5 Ways It’s Exactly Like Hamlet (& 5 How It’s Different)
11 mins read

5 Ways It’s Exactly Like Hamlet (& 5 How It’s Different)


  • The Lion King draws from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, with themes of betrayal and revenge woven into a children’s film.
  • Both stories feature a prince seeking justice for their father’s murder, but The Lion King has a happier ending.
  • Female characters in The Lion King, like Nala and Sarabi, exhibit agency and strength, unlike Shakespeare’s female archetypes.



Disney is not a stranger to mature themes, and The Lion King was no different, taking inspiration from a classic Shakespearean tale. Animated Disney movies are known for teaching children lessons in morality, and The Lion King does that, just with darker themes. Murder, betrayal, and revenge are all featured in the 1994 film as Simba’s father is killed by his uncle and finds himself banished from his home. If the story of a young prince who was banished and returns to avenge his father sounds familiar, it is.

Hamlet was by far one of William Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies and The Lion King seemed to take some inspiration from it. The story withstood the test of time for a reason. Both tales were classics in their own way. The Lion King drew inspiration while becoming its own story. It’s best remembered for the tale of Simba triumphing over Scar and some amazing music, but it still has quite a bit in common with Shakespeare’s tragic tale.


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How The Lion King Is Like Hamlet

The Prince Has A Traitorous Uncle

King Claudius has been portrayed from stage to film by many different actors, but the results are always the same. Claudius is the instigator of the plot to take over the throne of Denmark. He orchestrates his brother’s death to gain the throne for himself. All the prince’s uncle wants in Hamlet and The Lion King is power.

Though his methods differed from The Lion King to Hamlet, the seated king eventually met his untimely end. Whether it was Scar creating a stampede or Claudius pouring poison in his brother’s ear, the king dies. And Claudius became one step closer to the throne. The only one in his way in either story when the king dies is the prince.

The Prince Sees His Father’s Ghost

Mufasa's ghost appears in the clouds in The Lion King

In many Hamlet productions, the appearance of the prince’s father is taken more literally than others. In Hamlet, the 2000 film starring Ethan Hawke, Hamlet’s father speaks to him through videos. In some productions, Hamlet’s father appears as an actual ghost, which is what The Lion King does as well.

Simba encounters Mufasa’s spirit more literally, and it has a heavy, meaningful presence. In both iterations, the deceased king must remind his son not to forget the crime that has been committed. Mufasa is there to remind Simba that he is the prince and that Scar is in the wrong.

The 2000 version of Hamlet is available to stream on Paramount+.

The Prince Is Exiled

Simba crying as he walks away from a dead Mufasa in The Lion King

Whether it be Pride Rock or Denmark, the prince has a rocky relationship with his home. After Mufasa is killed in one of the most memorable death scenes in an animated film, Scar convinces Simba that it was his fault and that he should be banished. Scar hopes that Simba would, at the very least, never come back to threaten his rule.

King Claudius is more forthright about it, instructing Hamlet’s school friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to kill his nephew. In both these stories, the new king is intent on his nephew never returning. Claudius and Scar don’t really see anyone else as a threat to their power since the prince, in both stories, is the rightful heir to the throne.

The Prince Has Friends In Exile

Comedic relief is something required in tragedies, especially plays as tragic as Hamlet. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are college friends of Hamlet who take some edge off of the heavier topics in the play. They’ve been used very effectively in both stage and screen adaptations, and The Lion King has its own version of the duo, though they aren’t college friends to a young lion cub.

Like Hamlet, Simba finds himself in exile, though he is not alone. Timon and Pumbaa become his cohorts in banishment, and ultimately they all find themselves back at Pride Rock for the final confrontation. Timon and Pumbaa become his allies, not just fun comic relief for the audience.


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There Is A Love Story

An adult Simba and Nala standing together in The Lion King

Love is the connecting factor between The Lion King and Hamlet. Nothing makes a story more tragic than losing love and nothing makes a children’s movie better than these resonant themes. Both Hamlet and The Lion King have their own sonnets, so to speak.

Hamlet and Ophelia are consumed with angst throughout the play. However, Hamlet sends her a letter professing his feelings with the famous line “doubt though the stars are fire.” This is recreated in The Lion King through its best-known song “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”

The Lion King is available to stream on Disney+.

How The Lion King Is Different From Hamlet

The Prince Is Sane In The Lion King

Hamlet staring at a skull in 1996s Hamlet.

William Shakespeare penned a five-act play demonstrating a young prince teetering on the edge of sanity. In Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film, Hamlet spans to a cool four hours. The Lion King, not quite as ambitious, comes to about an hour and a half in the animated version. The prince’s portrayal was toned down for the children’s film and did not explore Simba’s mental status.

In one of the most famous scenes of the Bard’s play, Hamlet goes to a graveyard and speaks to Yorrick, a skull. It is debatable whether Hamlet is truly going mad or not and spends a good amount of time debating the topic. Simba may have gone to an elephant graveyard, but he did not spend his time speaking to the bones.

The 1996 version of Hamlet is available to stream on Tubi.

Nala Is Stronger Than Ophelia

There is not a clear translation for Ophelia in The Lion King, but Nala comes the closest. She is the prince’s intended, but that is where the resemblance stops. Ophelia is crushed by the weight of her experiences. She endures Hamlet’s mood swings and has to choose between her love and her family.

Nala is strengthened by her difficulties. She persevered and pushed Simba into returning to the kingdom to take his rightful place after being banished by Scar herself. In Hamlet, the kingdom collapses under its own tragedy. And most importantly, Nala is not a tragic figure. She overcomes her circumstances while Ophelia is destroyed by them.

The Queen Is A Good Mother In The Lion King

Sarabi holding a baby Simba in Lion King

There are many readings of Queen Gertrude. Many interpretations suggest that she never knew Claudius killed her first husband. However, Gertrude is not blameless in her treatment of her son. Hamlet is exiled and Gertrude sides with her husband Claudius, whether she is aware he is a murderer or not.

Simba’s mother Sarabi is free from this morally gray area. She survives the story, never siding with Scar, and supports her son’s claim to the throne. She isn’t banished from the Pride Lands like Nala is, and she doesn’t go looking for Simba, believing him lost initially. It is made clear, however, that there is no allegiance to Scar, and she is immediately ready for Simba to take over despite the time that has passed since she’s seen her son.


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Female Agency Is Portrayed Differently

Shenzi the hyena in red light in The Lion King

Hamlet is full of some of the most notable female archetypes known to drama. Queen Gertrude is the precursor to characters like Cersei Lannister and Gemma Teller. Ophelia is one of the most tragic love interests known in literature. But these women are archetypes for a reason. They provide a blueprint for a character type without having much agency of their own.

Nala and Sarabi both love their king but are not swayed in one direction or another. They are steadfast, making up their own minds and making their own decisions. The Lion King also has another steadfast female character. Shenzi is the leader of the hyena faction that follows Scar. She is the other side of the coin. Shenzi supports Scar, not for any obligation or love, but because it is what she believes.

The Lion King Is Not A Tragedy

David Tennant in Hamlet on stage

Throughout Simba watching his father’s death, being ousted by his uncle, and losing his entire childhood, The Lion King has the makings of a great story. It creates its own classic after drawing inspiration from one of the most famous tragedies ever penned.

One of the most important of its messages is that all is not lost. Simba seemingly lost his entire life at a young age, but he comes out of it. He takes his home back and, most unlike Hamlet of all, loses no additional life in the process. The Lion King is a story of triumph, not tragedy, a stark contrast to Hamlet.

Disney’s The Lion King (1994)

Release Date
June 23, 1994

Roger Allers, Rob Minkoff

Matthew Broderick, Jeremy Irons, Rowan Atkinson, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Moira Kelly, Nathan Lane, James Earl Jones


88 minutes

Drama, Animation, Adventure

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