I think most people are familiar with the idea that The Lion King, beloved Disney cartoon, is a modern, animal-kingdom-based version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. There are quite a few parallels between the two. For example, Hamlet is the story of Prince Hamlet and The Lion King is the story of Prince Simba. Both tales explore the loss of a father by some dastardly doing of the prince’s uncle. And while Hamlet ends in pretty much every character’s death, The Lion King is a little more forgiving (and aimed at children, after all) and only kills off the evil uncle.
Besides the different endings, there is one major thing missing from The Lion King‘s plot that makes it more akin to Hamlet and that is the story of Fortinbras. Revenge is a theme present in both Hamlet and The Lion King. Hamlet wants revenge for the death of his father. Simba want revenge along the same avenue. But Hamlet isn’t the only character in Hamlet seeking revenge, and Hamlet inadvertently kills Ophelia’s father, Polonius, whom he mistakes for his uncle behind a pillar in his mother’s closet. Simba’s revenge doesn’t hurt anyone, except for his uncle.
While The Lion King is about Simba’s justifiable revenge on his father’s killer, Hamlet’s journey within his play becomes less and less justifiable as the play progresses. Sure, Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, committed a crime and deserves punishment, but Hamlet makes a huge mess of his revenge that gets the whole court involved in his quest.
Hamlet’s murder of Polonius drives Ophelia mad, which eventually leads to her death. Her brother, Laertes, fueled by anger and his own desire for revenge, comes back to Denmark from abroad to kill Hamlet. While Hamlet’s course of revenge is drawn out throughout the play, Laertes’s revenge is swift.
Now, I did mention Fortinbras, and I didn’t forget him. The story of Fortinbras in Hamlet is the third revenge story within the play. Fortinbras also lost a father, like Hamlet and Laertes, and in Act I he is planning to attack Denmark to reclaim the lands his father once ruled as an act of revenge for his father’s death. But this war never happens because Fortinbras’s uncle talks him out of revenge and persuades him into a course of forgiveness. Because Fortinbras relinquishes his quest for revenge, when he shows up to Denmark’s court, he is the only revenge-seeker left alive. Hamlet and Laertes both lie dead from poison, and Fortinbras, by default, inherits the throne of Denmark.
In The Lion King, the story of revenge isn’t played out fully. Scar did a bad thing, and Simba has his revenge with the help of his friends and the support of the animals of the kingdom. I would also argue that the story of the hyenas somewhat parallels Laertes in that they were characters seeking revenge that got thwarted, but there is no Fortinbras. What happens when seeking vengeance in the animal kingdom doesn’t pan out? Where is the lesson in forgiveness? I know Simba at first forgave Scar, only to have Scar try to attack Simba from behind, but Scar’s death is still largely an act of revenge. Fortinbras is what makes Hamlet a play about the course of revenge, and while there are many similarities within The Lion King, I would say that Hamlet better explores the paths that revenge can take a person down and the consequences of choosing revenge over forgiveness.
Hamlet, I feel, is more fully developed in the plot of revenge. While it is not a family Disney cartoon movie, it goes beyond the idea that revenge, if done for the right reasons, has no consequences and instead embraces forgiveness as the only route to survival.