Shakespeare in Disney

The Immortal Bard and Disney

William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare.
There is a definite connection between numerous Disney films and William Shakespeare. Sometimes the connection is obvious and inescapable and sometimes it is just a fleeting reference or line of dialog, but fans of the Immortal Bard are sure to recognize them if they are paying attention.

It is easy, but wrong, to dismiss animated feature films, especially Disney films, as intellectually lightweight. While they often appear designed for younger audiences, the Disney people aren't stupid, and they don't think you, the viewer, are stupid, either. While children might not be up to speed on the Bard of Avon and his 38 plays, they can enjoy scenes for simpler reasons in which the people behind the greatest animation films of all time throw in an occasional treat aimed at adults. A key to increasing the popularity of animated films has been to broaden their appeal beyond children and create films that are more than mere cartoons. Adding Shakespearean references has been one sly way to do that.

Nothing in a Disney animated film appears there by accident. Every scene, every character, every bystander is planned and discussed and reviewed and approved. Believe it or not, there are people at Disney who delight in figuring out appropriate references for Shakespeare in their films, and they usually find a way not only to fit one or two in but also to use them to add depth to the film's larger plot.

I am not going to run through all possible Shakespearean connections - I've seen a far-out theory that "Frozen" is a reworking of "The Winter's Tale" which is intriguing but pretty darn subtle if it is even true at all - but only the most obvious. And there are plenty enough of those to complete this article!

Let's first list the works we are going to look at. There are obvious Shakespeare references or allusions in:
  • Beauty and the Beast
  • Aladdin
  • Oliver and Company
  • The Jungle Book
  • Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World
  • Toy Story 3
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame
  • The Little Mermaid
  • The Nightmare Before Christmas
  • The Lion King and Lion King 2
Now, as you may have noticed, some of these animated feature films were based upon earlier (we shall call them "intermediate") works and not taken directly from Shakespeare. For instance, "The Jungle Book" was adapted (very freely) from a Rudyard Kipling story. So, the original author may have been the one cribbing from the Immortal Bard. However, Walt himself was never shy about drawing his own direct allusions to Shakespeare, as we shall see below in the "Special Bonus Section."

Without further ado, here are the best Shakespearean moments in classic Disney movies.

Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast

The original "Beauty and the Beast" was a huge success. It became one of Disney's most beloved animated feature films and sparked numerous spinoffs such as a Broadway play. "Beauty and the Beast" came right at the height of the famous "Disney Renaissance" in 1991 and in 2017 was remade as a live-action film starring Emma Watson. Here, we are only concerned with the original animated feature film version of "Beauty and the Beast."

Beauty and the Beast

When re-releasing "Beauty and the Beast" following its smashing success on Broadway, Disney looked at their material anew. It added the song ‘Human Again,’ which is so good it should have been in the original release. In addition to the song, they added a short scene at the end where Belle says “There never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo” as she finished reading Romeo and Juliet aloud to the Beast. He smiles and asks her to read it to him again. Here we learn that the Beast has never learned how to read, and Belle begins to teach him.

It is a pivotal scene where Belle coyly expresses her feelings for the Beast and their relationship develops. This is but one reference to Shakespeare.

Beauty and the Beast
Belle teaches the Beast a thing or two.
Toward the end of the film, Gaston leads the villagers in singing, saying "Screw your courage to the sticking place." Now, this line might seem odd - what exactly is a sticking place, anyway? - unless you know it is from Shakespeare's Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 7, Line 59. But, if you aren't a fan of Shakespeare, that one flew right over your head.

Beauty and the Beast Gaston
Gaston gets in his own reference to Shakespeare.
So, "Beauty and the Beast" is full of references to Shakespeare. Who knew?


Aladdin The Genie Sebastian
"Aladdin" has several sneaky references you may not notice. You probably realized that is Sebastian from "The Little Mermaid" - right? Well, guess what, it also references the Bard of Avon.
"Aladdin" was another huge success. It also came at the height of the Disney Renaissance and was marked by Robin Williams' brilliant comic turn as the Genie. "Aladdin" is usually considered one of the top ten most enjoyable animated feature films ever made, but then, so are most of the Disney films on this list. It also was remade into a live-action film, but if you're a Disney animation fan, you probably prefer the original animated version like me.

Aladdin Iago
As in "Beauty and the Beast, there are several references to the Bard of Avon in "Aladdin." First and foremost, a key character is named Iago, which many will recognize as the name of a character in Othello. You don't get much more obvious than that. In Shakespeare’s play, the character of Iago is an extremely manipulative villain, although no one except the audience has reason to distrust him. Similarly, the sultan considers Iago simply a mimicking bird that eats crackers, and not someone plotting his downfall. But appearances are deceiving to the characters, to their detriment. And, this actually ties in with our next reference, to Brutus.

The Genie, voiced by Robin Williams, got off all the good lines in "Aladdin."
The next reference comes when Aladdin makes his first wish to the Genie – to become a prince. Genie quickly runs through a magical spellbook. Muttering to himself, he says "Caesar salad" and an arm draped in a toga holding a dagger reaches out to stab him. The Genie responds “Et Tu Brute” and pushes the arm back down into the book and turns the page. Many will recognize that this line comes from Julius Caesar Act III Scene I, Caesar’s dying words to Brutus.

The Genie gets a surprise or two himself in "Aladdin."

Oliver and Company

Oliver & Company
"Oliver & Company" was one of the most popular animated films of the 1980s.
"Oliver & Company" immediately preceded the Disney Renaissance - some would say that the film set the stage for it, along with The Great Mouse Detective" - and isn't exactly a high-brow affair. However, Disney did manage to shoehorn in an odd reference to William anyway in a clever manner and begin the modern trend of Shakespearean homages.

In "Oliver and Company," the dogs all have drastically different personalities and Francis, the bulldog, is portrayed as somewhat snobbish. He has an appreciation for art and theatre and an abhorrence of anyone using a short form of his name. At one point during the film, Francis is seen watching television where the production of Macbeth is playing. Not only does Francis yell at Tito to keep it down while he is watching, but he also begins to mouth the words alongside the television.

The scene played on the television shows Macbeth during his monologue in Act V Scene V. “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.” The hopelessness that Macbeth feels in this speech is echoed amongst the vagabond canines who know their master Sykes might arrive momentarily.

Oliver & Company
Francis watches Macbeth in "Oliver & Company."

The Junge Book

The Jungle Book film poster
"The Jungle Book" (1967).
Shakespeare's "Henry IV, Part I" at its heart is about a young man (Prince Hal) who shirks his royal responsibilities with his idle friend (Sir John Falstaff). Prince Hal spends his time in taverns, whiling away the days and pulling foolish pranks just to get a reaction out of others (much like a modern-day troll, but let's not go there). One need look no further than "The Jungle Book" to see a modern Disney parallel.

Like King Henry, Bagheera watches the boy's idleness with concern.
Mowgli and Baloo in "The Jungle Book" (1967) mirror the relationship between Hal and Falstaff. Mowgli is a "man-cub," like Prince Hal. He also is torn between two opposing father figures, namely the wise Bagheera the panther (the stand-in for King Henry) and the frivolous Baloo the bear (Falstaff). Ultimately, like Prince Hal, Mowgli accepts that he must grow up and cannot lead a careless life in the jungle forever. Instead, he must leave the jungle and return to the "man-village" where he belongs, just as Prince Hal must leave the wild taverns and accept the burden of responsibility at the royal court.

Make no mistake: Baloo, like Falstaff, is basically the star of "The Jungle Book," the secret ingredient that turns a dusty tale into something vivid. One understands and likes Baloo and Falstaff even as it is obvious their leadership actually leads nowhere. Both figures lead our hero astray. Neither Baloo nor Falstaff succeeds, but not for lack of trying and not without our sympathies.

The Jungle Book Mowgli and Baloo
Baloo and Mowgli enjoying a carefree existence in the jungle.

Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World

Pocahontas 2
"Pocahontas II" picks up where the original left off.
The appearance of William Shakespeare himself in "Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World" is the most organic of all Shakespearean references in any Disney film. You can't get more direct with a Shakespeare reference than to show the man himself. Pocahontas and Shakespeare were both real people and contemporaries. Showing them in scenes together thus is completely believable, save for one small detail: Shakespeare died in England in April 1616, while Pocahontas only arrived in England in June 1616. Thus, they never crossed paths or for that matter were ever in the same time zone (if they had time zones back then) at the same moment while alive. But... they could have been because they did live during the same years.

Pocahontas 2
Pocahontas never looked better.
Anyway, anyone who has studied "Pocahontas II" knows that it does not follow real events particularly closely. However, in this one instance, it borrows from real history in an interesting fashion. Opposed to a line of dialogue, Shakespeare himself is seen singing with the townspeople in the song ‘What A Day In London’. As a gravedigger pushes his cart by, a skull rolls off the top into Shakespeare’s hand and he sings, “What is to be or not to be,” echoing a line from Hamlet. Then, as if inspired by the incident, Shakespeare throws the skull away and begins writing on his parchment. It is a very strange intermixing of fact and fiction which (who knows?) might be surprisingly close to the truth.

Pocahontas 2
Shakespeare holding the skull is an apparent reference to the "Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well" speech from "Hamlet.

Toy Story 3

Toy Story 3
Toy Story 3 is one of the best-liked Disney animated feature films.
Admittedly, we are cheating just a bit when we assign "Toy Story 3" to the list of Disney films. It actually was a Pixar product, and a sequel to purely Pixar products. However, in our defense, Disney had bought Pixar by the time of this film's release, so, no matter your definition, "Toy Story 3" is a Disney film.

At the end of "Toy Story 3," all the toys get together and not only reference but actually put on a stage performance of Romeo and Juliet. We see an adorable snippet of the infamous ‘balcony scene’ with a hedgehog as Romeo and a Little Green Man as Juliet. Hedgehog reads a Shakespearean line, "But soft what light through yonder window breaks" and the Little Green Man quotes the most famous line in the play and perhaps the entire Shakespearean oeuvre, “Romeo oh Romeo wherefore art thou Romeo.” Both lines come from Act 2 Scene 2, perhaps the most famous of Shakespeare’s scenes.

Toy Story 3
The toys put on a Shakespearean play, "Romeo and Juliet," in "Toy Story 3."
Afterward, the piggy bank and the horse are chuckling to themselves in the audience saying next season they want to do "Cats" or "Shakespeare's "Hamlet."

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

The Hunchback of Notre Dame
"The Hunchback of Notre Dame" was one of Disney's films during the famous "Renaissance" of the 1990s.
"The Hunchback of Notre Dame" is an oft-overlooked Disney classic that came out just past the peak of the Disney Renaissance. The reference to Shakespeare is one of the odder in the pantheon because the story is set in the 15th Century, long before Shakespeare even existed. That, however, does not stop our intrepid Disney crew from working him in any way.

The film is dark and littered with references for adults. Included is a surprisingly subtle nod to William Shakespeare’s "Merchant of Venice," one of the Immortal Bard's darker plays and not one that gets referenced much these days.

Victor The Hunchback of Notre Dame
The Gargoyles such as Victor serve as a sort of Greek chorus - which is not itself a Shakespearean reference, but one that he would have understood.
When we first meet the gargoyles, who provide much-needed comic relief, they are trying to convince Quasimodo to attend the festival of fools instead of watching it from the bell tower. In an effort to explain their differences they mention how Quasimodo is flesh while they are mere stone. Then Victor, the more literate of the three speaks, “Yet, if you kick us, do we not flake? If you moisten us, do we not grow moss?” This is a take-off from "The Merchant of Venice" Act III Scene I. It is from Shylocks speech, “If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?”

The Hunchback of Notre Dame
"Do I not flake?"
You may not recognize the relationship to Shakespeare upon first viewing because they changed the quote slightly due to the character being a stone gargoyle who obviously cannot bleed. You may even recognize the reference, but not know which particular play this comes from - you have to really know Shakespeare's canon well to know that. This particular reference is particularly apt, poking fun at the nature of the character saying the line - since a stone gargoyle obviously can't bleed, they had to change the line to fit him. This should make anyone familiar with the original line smile at its incongruity in this fictional context, but also its universal aptness to the situation anyway. If you spotted this reference straight off, you're a scholar. Pat yourself on the back.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Frollo and the Gypsies come from different backgrounds, just as did the characters in "The Merchant of Venice," and the same sorts of cultural conflicts arise.
There is one more step to the allusion. "The Merchant of Venice" deals strongly with issues of racism between Christians and Jews, whereas "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" explores similar issues with a racist tinge between bad-guy Frollo’s idea of the Christian Church and the Gypsies in France. This plays out in the interactions between Frollo and Esmeralda. It is Christians vs. Jews in Shakespeare, and Christians vs. Gypsies in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." In both cases, it is a cultural clash with an edge of darkness. Thus, referencing "The Merchant of Venice" in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" creates an allusion to Shakespeare's basic theme in "The Merchant of Venice," not just one particular speech or scene. The allusion is intended to evoke the same emotions and understandings that you may have experienced when watching "The Merchant of Venice." This is perhaps the most subtle Shakespearean reference of any we discuss in this article.

The Little Mermaid

The Little Mermaid
"The Little Mermaid" began the Disney "Renaissance."
We mentioned "The Little Mermaid" above, and here it is again. "The Little Mermaid" is one of the most pivotal films in the entire Disney animated feature film canon. It began the Disney Renaissance in 1989, and continued the modern trend of Shakespearean references begun in "Oliver & Company." It also was a pet project of Walt Disney himself, though it did not get made until over two decades following his passing.

The Little Mermaid
Prince Eric and Ariel row out into the lagoon, where we get another "Romeo and Juliet" reference that is very subtle.
While under the sea there seems to be little knowledge of Shakespeare, on land things are rather different. Even Scuttles managed to pick up a few references. Once Ariel has been given legs and is sent to woo Prince Eric, they row out into the lagoon and Sebastian and all the fish sing "Kiss The Girl." Well, before this, Scuttle tries to provide some “vocal romantic stimulation" by singing a little tune.

What you may not have realized is that this "stimulation" (or song) is actually an instrumental version of composer Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet." An interesting metaphor is that Scuttle draws upon a purely orchestral work related to "Romeo and Juliet," meaning, it has no words. The song is "speechless" or "wordless," just like Ariel is while in the lagoon - until Sebastian comes to help the two along. Words are not necessary either within the song or in Ariel's heart.

It is an extremely subtle reference to Shakespeare, but certainly no accident. Remember this one rule and you'll never go wrong - there is nothing accidental about a Shakespearean reference in a Disney animated feature film. They put a lot of thought into them.

The Nightmare Before Christmas

The Nightmare Before Christmas
"The Nightmare Before Christmas" is a holiday favorite.
Once again, it may appear as though we are cheating when we introduce Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas" as a Disney film. While not marketed as "a Disney film," "The Nightmare Before Christmas" is from Touchstone. Touchstone just so happens to be one of Disney's several film distribution labels of The Walt Disney Studios, owned by The Walt Disney Company.

The Nightmare Before Christmas
Look very closely at the back of the DVD jacket. I guarantee you that "Disney" appears there.
In other words, "The Nightmare Before Christmas" is a product of the Disney company just as much as the other songs on this list. Established in 1984 by then-Disney CEO Ron W. Miller, Touchstone typically releases films that feature more mature themes and darker tones than those released under the flagship Walt Disney Pictures label. I know you may not believe me, but Touchstone pictures are just as "Disney" as the original "Snow White" even if you don't see "Disney" prominently displayed on the box cover (but it's there even if they don't make a fuss over it).

Kenneth Branagh
Famed Shakespearean actor Kenneth Branagh with an old friend.
So, "The Nightmare Before Christmas" is a Disney film even though you may not have realized it. And, like a Disney film, it incorporates some of the same techniques - such as subtle Shakespearean references. You also could turn that reasoning around - the presence of the Shakespearean reference in "The Nightmare Before Christmas" helps to clue you in that it is a Disney film - if you understand the subtle patterns of references in Disney films such as this one.

The Nightmare Before Christmas
Jack Skellington makes a Hamlet reference in 'The Nightmare Before Christmas." It is to the famous "Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him" scene from "Hamlet."
For those unfamiliar with it, in "The Nightmare Before Christmas" the lead character is a skeleton named Jack Skellington. This movie, like "Pocahontas II," makes use of a skull as a reference to a scene in a Shakespearean play. During Jack’s Lament he takes off his head and sings, “And since I am dead, I can take off my head to recite Shakespearean quotations,” a direct reference to Hamlet.

Kenneth Branagh

Let's pin this down with absolute certitude once and for all. The reason that "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and countless other films reference a man holding a skull comes directly from Hamlet Act 5 Scene 1. This is known by experts as “The Gravedigger’s Scene,” but is better known just by the famous line from that scene. Hamlet holds his deceased friend’s skull in his hand and proclaims “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.” (I.V.160) It is a commentary on the impermanence of life. This is probably one of the most common references to Shakespeare seen in pop culture because it is a quick and easy one to make, requiring only a skull held at arm's length and a woeful expression. Once you understand the reference, you'll spot it instantly every time.

The Lion King and Lion King 2

The Lion King
"The Lion King" is one of the most successful animated films of all time.
Widely considered the absolute peak of the Disney Renaissance (no, that was not an intentional pun), "The Lion King" had somewhat murky roots. Some claim the story was stolen from an old African legend, others from a Japanese anime classic. The official story is that it is based on Hamlet, and that is as reasonable as any other explanation. "The Lion King II: Simba's Pride" continues the Shakespearean parallels by resembling the story of Romeo and Juliet. When something is out of copyright like Shakespeare's plays, we speak of such parallels being an "homage" and not outright theft.

The Lion King
Several aspects of "The Lion King" borrow heavily from "Hamlet."
If indeed loosely based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, "The Lion King" accomplishes this feat with fewer deaths, as you might expect from a Disney (not Touchstone) release. For those unfamiliar with the parallels, there are several that appear in succession. Claudius (Scar) kills his brother the King (Mufasa). Hamlet (Simba) is visited by the ghost of his King father. He is led astray by Rosencrantz & Guildenstern (Timon and Pumba). He eventually returns to avenge his father’s death and take back his throne. There are similar parallels between the "star-crossed lovers" in Romeo and Juliet and "The Lion King II."

The Lion King II: Simba's Pride
"The Lion King II: Simba's Pride" (2010).
The parallels between the storylines are fairly obvious if you are an expert on "Hamlet" and "Romeo and Juliet." I understand they may not be so clear if you just sat through "Hamlet" once in high school or something, but pretty much everyone knows something about "Romeo and Juliet." The links between "Hamlet" and "The Lion King" have been the subject of scholarly articles, and there is little question that "The Lion King" contains the deepest references of all to William Shakespeare - the entire plot.

Special Bonus Shakespeare Influence

Dopey Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
Dopey dancing with Snow White.
Walt Disney once proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that William Shakespeare was very much on his mind while making his films.

The fairytales upon which "Snow White" was based did not have any named dwarfs; that detail was entirely the invention (one of the most brilliant in Hollywood history) of Walt Disney himself. Appropriate names for the dwarfs were hard to come up with, as they had to be both classical, appropriate for a medieval fairy tale (you couldn't just call them "Steve" and "Harry"). They also had to mean something to the film itself. Eventually, someone proposed the name "Dopey," perhaps facetiously, for one of the dwarfs, thinking it fit the character as drawn.

Dopey Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
Walt Disney was stuck - he had to name this character. It is an original sketch of "Dopey" from 30 September 1936, signed "MN" - possibly Maurice Noble or Mique Nelson (Walt Disney Productions).
Walt's people objected to "Dopey" as the name of a character, thinking that it sounded too modern.  It was a very common pejorative slang word of the 1930s ("He's kinda dopey" or "What are you - a dope?") - in fact, the word was very cutting edge in terms of its usage at the time. It basically meant "gullible rube," someone who just fell off the turnip truck. There was nothing "medieval" or "classical" about "dopey." (Parenthetical note - that did not stop such anachronistic usages in other Hollywood films of the period. In "Captain Kidd" (1945), for instance, the Randolph Scott character innocently uses the phrase "The coast is clear," which most definitely did not come from the 1700s when the film was set. But I digress).

Walt Disney himself, though, liked "Dopey." In fact, he thought it was perfect. Disney responded to the critics that "Dopey" was perfectly fine, and in fact had impeccable classical roots. Why, he said, even the great William Shakespeare himself had used the word "dopey." If it was good enough for Shakespeare, it was good enough for his animated feature film.

That shut up the doubters. After all, if the Immortal Bard of Avon had used the word "dopey" over three hundred years earlier, who were they to object to it being too modern for a medieval character? Dopey went on to become one of the most beloved characters in "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves." Once Disney and his people had the name of one dwarf that related to his personal attributes, the names of the other dwarfs were easy to come up with. They all referenced qualities of the characters themselves such as "Sleepy" and "Grumpy" just like "Dopey."

Meanwhile, bemused scholars are still searching for any use of the word "dope" or "dopey" by Shakespeare. There is none - that they can find, at least. But they keep trying!

Dopey Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
"Dopey" became one of the beloved dwarfs.


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