Shakespeare and ‘The Lion King’

Last Sunday, I had the great good fortune to be able to indulge a passion that holds only a slightly less dear place in my heart than my love of Shakespeare: my love of musical theatre. The Lion King touring company was performing in my hometown of Richmond, so I made the trek down out of the mountains to see it. This sort of show is about as far from what we do at the OCS as you can get — pure, beautiful spectacle, on an enormous stage, mic’d and amp’d for a few thousand people — and it’s glorious, using song and color to convey emotion and energy. The audience contact is different from we do it here, but it’s still there, even in such a large venue — you get brought in a bit when the animals come down the aisles during “The Circle of Life”, “One by One”, and other songs, and characters like Zazu and Timon take jokes out in frequent asides. I also think The Lion King is one of the greatest examples of creative stagecraft: the puppetry, the choreography of aerial ballets and wildebeest stampedes, the costumes that allow the audience to see both actor and animal at the same time, the use of lighting, shadows, and backdrops to convey savanna, jungle, and wasteland — it’s so delightfully inventive, a real indulgence of imagination at work.

I know a lot has been written about the connections between Shakespeare and The Lion King. This is not news. Many, many people have drawn the connection to Hamlet — and it is there, if only in the broadest strokes of the plot. Evil uncle kills dad, usurps throne, pays for it in the end when dad’s ghost tells son to take revenge. But beyond that familial tangle, there’s actually not a lot else that’s tremendously similar. Sarabi doesn’t take up with Scar, Nala doesn’t drown herself, and no neighboring lions decide to declare war on their way across the Pridelands toward the Masai Mara. More importantly, the emotional quality of The Lion King is markedly different (unsurprising in the movie, aimed at younger audiences, but they could have chosen a darker direction with the musical). Simba doesn’t stick around like Hamlet does; he doesn’t fall into an existential depression or feign madness; he doesn’t turn on Nala or murder Zazu. He may be in the same position as Hamlet as far as the plot’s concerned, but he is not a character in Hamlet’s mold. The musical does draw in some quotations — “There’s the rub”, for example — but it still doesn’t dwell on quite the same ideas and psychological explorations as Hamlet does.

I’ve seen great arguments, though, for the story really having more similarities with 1 Henry IV. Simba, the renegade heir who spends all his time loafing around with irresponsible freeloaders, has to remember his duties and take his place as the honorable heir to the throne. On an emotional level, Simba’s story seems a lot more like Hal’s than like Hamlet’s. His response to stress isn’t “O that this too, too solid flesh would melt” or “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I” — it’s “Hakuna Matata”. Feeling he’ll never live up to what he’s supposed to be, Simba runs away from the burdens — only to find that, ultimately, he will have to “pay the debt [he] never promised.” It’s still not a perfect comparison, obviously — Hal’s dad is quite alive during 1 Henry IV, whereas Mufasa has to stir his son to greatness from beyond the grave (and Mufasa, with “Remember who you are; you are my son, and the one true king”, manages to be a lot more succinct than Henry IV does in his sit-down with Hal in 3.2).

What struck me on Sunday, though, was how The Lion King contains echoes of a different Shakespeare play from the point of view of a different character. For Scar, this story is Macbeth. He disrupts the natural order of succession, and the earth itself revolts against him for it. In the disturbingly vivid scenes where the vibrant Pridelands turn into a barren desert, the joyfully leaping antelope turned skeletal, the waters receding and leaving cracked rocks in their wake, I couldn’t help but think of lines from Macbeth, in the conversation between Ross and the Old Man, describing the unnaturally dark sky, the inversion of predatory order, and Duncan’s horses going mad. When Sarabi tells Scar there is no longer any food because he has forced the lionesses to overhunt and the herds have moved on, I heard Ross telling Malcolm and Macduff:

Alas, poor country!
Almost afraid to know itself. It cannot
Be call’d our mother, but our grave; where nothing,
But who knows nothing, is once seen to smile;
Where sighs and groans and shrieks that rend the air
Are made, not mark’d; where violent sorrow seems
A modern ecstasy; the dead man’s knell
Is there scarce ask’d for who; and good men’s lives
Expire before the flowers in their caps,
Dying or ere they sicken.

The moral message here is the same: upset the natural order, disrupt the Circle of Life, and everything you sought to gain will turn to dust and decay in front of your eyes. Scar also has troubles with his own line of succession; though he has no Lady M, he makes a play for Nala, keenly aware that without sons of his own, his usurpation is for naught. Consider these lines from “The Madness of King Scar”, a song not found in the movie, only the musical:

Scar: What did my brother have that I don’t have?
Zazu: Do you want the short list or the long?
Scar: Whatever!
Zazu: Well, he had adoring subjects… a loving family… a devoted queen…
Scar: That’s it! I need a queen!
Zazu: A what?
Scar: A queen, man! A queen! Without a queen, what am I? A dead end, no line, no descendants, no future. With a queen, I’ll have cubs… Immortality will be mine! Immortality will be mine!

Hearing those lines, I had Macbeth in my head, saying:

Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown,
And put a barren sceptre in my gripe,
Thence to be wrench’d with an unlineal hand,
No son of mine succeeding.

These thoughts continued to percolate on my drive home. Okay, so if it’s somewhere between Hamlet and 1 Henry IV for Mufasa and Simba, and if it’s Macbeth for Scar, then what is it for Nala? There’s not a perfect analogy. Nala’s a very martial heroine, and martial women in Shakespeare tend to be villains, or at the very least, rather morally ambiguous characters (Joan la Pucelle, Queen Margaret, Goneril and Regan, etc). Nala, on the other hand, is in many ways the moral center of the play. She’s aggressive, defiant, and proud, but never self-serving or deceptive. The closest analogy, I think, is Cymbeline, with Nala as a more pro-active Imogen. Both leave their homes to escape oppressive usurpers (the stepmother Queen and Scar, respectively), both suffer some sort of sexual harassment that spurs the journey (adultery for Imogen, threat of rape for Nala), both find the lost heir in the wilderness (Guiderius and Arviragus to Simba). It’s a stretch, to be sure — but that’s where my mind went.

Now, do I think Disney had any of this deliberately in mind when they created The Lion King? No. As Duane at Shakespeare Geek once pointed out, the creators noticed the Hamlet connection and modeled at least a little on the similarities, but that certainly doesn’t seem to cast the movie or the musical as an adaptation of Shakespeare’s story. And while others have commented on the connections to 1 Henry IV and Macbeth, I’m fairly certain I’m the first person to write publicly drawing any connection between The Lion King and Cymbeline. (If I’m not, please let me know, because I want to know who else out there may be as dotty as I am). But a writer, an actor, a designer can still be inspired by something, even if he or she isn’t consciously imitating it, and there doesn’t have to be a deliberate attempt at re-invention for an audience to hear the echoes. There’s something to the universality of all of these stories, to the themes and tropes that cycle to prominence again and again — and that show us, even through the use of lions, what it is to be human.

Shakespearean March Madness 2012: Round of 16, Pt 1

A new week, a new set of matches for Shakespearean March Madness. Before we begin the Round of Sixteen, here are the results of Round 1.3:

Hotspur
takes a narrow 21-17 victory over Oberon, proving that the fiery rebel has as little patience for fairy magic as for Welsh superstitions. Macbeth handily wins over poor Toby Belch (31-6), whom we can only hope was soundly smacked around but not actually killed, and is now drinking off the shame and sorrow of his defeat. In a surprise victory — at least it surprised me, even though I was supporting her — Katharina takes a commanding 25-11 lead over Cassius. And finally, Doll Tearsheet‘s pub-brawling prowess gives her the win over Richard II’s eloquence (26-9). Those two feisty females join Lady M in the Round of 16, so despite Queen Margaret’s nigh-unbelievable loss to The Bear, I can at least be glad that my gender’s not going down without a good fight.

Today, the first two face-offs from last week’s champs: Henry V vs. Titus Andronicus and Iago vs. Prospero. All four of these blokes made it to the Elite 8 last year (and Titus and Henry actually squared off in the Final Four) — so in 2012, at least two of them are going home disappointed (if not in pieces).

Round of 16: Match 1: Henry V vs. Titus Andronicus

Who wins the battle?

  • Henry V
  • Titus Andronicus

Acepolls

Round of 16: Match 2: Iago vs. Prospero

My picks will, as always, be in a comment. Don’t forget to vote for Round 1.4, which I’ll be closing out tomorrow — there are some real nail-biters in this set, so every vote counts!

Shakespearean March Madness 2012: Round 1.4

Welcome back for the final installation of our first round. Before we introduce the competitors, here are the victors and losers from Round 1.2:

Coriolanus enjoyed an early lead, but ultimately lost 25-20 to Titus Andronicus; these Roman heavyweights pitched a violent and well-matched battle, to be sure, but the man who sacrificed a few dozen sons advances. Antony takes a handy victory over Jack Cade, 27-9; Cade might have gotten a few licks in, but Antony knows nothing better than how to handle an unruly mob of peasants. Prospero‘s magic gives him the edge over the Duke of York in a 21-15 victory; the Duke put up a good fight — maybe it will be down to his son to avenge his honor? In Round 1.2’s closest battle, Lady Macbeth just barely ekes it out over Aaron the Moor, 19-18. The fiendish queen uses ruthless wiles to put down the unapologetic evildoer and advances to the Round of 16.

Here’s the bracket as it stands after the first 8 matches (click to expand):

Shakespeare Education: Shakespearean March Madness 2012

Who else will advance to the Round of 16? Time to decide: Entering the ring today, we have: a true battle of ferocious wits, Shylock vs. Beatrice; the prowess of the Moor of Venice against the agile mind and fearless arm of a Plantagenet, Othello vs. Philip the Bastard; self-sacrificing faith against self-preserving cowardice, Cordelia vs. Jack Falstaff; and a courtier’s well-trained rapier against a mountain man’s brute strength and natural skill, Tybalt vs. Guiderius. Need a refresher on who any of these characters are or what they might bring to a battle? Revisit their bios.

Match 13: Shylock vs Beatrice

Who wins the battle?

  • Shylock
  • Beatrice

Acepolls

Match 14: Othello vs Philip the Bastard

Who wins the battle?

  • Othello
  • Philip the Bastard

Acepolls

Match 15: Cordelia vs Jack Falstaff

Who wins the battle?

  • Cordelia
  • Jack Falstaff

Acepolls

Match 16: Tybalt vs Guiderius

Who wins the battle?

  • Tybalt
  • Guiderius

Acepolls

These polls will be open until early next week; don’t forget to vote on Round 1.3, also still open.

Shakespearean March Madness 2012: Round 1.3

Before I introduce the next 8 contestants to the ring, here are the results from Round 1.1:

Paulina makes a good show, but loses 40-11 to Henry V. Much though it shames me to announce it, Queen Margaret, last year’s champion, gets knocked out in the first round by The Bear. This match was about as close as they come — 28-26 for the final score — but the ursine competitor got the upper paw over the she-wolf of France. (Here in the office, Graphics Designer Lauren Rogers wants everyone to know that she’s put her money on The Bear to take home the title). Iago pushes ahead over Tamora, 30-22; the Queen of the Goths’ guile put up a good fight, but wasn’t enough to overcome the wily machinations of her opponent. And finally, Richard III dominates over Cornwall in what was very nearly a shut-out, 43-3. Cornwall may be vicious, but Crookback Dick’s resolve and intensity give him the edge.

And now, for Round 1.3, the next set of combatants are: Hotspur vs. Oberon, Macbeth vs. Sir Toby Belch, Katharina vs. Cassius, and Doll Tearsheet vs. Richard II.

Match 9: Hotspur vs. Oberon

Match 10: Macbeth vs. Sir Toby Belch

Who wins the battle?

  • Macbeth
  • Sir Toby Belch

Acepolls

Match 11: Katharina vs. Cassius

Who wins the battle?

  • Katharina
  • Cassius

Acepolls

Match 12: Doll Tearsheet vs. Richard II

Who wins the battle?

  • Doll Tearsheet
  • Richard II

Acepolls

This set will be open through the end of the week.

Don’t forget to get your votes in for Round 1.2, which will close Thursday — a few of those matches are running really tight. Make your opinion known and help your favorite to victory!

Shakespearean March Madness 2012: Round 1.2

With yesterday’s matches off to a rollicking start, it’s time to bring on the next eight contenders for the title of Shakespeare’s ultimate fighting champion. In the ring today: in a battle of the Roman heavyweights, Titus Andronicus vs. Coriolanus; two masters of the mob, Mark Antony vs. Jack Cade; the magical Prospero vs. the ambitious Duke of York; and the ruthless Lady Macbeth vs. the conscienceless Aaron the Moor. Who should advance to the Round of 16?

Match 5: Titus Andronicus vs. Coriolanus

Who wins the battle?

  • Titus Andronicus
  • Coriolanus

Acepolls

Match 6: Antony vs. Jack Cade

Who wins the battle?

  • Antony
  • Jack Cade

Acepolls

Match 7: Prospero vs. Duke of York

Who wins the battle?

  • Prospero
  • Duke of York

Match 8: Lady Macbeth vs. Aaron the Moor

Who wins the battle?

  • Lady Macbeth
  • Aaron the Moor

Acepolls

As before, my picks will be in a comment. Do you have a favorite up in this round? Let us know who you’re cheering for! You might win over some new converts and turn the tide of battle.

Shakespearean March Madness 2012: Round 1.1

It’s March 1st, and that means we welcome the first eight competitors to the field. Up today: Henry V vs Paulina, Queen Margaret vs. The Bear, Iago vs. Tamora, and Richard III vs. Cornwall.

Match 1: Henry V vs Paulina

Who wins the battle?

  • Henry V
  • Paulina

Acepolls

Match 2: Queen Margaret vs The Bear

Who wins the battle?

  • Queen Margaret
  • The Bear

Acepolls

Match 3: Iago vs. Tamora

Match 4: Richard III vs. Cornwall

Who wins the battle?

  • Richard III
  • Cornwall

Acepolls

An interesting starting field, with a lot of villains squaring off against each other. My picks will be in a comment, so as not to unduly influence anyone else’s opinions. Who are you voting for? Who should advance to the Round of Sixteen? Let me know! Rally support for your favorites, and remember — there’s nothing so convincing as good, solid, text-based evidence. These polls will be open until early next week, so there’s plenty of time to build enthusiasm for your picks.

Let the games begin!