10 things Shakespeare can teach us about business

It's the Bard's 450th birthday today - but age doesn't matter. Shakespeare has as much to say about modern business as any management consultant.

by Barbara Speed
Last Updated: 21 Oct 2014

William Shakespeare: playwright, poet, business expert? The Bard’s plays are full of lessons and cautionary tales on everything from loans to contractors – and he wasn’t so bad with the books himself…

1. Othello – Don’t mix business with pleasure

Bringing your new bride on an army tour may seem like a good idea at the time, but (spoiler alert) it won’t seem so clever when your colleague betrays you and you accidentally smother your wife as a result. Business trips are difficult enough without passion, jealousy and intrigue, especially if Dan from accounts turns out to be an Iago-esque villain.

2. The Merchant of Venice - Be suspicious of loans without interest

There’ll be a caveat somewhere, and if your debt-collector is anything like moneylender Shylock, you'll soon be up in court as he tries to collect a pound of your flesh (though in your case it may be metaphorical, unlike unlucky Antonio in the play). Always be skeptical of apparent altruism - what's their motive?

3. Hamlet - 'Neither a borrower nor a lender be'

This quote from Polonius, Ophelia’s father, urges the audience to march to the beat of their own bank balance: loans lose you friends, and lending loses you money. It’s easy to see Austerity Britain in Shakespeare’s vision of a cloak-and-dagger, trust no-one Denmark - it’s a shame this epithet wasn’t bandied around more liberally before the banking crisis.

4. The Taming of the Shrew – Get payment up front

She says it’s nice, he doesn’t like it - temperamental, point-scoring couples like Petruchio and Katharina, the play’s central warring pair, are the worst customers imaginable. Get payment up front, so one can’t send you away with the goods in order to punish the other.

5. Macbeth – Nepotism is not the answer

It’s your career, not theirs. Macbeth’s power-mad wife got him the top job in Scotland, but also got him killed. Better to plug away at entry-level role than end up with blood, a hysterical madwoman and a ghost on your hands.

6. Timon of Athens - Your business contacts are not your friends

When you have a breakdown and lose all your cash, they’ll be mysteriously absent, no matter how many lavish dinners you’ve thrown for them. Timon’s fatal flaw lay in assuming that if he scratched the backs of his Athenian connections (or sent them gifts, or paid their bail) then they would scratch his. Don’t make the same mistake.

7. Henry V - Listen to your employees

According to Shakespeare, Henry V was victorious at Agincourt after going undercover to find out his subjects' true opinions of him. While going Undercover Boss may be a little excessive, picking up on any ripples of discontent before they become tidal waves may save you heartache in the long run.

8. King Lear – Shout about your successes

Be pushy, like Lear’s daughters Goneril and Reagan, who tell him how much they love him to get their share of his Kingdom. Cordelia, his favourite daughter, refuses to suck up and gets kicked out of the (family) firm. Don’t assume your silent devotion will speak for itself: massage bosses’ egos regularly once you’re in.

9. Twelfth Night - Beware workplace bullying

The whole play is an HR nightmare: steward Malvolio’s passion for his boss, Olivia, is a harassment suit waiting to happen, and her uncle Toby Belch’s reaction (locking Malvolio in prison) isn’t going to look good at a tribunal.  Avert by insisting on yellow cross-gartering for all staff on casual Fridays as a balm for any hurt feelings.

10. Shakespeare himself - If you’re a brilliant playwright, buy shares in your own theatre

Shakespeare died in possession of a small fortune, thanks to the 25% share he bought in the Globe when it was built. Not for him the measly royalties earned by today’s cultural icons (remember The Beatles?): for the Bard, bums on seats equalled pounds in his pocket. He was also master of diversifying his (port)folios and pleasing big-name royal clients. 

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