12 March 2012

Shakespeare and 'The Lion King'

Last Sunday, I had the great good fortune to be able to indulge a passion that holds only a slightly less dear place in my heart than my love of Shakespeare: my love of musical theatre. The Lion King touring company was performing in my hometown of Richmond, so I made the trek down out of the mountains to see it. This sort of show is about as far from what we do at the ASC as you can get -- pure, beautiful spectacle, on an enormous stage, mic'd and amp'd for a few thousand people -- and it's glorious, using song and color to convey emotion and energy. The audience contact is different from we do it here, but it's still there, even in such a large venue -- you get brought in a bit when the animals come down the aisles during "The Circle of Life", "One by One", and other songs, and characters like Zazu and Timon take jokes out in frequent asides. I also think The Lion King is one of the greatest examples of creative stagecraft: the puppetry, the choreography of aerial ballets and wildebeest stampedes, the costumes that allow the audience to see both actor and animal at the same time, the use of lighting, shadows, and backdrops to convey savanna, jungle, and wasteland -- it's so delightfully inventive, a real indulgence of imagination at work.

I know a lot has been written about the connections between Shakespeare and The Lion King. This is not news. Many, many people have drawn the connection to Hamlet -- and it is there, if only in the broadest strokes of the plot. Evil uncle kills dad, usurps throne, pays for it in the end when dad's ghost tells son to take revenge. But beyond that familial tangle, there's actually not a lot else that's tremendously similar. Sarabi doesn't take up with Scar, Nala doesn't drown herself, and no neighboring lions decide to declare war on their way across the Pridelands toward the Masai Mara. More importantly, the emotional quality of The Lion King is markedly different (unsurprising in the movie, aimed at younger audiences, but they could have chosen a darker direction with the musical). Simba doesn't stick around like Hamlet does; he doesn't fall into an existential depression or feign madness; he doesn't turn on Nala or murder Zazu. He may be in the same position as Hamlet as far as the plot's concerned, but he is not a character in Hamlet's mold. The musical does draw in some quotations -- "There's the rub", for example -- but it still doesn't dwell on quite the same ideas and psychological explorations as Hamlet does.

I've seen great arguments, though, for the story really having more similarities with 1 Henry IV. Simba, the renegade heir who spends all his time loafing around with irresponsible freeloaders, has to remember his duties and take his place as the honorable heir to the throne. On an emotional level, Simba's story seems a lot more like Hal's than like Hamlet's. His response to stress isn't "O that this too, too solid flesh would melt" or "O what a rogue and peasant slave am I" -- it's "Hakuna Matata". Feeling he'll never live up to what he's supposed to be, Simba runs away from the burdens -- only to find that, ultimately, he will have to "pay the debt [he] never promised." It's still not a perfect comparison, obviously -- Hal's dad is quite alive during 1 Henry IV, whereas Mufasa has to stir his son to greatness from beyond the grave (and Mufasa, with "Remember who you are; you are my son, and the one true king", manages to be a lot more succinct than Henry IV does in his sit-down with Hal in 3.2).

What struck me on Sunday, though, was how The Lion King contains echoes of a different Shakespeare play from the point of view of a different character. For Scar, this story is Macbeth. He disrupts the natural order of succession, and the earth itself revolts against him for it. In the disturbingly vivid scenes where the vibrant Pridelands turn into a barren desert, the joyfully leaping antelope turned skeletal, the waters receding and leaving cracked rocks in their wake, I couldn't help but think of lines from Macbeth, in the conversation between Ross and the Old Man, describing the unnaturally dark sky, the inversion of predatory order, and Duncan's horses going mad. When Sarabi tells Scar there is no longer any food because he has forced the lionesses to overhunt and the herds have moved on, I heard Ross telling Malcolm and Macduff:
Alas, poor country!
Almost afraid to know itself. It cannot
Be call'd our mother, but our grave; where nothing,
But who knows nothing, is once seen to smile;
Where sighs and groans and shrieks that rend the air
Are made, not mark'd; where violent sorrow seems
A modern ecstasy; the dead man's knell
Is there scarce ask'd for who; and good men's lives
Expire before the flowers in their caps,
Dying or ere they sicken.
The moral message here is the same: upset the natural order, disrupt the Circle of Life, and everything you sought to gain will turn to dust and decay in front of your eyes. Scar also has troubles with his own line of succession; though he has no Lady M, he makes a play for Nala, keenly aware that without sons of his own, his usurpation is for naught. Consider these lines from "The Madness of King Scar", a song not found in the movie, only the musical:
Scar: What did my brother have that I don't have?
Zazu: Do you want the short list or the long?
Scar: Whatever!
Zazu: Well, he had adoring subjects... a loving family... a devoted queen...
Scar: That's it! I need a queen!
Zazu: A what?
Scar: A queen, man! A queen! Without a queen, what am I? A dead end, no line, no descendants, no future. With a queen, I'll have cubs... Immortality will be mine! Immortality will be mine!
Hearing those lines, I had Macbeth in my head, saying:
Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown,
And put a barren sceptre in my gripe,
Thence to be wrench'd with an unlineal hand,
No son of mine succeeding.
These thoughts continued to percolate on my drive home. Okay, so if it's somewhere between Hamlet and 1 Henry IV for Mufasa and Simba, and if it's Macbeth for Scar, then what is it for Nala? There's not a perfect analogy. Nala's a very martial heroine, and martial women in Shakespeare tend to be villains, or at the very least, rather morally ambiguous characters (Joan la Pucelle, Queen Margaret, Goneril and Regan, etc). Nala, on the other hand, is in many ways the moral center of the play. She's aggressive, defiant, and proud, but never self-serving or deceptive. The closest analogy, I think, is Cymbeline, with Nala as a more pro-active Imogen. Both leave their homes to escape oppressive usurpers (the stepmother Queen and Scar, respectively), both suffer some sort of sexual harassment that spurs the journey (adultery for Imogen, threat of rape for Nala), both find the lost heir in the wilderness (Guiderius and Arviragus to Simba). It's a stretch, to be sure -- but that's where my mind went.

Now, do I think Disney had any of this deliberately in mind when they created The Lion King? No. As Duane at Shakespeare Geek once pointed out, the creators noticed the Hamlet connection and modeled at least a little on the similarities, but that certainly doesn't seem to cast the movie or the musical as an adaptation of Shakespeare's story. And while others have commented on the connections to 1 Henry IV and Macbeth, I'm fairly certain I'm the first person to write publicly drawing any connection between The Lion King and Cymbeline. (If I'm not, please let me know, because I want to know who else out there may be as dotty as I am). But a writer, an actor, a designer can still be inspired by something, even if he or she isn't consciously imitating it, and there doesn't have to be a deliberate attempt at re-invention for an audience to hear the echoes. There's something to the universality of all of these stories, to the themes and tropes that cycle to prominence again and again -- and that show us, even through the use of lions, what it is to be human.


  1. And here I always thought it was just BAMBI on steroids.

  2. Like you I've always thought the Hamlet analogy was a bit of a stretch, almost as if just because the Uncle usurps the throne it must be Hamlet. I agree that Simba is more like Prince Hal in that once he runs away he ends up as the carefree friend, but unlike Hal he doesn't reject Timon and Pumbaa in the end like Hal does Falstaff and his tavern buddies.

    1. That's true, Diane! Unlike Hal, he doesn't have to reject friendship and other close personal ties to be a king. The H5 arc is a pretty isolating one, really, but Simba uses those bonds as a strength.

  3. Really insightful. I would like to point out that the magic of the musical stems mostly from its director Julie Taymor, who is a director of Shakespeare as well; so potentially seeing the amplification of the Shakespearean themes could come from a more Taymorian place and less of a Disney one.

  4. I think the whole Lion King-Hamlet thing is exactly what Diane said. Hamlet is the ubiquitous revenging-prince tragedy, so if anything even slightly fits that story it gets compared to good ol' Hamlet. Likewise, people adapt Hamlet all the time in a purposefully loose manner - brother kills the king and takes the throne, son gets revenge! - without utilizing the other aspects of the play, be they plot or character, simply so they can add some sort of panache to their story by slapping the HAMLET title on it.


    Here's a video I made on the subject for The Hamlet RAVE at NYU:

    Good times.