The Ancients Begot Shakespeare, Who Begot Disney


Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.
--Picasso
William Shakespeare and The Walt Disney Company are two of the most beloved and famous storytellers of all time, but it is a well-known fact that the majority of their stories are not of their own invention. Excluding The Tempest, all of Shakespeare’s plotlines are borrowed from classical authors, prominent legends and histories, as well as many of his contemporaries (Gray 321-323). Likewise, the majority of Disney’s classic animated films are based off of famous works of literature (including Shakespeare) and fairy tales. Shakespeare’s influence on modern media is undeniable. From The West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet) to Amanda Bynes’s chick-flick classic She’s the Man (Twelfth Night), the Bard’s signature can be found hidden in countless works of literature and cinema (Smith 137). Of these reworks, three Disney movies can be traced directly back to Shakespearean plays: The Lion King, its sequel, The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride, and, perhaps surprisingly, Mulan, coming from Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and Twelfth Night, respectively. Although Disney may have used Shakespeare’s plays as their template, the tales themselves had been around for years before even Shakespeare.

The title of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is not only named after Shakespeare’s late son, Hamnet. It also is an anagram for the Danish legend of Amleth, which had been around for centuries by the time that Shakespeare began writing his tragedy. In fact, “the earliest extant version was narrated… by the twelfth-century Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus in his Danorum Regum herorumque Historiae...” (Maxwella 518). Shakespeare chose this story as the outline for his masterpiece Hamlet, and Disney chose Hamlet to be the blueprints for their classic beloved by parents and children alike, The Lion King. The Lion King loosely parallels Hamlet in its plot, themes, and, most importantly, characters. The backstabbing Claudius becomes the sneering Scar, the comic relief of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern become the slapstick Timon and Pumbaa, the guilty Gertrude becomes the powerless Sarabi, and the vengeful Hamlet becomes the rightful king Simba. The greatest similarity between the two work’s protagonists is their tragic flaw, indecision and avoiding the task at hand. While Hamlet escapes into his mind, Simba runs away from the Pride Land to live in ignorant bliss. Both Scar and Claudius murder their brothers, and take their crowns and wives. Although in The Lion King, Sarabi does not love Scar, she is still forced to serve him. These crimes are not known to Hamlet or Simba until their fathers, the elder Hamlet and Mufasa, respectively, visit as ghosts (Gavin 55-57). Both phantoms make their dramatic exits echoing the same word “Remember” (Hamlet Act I scene v). If one takes Hamlet, subtracts the adultery, implied incest, suicide, and insanity, and then adds talking animals, children themes, “Hakuna Matata,” and Elton John, The Lion King is the result.

Romeo and Juliet was a story that had been told and retold countless times before Shakespeare got his hands on it. Starting out as a Greek legend called Pyramus and Thisbe, the first written version of the story was written by the Latin poet Ovid, one of Shakespeare’s favorite poets (Muir 152). Shakespeare actually uses Pyramus and Thisbe as a frame and parody in his comedy, A Midsummer Night Dream (145). Through oral tradition and Ovid’s works, the story of the star-crossed lovers was passed down and retold in many different ways. The legend was so immersed in British culture; its story was eventually changed to be included in the Matter of Britain, renamed Tristan and Isolde (Levenson 328). It wasn’t until four hundred years later that, “…the full-scale story [and characters] known to Shakespeare’s audience… took shape in the sixteenth century with Luigi da Porto’s Historia novellamente ritrovate di due nobili amanti…” (326). Shakespeare’s two immediate sources when writing Romeo and Juliet were Ovid and the Italian Matteo Bandello’s retelling of the story in his work, Novelle (327). After being passed down through the ages for nearly two thousand years, Shakespeare made the best known love story of all time even more famous. Four years after The Lion King was released, Disney created a sequel, this time using Romeo and Juliet as its muse. The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride starts when Simba, now king, banishes the lions who joined in Scar’s insurrection. A feud forms between the two groups of lions, and, in the midst of the conflict, Simba’s daughter, Kiara, and Scar’s son, Kovu, fall in love. It’s not hard to see that Kovu parallels the brash, young Romeo, while Kiara is Juliet, a girl suddenly maturing into womanhood. Rafiki, the shaman of the Pride Land, shares a striking resemblance to Friar Laurence, both being religious leaders and the only ones who approve of the adolescent love affair. Kova’s oldest brother, Nuka, stands in for Mercutio. Both are violent, crude, and end up dying while fighting their bitter rivals. Simba and Scar’s wife, Zira, are the Lords Capulet and Montague, respectively, both leading the bitter feud against each other’s prides. Additionally, The Lion King 2 makes many hidden Shakespearean references throughout the movie, such as when Simba reprimands Zira for letting Kovu into the Pride Land:
SIMBA: You know the penalty for returning to the Pride Lands!
ZIRA: But the child does not! However... if you need your pound of flesh... here.
This is an obvious reference Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (Act I scene iii). The Lion King 2 is even more akin to Romeo and Juliet than the original Lion King is to Hamlet. Although not as popular as its predecessor, The Lion King 2 more closely parallels the tragedy on which it is based. The Lion King 2 stays truthful throughout the film until the end, where Disney changed the tragic ending into a happily ever after.

“The early Italian comedy Gl’Ingannati [1531] has long been considered an ultimate source of Twelfth Night” (Kaufman 271). However, it is assumed by many that Shakespeare had only consulted Nicolo Secchi’s comedy Gl’Inganni or Matteo Bandello’s Nicuola (the same Matteo Bandello who had helped inspire Romeo and Juliet). Shakespeare also took many comedic situations from another of Secchi’s plays, L’interesse, and claimed them as his own (272). Even though Disney’s Mulan is based on the ancient Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, it shares more similarities with Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night then it does with its own namesake. In the movie, Mulan dresses as a man, and joins the army under the pseudonym of Po, so to gain honor to her family. Her counterpart in Twelfth Night is Viola, who also pretends to be a man, under a false name, Cesario, so that she may find her lost twin brother, Sebastian. Both characters are women in unfamiliar lands, pretending to be men for the sake of their family, and, as luck would have it, they both fall in love with their superiors. Mulan falls in love with her captain Li Shang, while Viola falls for Duke Orsino. Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Feste, the comic relief characters in Twelfth Night, and Ling, Yao, and Chien-Po from Mulan are characters uncannily similar to each other. Both Sir Toby and Chien-Po are jovial, but dim-witted, while Sir Andrew and Ling are the classic, juvenile fools, and Yao and Feste, while normally good-natured, have a short-tempered and vengeful side. The comedy in both works is drawn from the comedic, but very awkward, situations that arise from the cross-dressing protagonist. And unlike The Lion King and The Lion King 2, Mulan ends the same way that its Shakespearian counterpart does, with a happy ending. Though it may not be as evident in Mulan as it is in The Lion King 2, when Disney filmmakers made a movie about a cross-dressing heroine, they must have looked to Shakespeare for inspiration, just as Shakespeare looked to Secchi and Bandello.

Shakespeare’s plays are timeless, and that is because the stories themselves are timeless. The story of the fabled prince of Denmark was read by scholars over eight hundred years ago, was written by the greatest literary mind of all time more than three hundred and fifty years ago, and is being watched right now by a toddler, strapped in his seat in the back of a minivan. The lovers who are torn apart by family and fate are familiar as familiar to us as they would be to a man who lived three thousand years ago in ancient Greece. Cross-dressing leading roles appear in the movie theater just like they did in the Globe Theatre and the Italian comedies. Why do these stories, themes, and characters keep reappearing over the ages? Although countries and cultures change, people, in essence, do not. No matter how many wars are fought or technology evolves, a clever pun has always made a man laugh, and the unjust death of a father will always tug at the heartstrings.

Works Cited
Gavin, Rosemarie. ""The Lion King" and "Hamlet": A Homecoming for the Exiled Child ." The
English Journal 85 (1996): 55-57.
Gray, Henry. "The Sources of the Tempest." Modern Language Notes 35(1920): 321-330.
Kaufman, Helen. "Nicolò Secchi as a Source of Twelfth Night." Shakespeare Quarterly 5(1954):
271-280.
Levenson, Jill. "Romeo and Juliet before Shakespeare." Studies in Philology 81(1984): 325-347.
The Lion King. Dir. Roger Allens. Perf. Matthew Brodrick, Jeremy Irons, and James Earl Jones.
Disney, 1994.
The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride. Dir. Darrell Rooney. Perf. Matthew Brodrick, Neve Campbell,
and Jason Marsden. Disney, 1998
Maxwell, Julie. "Counter-Reformation Versions of Saxo: A New Source for "Hamlet?"."
Renaissance Quarterly 57(2004): 518-560.
Muir, Kenneth. "Pyramus and Thisbe: A Study in Shakespeare's Method." Shakespeare
Quarterly 5(1954): 141-153.
Mulan. Dir. Tony Bancroft. Perf. Ming-Na, Eddie Murphy, and B.D. Wong. Disney, 1998.
Smith, Kay. ""Hamlet, Part Eight, the Revenge" or, Sampling Shakespeare in a Postmodern
World." College Literature 31(2004): 135-149.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Washington D.C.: Simon and Schuster, 1992.
Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. Washington D.C.: Demco Media, 2004.
Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Washington D.C.: Simon and Schuster, 2004.
Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night: Or What You Will. Washington D.C.: Simon and Schuster,
2004.
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English Journal 85 (1996): 55-57.
Gray, Henry. "The Sources of the Tempest." Modern Language Notes 35(1920): 321-330.
Kaufman, Helen. "Nicolò Secchi as a Source of Twelfth Night." Shakespeare Quarterly 5(1954):
271-280.
Levenson, Jill. "Romeo and Juliet before Shakespeare." Studies in Philology 81(1984): 325-347.
The Lion King. Dir. Roger Allens. Perf. Matthew Brodrick, Jeremy Irons, and James Earl Jones.
Disney, 1994.
The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride. Dir. Darrell Rooney. Perf. Matthew Brodrick, Neve Campbell,
and Jason Marsden. Disney, 1998
Maxwell, Julie. "Counter-Reformation Versions of Saxo: A New Source for "Hamlet?"."
Renaissance Quarterly 57(2004): 518-560.
Muir, Kenneth. "Pyramus and Thisbe: A Study in Shakespeare's Method." Shakespeare
Quarterly 5(1954): 141-153.
Mulan. Dir. Tony Bancroft. Perf. Ming-Na, Eddie Murphy, and B.D. Wong. Disney, 1998.
Salingar, L.G. "The Design of Twelfth Night." Shakespeare Quarterly 9(1958): 117-135.
Smith, Kay. ""Hamlet, Part Eight, the Revenge" or, Sampling Shakespeare in a Postmodern
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Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Washington D.C.: Simon and Schuster, 1992.
Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. Washington D.C.: Demco Media, 2004.
Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Washington D.C.: Simon and Schuster, 2004.
Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night: Or What You Will. Washington D.C.: Simon and Schuster,
2004.

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