It's good business to brush up your Shakespeare

He’s a bigger employer than General Motors and can still teach you a lot, says John Simmons

Sunday June 3, 2007
The Observer

It’s been a big year for Shakespeare plc. It is still a growing enterprise, as the publication of a new complete edition of his First Folio shows. But you could say that every year for the past four centuries has been big for Shakespeare. No other British cultural icon receives such universal acceptance. He keeps more people in employment than General Motors, and is effectively a global brand. Surely he deserves some serious attention from the business world?

A new book called The Bard & Co: Shakespeare’s Role in Modern Business aims to give him that attention through the eyes, ears and pens of 26 leading business writers. Each has used a different play to explore Shakespeare’s relevance to modern corporate life.

These writers are more used to grappling with financial reports and advertising copy than with iambic pentameter and sonnet sequences. Yet Shakespeare himself was a hired hand, one of the King’s Men troupe of players. He became skilled at heading off objections and corrections from his powerful clients. And he became a successful businessman. It was his shareholding in the Globe Theatre, based on his dramatic activities, that enabled him to take early retirement home to Stratford-upon-Avon.

What, then, are Shakespeare’s messages for modern businesspeople? It seems to be less to do with inspiring leadership skills than to paying proper attention to the value and currency of language; you cannot get your business right until you get your words right.

Modern business is all about a company or brand trying to persuade us that we should buy from them, rather than from a competitor that seems to be offering something similar, but perhaps cheaper. What makes the difference? Brands express themselves through visual means, but increasingly they know words are what count. Here are business writers making that point, using the nation’s greatest writer to show the way.

It’s not only about words, though. Intriguingly there is a chapter, drawing on The Taming of the Shrew, about marriage as merger, developing an analogy between the rough wooing of Katherine and the company takeover bid. This is intriguing because it’s written by Ezri Carlebach, who works in communications at Barclays (although it was written before ABN Amro became a public gleam in Barclays’ eye). It explores the merger and acquisition process as a courtship leading to marriage, but with lots of ups and downs along the way.

In another chapter, writer and musician Jamie Jauncey takes a group of internal communication specialists from Scottish & Newcastle breweries off to Stratford to see a performance of Romeo and Juliet. Each of the group has been given a character in the play to study, then has to relate that character back to their own working situation. It seems that inside any modern firm there lives a cast of characters who first lived on stage as Montagues and Capulets.

Shakespeare gives people the spur to think and the luxury of a place to think in. Alastair Creamer took a group off to the Sussex woods to explore A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Creamer’s working experience at Unilever had involved the establishment of creative opportunities for executives to ‘think outside the box’. More and more companies claim they want to ‘dream’, ‘imagine’, ‘innovate’, and they seek new ways to do so. Sometimes that involves wholesale redesign of working environments. Often, though, cynicism takes over: ‘Entropy sets in. The flip chart reasserts its need to exist. Chairs and tables come back to roost.’

The chapter explores the nature of ‘magical’ spaces and whether it is possible to create and sustain such things in a corporate environment. Tents and a barn became the space for Creamer’s new ‘mechanicals’ to rehearse their ideas in. But space is not necessarily place: whether or not businesses have physical space, they need to create the mental spaces where employees can develop ideas.

As Emma Lawson puts it, drawing conclusions about creative partnerships from Much Ado About Nothing: take risks, keep your imagination well fed, share your ideas.

And the very act of taking a Shakespeare play – reading it, listening, watching – enables your brain to engage in a different way. Four hundred years on, there is still magic at work.

· John Simmons is co-editor of The Bard & Co: Shakespeare’s Role in Modern Business, published by Cyan Books, £12.99.

Boardroom Bard?

Rich only to be wretched, thy great fortunes are made thy chief afflictions.

Timon of Athens

You speak a language that I understand not.

The Winter’s Tale

Ambition should be made of sterner stuff.

Julius Caesar

Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.


Common chances common men could bear… when the sea was calm, all boats alike show’d mastership in floating.


To business that we love we rise betime,

And go to’t with delight.

Antony and Cleopatra

Defend your reputation, or bid farewell to your good life forever.

The Merry Wives of Windsor

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