I think it is widely accepted that the scriptwriters for the Lion King took some inspiration from Hamlet. The parallels don’t run very deep, but in thinking about this I wondered whether the film provides any new ways of thinking about the play. New ways of thinking about Hamlet are pretty unlikely of course, but then again the world of Shakespearean scholarship traditionally draws little or no inspiration from Disney.

Apologies for the spoilers, but you will recall that in the film, Scar/Claudius kills Muphasa/King Hamlet, and tries, ultimately unsuccessfully, to kill Simba/Prince Hamlet at the same time. The question this suggested to me is why doesn’t Claudius do the same? Granted he tries, eventually successfully, to kill Hamlet, but there is no suggestion in the opening scenes of the play that Hamlet feels his life is under imminent threat, even when he learns of his father’s murder. So why didn’t Claudius move swiftly to eliminate his only serious opponent for the throne of Denmark? Clearly he does not see Hamlet as an immediate threat. Hamlet is away studying in Germany when his father dies, and when he returns to the funeral Claudius has already taken steps to secure the throne. He has had himself crowned and just as importantly married Gertrude, quickly consolidating his position. Hamlet has a natural claim to the throne as the late king’s only son, and although he is still a student he appears in his mid to late twenties, and is certainly old enough to take the crown.

The constitution of 13th Century Denmark is not, surprisingly, discussed in the play, and the audience is pitched into the middle of the action, so there is little time to consider the rights and wrongs of Claudius’ “coup” before the ghost appears. Hamlet’s distress is focused on his mother’s rapid marriage to his uncle, rather than his uncle’s assumption of power. So this question – why is Claudius king not Hamlet, and how long will that last before awkward questions begin to be posed – is not one that occurs to the audience.

Having concluded he represents no immediate threat, Claudius must have considered the risk of Hamlet at some point making a claim for the throne, gathering support at court and waiting for his moment. Claudius takes steps to kill Hamlet, but only once his erratic behaviour makes him fear for his own life (as opposed to his own position) and once the Mousetrap reveals that he is aware of the true cause of the old King’s death. Hamlet is an inconvenience to be disposed of rather than a serious threat, and Claudius can take his time in dealing with him. Scar has no such luxury, which is in fact much closer to the reality of the natural world, where a male lion taking control of a pride will kill the cubs of the previous king of the pride.

Simply cutting Hamlet down where he stands isn’t really an option for Claudius, but once the scale of the threat becomes apparent he acts quickly to dispose of the prince. So perhaps the parallels with scar are closer than they first appear.

One other issue not addressed in the play, nor indeed the film, but are suggested by the turn of events, is whether Gertrude was part of the plot to kill King Hamlet, and/or whether her relationship with Claudius pre-dates the murder. Her marriage to Claudius is unprecedentedly rapid, and suggests some kind of prior arrangement or involvement. She is not as disturbed as Claudius by the scenes in the Mousetrap, and seems genuinely puzzled by Hamlet’s “madness” – the idea to call in Rosencrantz and Guildernstern to try to get to the bottom of Hamlet’s melancholy is presumably hers. There’s no suggestion she is complicit in the plan to kill Prince Hamlet. So she is not a convincing candidate for accomplice to murder. But she wouldn’t be the first queen to stray into a brother in laws bed.

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