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The Lion Of Denmark Essay, Research Paper

The Lion of Denmark

In 1994, the critics hail an animated masterpiece, not only for its artwork and music, but also for the plotline: an evil uncle displaces the heir to the throne and sends him into exile. Years later, following both a prophecy and an encounter with the ghost of the old king, the heir is persuaded to return to his home, avenge his father’s death, and take his proper place as the ruler of the kingdom. At first glance, Disney’s The Lion King has all the classic motifs of the revenge plot. These archetypal patterns occur in many stories, and Disney writers Jim Capoblanco and Irene Mecchi may well have built the plot’s structure from the ground up. However, if we disregard the Serengeti setting, the cheerful animal companions, and the happy ending, we are left with a storyline that appears to be none other than a thinly-veiled adaptation of Hamlet. There is almost a one-to-one correspondance between the film characters and the play’s dramatis personae. The plot itself re-shuffles some scenes and eliminates the sex and most of the violence, but remains very similar to the essential structure of Hamlet. Furthermore, even though one story is set in Denmark and the other in Africa, there are critical characteristics in the setting that are common to both stories. The following examines the appropriation of the Hamlet story and attempts to account for the differences while highlighting the similarities.

The basic setting of the film, the Serengeti, was chosen for its popularity with children and for the possibilities with regards to animation itself. The opening sequence of The Lion King introduces us to this beautiful lush landscape and to all of its glorious animals, who have gathered to witness the birth of Simba. The land is fertile, the animals well-fed, and all signs indicate health and prosperity. We are never shown this in Hamlet; instead we discover that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (1.5 90). We are left to assume that things have deteriorated since Claudius took the throne. Since we cannot see the geographical setting that lies beyond the stage in Hamlet, we are constantly reminded of the sick state by characters and events: the undertones of incest, the drunken revelries of the marriage feast, and the impending threat of invasion from Norway. The Lion King does not have the restrictions of the stage, and therefore we can actually see the physical landscape turn from paradise into a wasteland under Scar’s rule. At the beginning of the movie, we are shown the elephant graveyard where the hyenas live. Once Scar allows the hyenas to venture beyond the borders and into his kingdom, the entire land looks like this graveyard – gray, barren, and parched, with niether food nor water. Suddenly there is a striking resemblance to Denmark in Hamlet’s opening scene. There is no need to explore the political unrest or poisoned gene pool; Disney has converted all psychological and emotional complexities into the visible deterioration of the physical landscape. And when Simba comes back and conquers Scar at the end of the movie, it begins to rain almost instantly, putting out the raging fire that has spontaneously caught during the final battle, and instantaneously bringing new life to the landscape. No such luck for Hamlet – because he and everyone around him is ultimately destroyed at the end of the play, it leaves Denmark wide open to the threat of hyenas. But Hamlet does ask Horatio to live to tell the tale; in such a grim ending, the hope is that in the future Denmark will not repeat these mistakes.

Another means of comparing Hamlet to The Lion King examines the character correspondance between these two works. We can identify the basic similarities: the king Mufasa is Old Hamlet, and his wife Sarabi is Gertrude. For Disney’s purposes, no discussion takes placeof her re-marriage to the evil uncle Scar, no admonitions from Simba: “Nay, but to live / in the rank sweat of an enseamed bed / Stew’d in corruption, honeying and making love / Over the nasty sty ” (3.4. 92-95). In fact, the entire Oedipal subplot which so captivated Freud has been dropped right out of the story. Hamlet offers the possibility of a dark side that the Walt Disney company has no wish to explore. Exposing children to sexual taboos is in itself taboo. Sarabi becomes a very minor character, as nurturer (but to a lesser extent than Mufasa himself) and then later as the head of a hunting pride.

Other characters include Zazu, the king’s bird advisor, whose characterization resembles Polonius, and Nala, who as Simba’s childhood companion could be Horatio, but as Simba’s adult love interest more resembles Ophelia. Neither Zazu nor Nala meet the tragic endings of their Shakespearean counterparts – since Disney only has one villain, they can only have two deaths: that of Mufasa to trigger the chain of events, and that of Scar to bring justice at the film’s end. There does not seem to be any Laertes; again, the film aimed at children can only justify the death of one villain at the end, and further, cannot leave a villain unpunished. Punishment is critical to the establishment of a clear moral in children’s stories. This also means that the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern counterparts, the hedonistic Timon and Pumbaa, cannot be traitorous, but are added to the story purely for the comic relief. They could also at times be seen as counterparts to the gravedigging clowns of Act 5 Scene 1, arguing, teasing each other, using foreign words (”hakuna matata”), and taunting Simba. If any characters besides Scar can be considered villains, they are the hyenas who are invited in and allowed to live off the land. Perhaps they correspond with the army of Fortinbras, who are allowed by Claudius to move across the land and take food and supplies. Whether or not Fortinbras himself can be seen as a positive force in Hamlet is debatable. Regardless, this description of the hyenas as the Norwegian army is not quite accurate since they are at Scar’s side for most of the film. They do eliminate the need for “bad” characters like Polonius and Laertes as well as the spying Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and Scar is shown raising an army of hyenas from the elephant graveyard right before Mufasa’s murder. If we ignore this suggestion of mitiltia, then the hyenas are the unseen courtiers who must have supported Claudius’ ascension to the throne.

The only character who appears to be problematic to the Hamlet parallel is that of Rafiki, the baboon mystic who urges Simba to meet his responsibilities and return to his kingdom. He represents the archetypal character of the Wise Old Man, and acts as a shaman within the film. This may have been added to lend credibility to the African setting. But Rafiki also links Simba to the ghost of Mufasa. He acts as a voice of responsibility similar to Simba’s own submerged guilty conscience. Because Simba cannot deliver any lengthy soliloquies, his inner struggle must be made external, and what better way to do it than to have an all-knowing character confront him with his responsibilities? Rafiki is not the only character who does this – when Nala stumbles across Simba by accident while she hunts far from home, she also accuses him of shirking responsibility and challenges him to become more like Mufasa. No such role exists for Ophelia, but Hamlet could have been reprimanded by a character like Horatio had Shakespeare wished.

The characterization of Hamlet as Simba is the most interesting one of all. We still have our Melancholy Prince, but he does not feign madness, and he chooses to blame himself for the old king’s death rather than blaming his evil uncle. This difference can be perhaps accounted for by the young age of the protagonist, versus Hamlet’s experienced knowledge with regards to violence and hunger for power. When Scar causes the wildebeasts to stampede Mufasa and Simba, he only manages to kill one of them. In order to eliminate Simba and therefore take the throne, he convinces the young cub to run away and never return. In this sense, The Lion King is similar to Hamlet’s boarding a boat set for England with papers comissioning his own death (5.2 20-25). But Simba does not outsmart the hyenas who Scar commands to kill him, he merely outruns them. In exile, he meets Timon and Pumbaa who urge him to put his past behind him and live the good life. But try as he might, Simba cannot escape the guilt or the sense of responsibility that he feels. After Nala finds him living in paradise and ignoring the misery of his rightful kingdom, she urges him to return to Pride Rock. He then has his one and only soliloquoy, illustrating his inability to act. It resembles several of Hamlet’s speeches, for example:

Yet I,

A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak

Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause

And can say and do nothing; no, not for a king

Upon whose property and most dear life

A damned defeat was made. Am I a coward?

(3.1 546-551)

Compare this to Simba’s words: “She’s wrong. I can’t go back. What would it prove? It won’t change anything. You can’t change the past. [to the skies] You said you’d always be there for me! But you’re not. It’s because of me. It’s my faulty. It’s my fault.” A reversal occurs once Simba returns, where Scar accuses him of causing Mufasa’s death and Simba accetps the blame. This is the opposite of the Mouse-trap scene, where Hamlet establishes Claudius’ guilt by staging the murder of his father. However, just before Scar’s death, he is forced to admit that he is responsible. Simba then gathers the strength to save his kingdom from its ruler and restore the fertility of the land.Hamlet does not survive this final battle as Simba does, but he does leave a lesson to those who survive. Horatio, at the play’s end, recounts the tale of Hamlet to justify his cause.

The plot of the The Lion King varies in both minor and significant ways from Hamlet. As already stated, we begin The Lion King with the birth of the Hamlet character, and we are allowed to see the state as it prospers under Mufasa’s rule. We also witness the loving relationship between Mufasa and his wife Sarabi. Beginning the story before things go awry eliminates the need for lengthy speeches on the past, and simplifies the plot in order to make it appealing for young audiences: things were good, and now they are bad. Then, when Scar coordinates Mufasa’s death and frightens Simba out of the kingdom, the need for a play within a play to establish his guilt is unneccesary. We have now seen that he is guilty – the viewers need not consider this, only Simba, who must learn that he has blamed himself for something that was not his fault. The movie never implies that Sarabi was involved either – there can only be one villain, and in a modern children’s story this is never a birth-parent.

The ghost who appears in Act 1, Scene 1 of Hamlet appears much later in The Lion King, and never delivers the information that he has been murdered. Again, this is because we already know – and also because the focus of the Disney plot is not revenge but “taking your place in the circle of life”, becoming the rightful heir rather than destroying yourself and everyone around you for the sake of revenge. However, the appearence of the ghost remains very similar to the ghost of Old Hamlet, with his “Adieu, adieu. Remember me” (1.5 110). When Mufasa appears out of the clouds in the night sky, he says to Simba:

“Simba, you have forgotten me. You have forgotten who you are, and so you

have forgot me. Look inside yourself, Simba. You are more than what you have become. You must take you place in the circle of life.Remember who you are. You are my son and the one true king. Remember who you are. Remember.”

Mufasa’s voice returns one final time with the word “remember” as Simba ascends Pride Rock to take his place as king.

The biggest element we must contend with when comparing The Lion King to Hamlet is the happy ending versus the tragedy. As we have already seen, at least a little hope remains at the end of Hamlet that the errors of the past will not be repeated. But before this can occur, everyone in the play must die. We can hardly imagine Disney making the decision to eliminate Mufasa, Zazu, then Nala, followed by Sarabi, Simba, and Scar, then having the hyenas come in to clean up the mess. This would hardly make Pride Rock seem like a land worth saving. The film does not completely avoid violence, but Mufasa’s death is unseen because of the masses of animals trampling him. When it comes time for Scar and Simba to fight, the scene is in slow-motion, without blood, and so it becomes more of a power struggle than a violent act. There is a battle between the hyenas and the lionesses that is obscured by shadows and burning brushwood. And it is not in fact Simba who kills Scar; he is attacked by his own three hyena henchmen, and we are only allowed to witness his death in shadow on the cliff face. Because the focus has been shifted onto regaining the throne rather than avenging his father’s death, Simba is able to restore health to the kingdom by simply eliminating Scar. Once a new king takes the place of the old king, the fertility of the land is immediately restored and everyone lives happily ever after. The happy ending reassures us that the protagonist has done the right thing (something we are never quite sure of in Hamlet ), and eliminates many of the complex subplots of Shakespeare’s writing. Thus we are able to retain the moral of living up to one’s promises and responsibilities while creating the psychologically-satisfying happy ending where the hero prevails over all obstacles.

Does The Lion King , then, do justice to the Hamlet story? “Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance”, Mufasa tells Simba, and this theme, which prevails throughout the Lion King, seems to describe Hamlet’s own inner anguish at his inability to act, possibly upsetting the balance. A positive moral emerges from The Lion King: that even though escapism is possible and often desirable, putting the past behind you does not mean abandonning responsibility. There is also a strong emphasis placed on remembering who you are and where you came from, perhaps addressing the rootlesness of modern culture. Since The Lion King eliminates many of Shakespeare’s complex sub-plots and adds in plenty of comic relief, the film could be considered a good introduction to the Hamlet story for younger children. Most of the differences between Hamlet and The Lion King can be justified by Disney’s target audience. When everybody dies at the end of Hamlet, we are left with the picture of an elite which has eradicated itself. This ending is insufficient for The Lion King – because film is used to a great extent as a means of socialization, we require a hero and a villain in order to create a moral universe. Since Hamlet has become such a sacred text in our culture, A comparison to the simple plot of a Disney movie leaves us feeling like something has been lost. The Lion King, though, is an honorable attempt at adapting the story for young audiences, and may well prepare children for their later encounter with the real thing by introducing them to some of the themes and ideas that are shared with Hamlet.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. The Harcourt Brace Anthology of Drama. Ed. W.B. Worthen.

Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace, 1993.

“Lion King, the (1994)”. Internet Movie Database. Amazon.com. 15 October 2001. *http://www.imdb.com/*.

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