinclair), is repulsed at the very sight of her brother-in-law, Scar, and calls him out for not being a fraction of the king that Mufasa was. On the contrary, Hamlet’s mother Gertrude has married her dead husband’s brother. This causes the troubled Hamlet to become physically ill and plants the unvoiced fear that his mother aided his father’s murder.

The two deceased fathers visit their sons in supernatural forms: King Hamlet appears at the start of the play as a ghost and tells his son to take revenge, while Mufasa appears in the sky and encourages Simba to return to the Pride Lands, urging Simba to,“remember who you are.”

As the stories conclude, both protagonists return to square off with their villainous uncles. Simba sends Scar tumbling down Pride Rock, where he is mauled by the hyenas, and Hamlet mortally wounds Claudius with a poisonous sword. However, The Lion King ends with peace and prosperity for its characters, whereas Hamlet ends in a bloodbath, resulting in Hamlet’s own death as well as the deaths of all major characters except Horatio.