I’ve often heard The Lion King described as “Hamlet with lions”, but I’m not sure I agree. I think it’s more like “Richard III with lions”.
Richard III and Hamlet both feature villains who murder their brothers in order to become king, and both of them go on to murder their nephews in order to try to keep their positions of power. However, the difference is that nobody in Hamlet suspects King Claudius of any kind of treachery – nobody except Hamlet himself. Furthermore, while the Pridelands suffer greatly under Scar’s leadership and are immediately restored after his death, the “something rotten in the state of Denmark” goes far beyond Claudius’ own evil and is not so easily resolved. Scar’s openly despicable persona and single-handed destruction of a once-great land feels much more like Richard III’s reign of terror in Shakespeare’s history play.
Like Shakespeare’s Richard III, Scar is pretty transparently evil. His song with the hyenas has all the hallmarks of a rising dictator. He has convinced them that the lions (except Scar himself) are their enemies, that it’s in their best interest to help him kill Simba and Mufasa, and that their lives will be infinitely better with him as king – yet when he does become king, it becomes obvious he doesn’t really care about helping the hyenas at all. Richard III likewise uses people as disposable pawns and convinces them to ignore his obvious deficiencies. He, like Scar, is charming in a sinister way and can win over even those who know for a fact what a horrible person he is. Claudius, on the other hand, appears at first glance to be an ordinary king, taking the throne after the tragic death of his brother. He doesn’t have to charm or manipulate others into supporting him, because everyone just assumes they should. Even Hamlet requires greater proof than his father’s ghost to be convinced of his uncle’s treachery. While Richard III and Scar are obviously evil, hidden by a thin veneer of charisma and empty promises, Claudius is subtle and secretive about his crimes and very nearly gets away with them.
But, of course, Hamlet focuses the majority of its attention on Hamlet himself, Claudius’ nephew who learns what happened and reluctantly sets out to avenge his father. Like Simba, he initially runs away before returning to challenge his uncle. Both princes also encounter the ghost or spirit of their father, who pushes them to act when they are hesitant to do so. However, Hamlet’s story is all about his philosophical contemplation of death and slow descent into madness. Being a children’s movie, there’s nothing like that in The Lion King. Simba’s journey is toward courage and heroism while Hamlet’s leads to death – his own, and almost every other character’s.
On the other hand, Richard III ends with a bit more hope. Its villain protagonist is vanquished and killed, and Henry Tudor takes his place as the new king, marrying Elizabeth of York and ending the War of the Roses. While the princes in the tower are the more direct equivalents to Simba, being Richard III’s nephews who he has murdered, the triumphant ending scenes of The Lion King are highly reminiscent of Richard III: Simba defeats Scar, replaces him as king, and reunites with Nala, a flash-forward showing them with a cub and implying the beginning of a strong and benevolent dynasty to replace Scar’s violent one – exactly the sort of promises made by the ending to Richard III, which is hopeful despite the play’s overall gruesomeness.
Conflict over the throne is common in Shakespeare’s tragedies and histories, and many of his villains are willing to kill for power. The brother vs. brother plotline also appears in King Lear, as in well as comedies such as Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It (although, admittedly, only Hamlet and Richard III also involve an uncle trying to murder his nephew). Nor are these themes and motifs unique to Shakespeare. However, of the two Shakespeare plays it most resembles, Lion King has more in common with Richard III than with Hamlet.