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Chairman of the Bard – Shakespeare's lessons in business

It's 400 years since Shakespeare wrote The Tempest, his last solo-penned play. Since then the Bard's position as the cornerstone of English literature has remained unchallenged, but the iambic pentameter also contains a masterclass for any aspiring entrepreneur.

American businessmen have already begun citing Shakespeare and his

works, asking employees if they are the Hamlet of the boardroom – disinherited and hesitant – or the Goneril or Regan of a family business, scheming and grasping. Now a growing group of academics on this side of the Atlantic are analysing the business brain of the man behind Romeo and Juliet.

While Will might not seem to be the obvious candidate for business models in hard times, by the time he died he left an estate worth at least 2m in today's terms.

"While everyone knows of Shakespeare the dramatist – he is, still, the only author that virtually every school pupil must read – his ability as a businessman is an aspect of his achievement which is all too often overlooked," says Prof David Lindley, from the University of Leeds.

"Shakespeare was a writer, but he was also an actor, a sharer in a theatrical company and part-owner of a playhouse (the Globe, and later the Blackfriars theatres).

"Yes of course, he was a superb writer, but he was also aware of the economics of the theatre – to put it crudely the 'bums on seats' of the business, or in today's parlance the need for 'clients'."

Prof Lindley says that by the late 16th century, when he was in his 30s, Shakespeare had clearly made a fair amount of money – in 1597 he was in a position to buy New Place, one of the largest and most sought-after properties in Stratford, and to make other investments in his home town in the years that followed.

London theatres represented a revolution in culture, being the first capitalist businesses in the world built entirely around entertainment. The heart of this cultural business model was the actors' company, in which a group of actors invested money in a common stock of properties, costumes and plays and, while Shakespeare may have been happiest writing, according to business gurus he also had a keen eye for leadership.

"Shakespeare is timelessly wise and eternally popular, and his plays are packed with essential insights into human psychology and the use and abuse of power," says Norman Augustine, co-author of Shakespeare in Charge, a guide to Shakespeare strategies for CEOs, and former board member at Procter and Gamble, Black and Decker and others.

"Like almost no other dramatist, Shakespeare looks deeply into what it takes to be a leader, and how leaders need to act under demanding and extreme circumstances.

"Whether it is looking at Henry V's amazing ability to motivate a team facing almost certain defeat and turn the situation around, or King Lear demonstrating the perils of poor estate management, the Bard reveals his management genius in its full glory."

So could the man who has for so long been at the centre of England's cultural heritage, really have lessons for today's business leaders?

"It was the ownership of theatre and company that gave Shakespeare his financial success," adds Professor Martin Butler, also from the University of Leeds. "You only have to look at the careers of other playwrights to see that writing wasn't a way to wealth. You don't find Christopher Marlowe or Ben Jonson at the centre of complex property deals. What sets Shakespeare apart is his investment in theatre as an institution.

"That said, it could be added that his company was probably a comparatively democratic business, focusing on the team rather than the individual businessman. There was a group of sharers (or stock-holders, as we'd say now) who all had an equal stake, and they weren't just a board of directors but workers who actively made the product from which they benefited.

"Hence one imagines there must always have been a lot of give and take between Shakespeare and his fellows.

"Shakespeare is interested in the psychology of leadership, that doesn't mean we have to see him as necessarily endorsing it; he registers the costs as well as the benefits. So, for example, Henry V becomes a great leader of men, but the cost is he has to turn away from Falstaff and his former friends."

So as everyone prepares to tighten their economic doublets, perhaps the isle of prosperity might still yet be reached, 400 years after the Bard foresaw the tempest.

 
 
 

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