Shakespeare and the business; from classic to the contemporary

Recently world celebrated William Shakespeare’s 400th death anniversary and once again had a reminiscence of his enduring charm. William Shakespeare may be widely regarded as finest playwright in the English language, but when he put his quill down he was also a savvy businessman. Shakespeare wasn’t just good with words; he was also clever with his finances. He had a magnanimous full scale drama theatre that fetched him quite good revenue. In Elizabethan London, the original Globe Theatre could accommodate 3,000 people.  Commoners or “groundlings” paid a penny to stand in the open air, while the gentry sparred with as many as six pennies to sit on cushions in the covered galleries. He also part- owned another London theatre and a production company that provided ample opportunity to local artists and the workers. And back in his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, he invested widely in land and property, and reportedly bought and sold grain. By the time Shakespeare died on Saturday 23 April 1616 – 400 years ago – he was a very wealthy man. In today’s money he would have comfortably been a millionaire.

Fast-forward four centuries, and Shakespeare would likely be rather pleased that his work and legacy continues to support a large and lucrative industry, which is far from being limited to the sale of theatre tickets and employment of actors. Instead, Shakespeare created a value-chain supporting a substantially wider business community – from hotels and restaurants in Stratford, to walking tours in London, bars near a balcony in the Italian city of Verona, sales of books and memorabilia, and even leadership classes for businessmen and women.

Warwick Business School’s Create unit uses Shakespeare’s plays to teach management and leadership. It uses Shakespeare’s plays to guide students, and business clients, through numerous difficult business situations. The plays are, and so complex yet rich, that there are actual illustrious situations to examine. Acting things out is very powerful; people can physically get inside situations, it allows people to articulate much more subtle and complex ideas than thin business language.

Macbeth, for example, is viewed as a study into the limits of ambition, while The Tempest is seen as   a metaphor for a perfect storm of workplace rivalry. Macbeth is play that dramatizes the damaging physical and psychological effects of political ambition on those who seek power for its own sake.

Meanwhile, other plays like – A Midsummer Night’s Dream is used to explore business transformation, and the Merchant of Venice teaches contract enforcement.

There are various instances that portray relevance of Shakespeare and the manifestation of business and economy today.  There is book titled- “Value Added: They teach business lessons, courtesy of the Bard”, authored by Ken Adelman (an American diplomat and policy analyst) which throws extensive light on the relevance of Shakespeare to business. Ken Adelman runs consulting firm which uses Shakespeare plays to help teach management to companies. His client list is impressive; Vanguard Group, the Smithsonian Institution, Wharton School of Business,, Raytheon Missile Systems, Parsons Engineering, Aspen Institute, among others.

It offers some examples, and a litany of Shakespeare’s greatest hits poured forth.

  • There’s Henry IV, the story about the king who is on the back nine of life but can’t let go. That play applies to family businesses trying to pass the enterprise on to the next generation, or to the CEO who thinks he will live forever.
  • Another Henry, the English king with the outnumbered army who beat the French at Agincourt by motivating his troops with the big speech (“We band of brothers…… ”) and using the whole terrain to his advantage.

Lesson: Make them fight on your terms, motivate through speeches and, once you’ve won, treat it like a merger and not an acquisition.

  • Hamlet’s pondering of suicide with his “to be or not to be” provides a lesson in crisis management.
  • Julius Caesar, a story of a conspiracy to kill the king, is a case study in how to execute a takeover and what not to do after you win. Adelman holds out Julius Caesar as something George W. Bush should have read before the Second Iraq War.

There is an interesting book- “Shakespeare in Charge: The Bard’s Guide to Leading and Succeeding on the Business Stage” by Norman Augustine and Kenneth Adelman. The book draws wide acclaim in hardcover, a brilliant guide to management based on the principles explored in Shakespeare’s plays. Timelessly wise and externally popular, the plays are packed with essential insights into human psychology and the use/abuse of power. In Shakespeare in Charge, Norman Augustine, former Fortune 500 CEO, and Kenneth Adelman, , show how the Bards shrewd understanding of palace politics and the strategies of warfare can just as easily be applied to the twists and turns of the corporate world. As a primer for management, Shakespeare in Charge offers basic but sound advice on how to do business. At its most fundamental level, Shakespeare in Charge is a self-help book for those who want to brush up on their leadership skills.

Here are some representative dos and don’ts:

Do: care about your employees. Do: accept challenge. Do: seize opportunity

Don’t: dawdle during a crisis

Don’t: be an absentee leader

Don’t: avoid change

The most significant Do: learn to recognize the stock personality types of the business world. Toxic people are as common at work as they are in life, and an ability to judge them can help the executive distinguish among loyal, ineffectual, and divisive colleagues.

Valuable though these points may be, one hardly needs Shakespeare – or an MBA – to arrive at them. Shakespeare’s role in this project is rather to mask the self-help format of the book by enabling the authors to represent a guide for utilizing human resources and making money as a course of personal enrichment.

Adopted from Source- BBC; Washington Post; Wharton Business School

Written by:
Prof. Sanjay Bhale

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