Five Surprising Career Insights From William Shakespeare

Everyone knows William Shakespeare. He is, without hyperbole, the greatest writer in the English language. He was also a very shrewd businessman. An actor and key shareholder in his acting company, the King’s Men, Shakespeare was a man with many skill sets, who built an extraordinary career from relatively humble beginnings. As such, it is worth looking at the career insights his plays have to offer.

Lesson #1: Be Ruthless (Henry IV)

The two Henry IV plays, recently filmed as part of the Hollow Crown series, tell the story of the young Prince Henry (or ‘Hal’) and his friendship with the lovable rogue Falstaff. It’s clear Henry adores his friend, “the fat knight”, even neglecting his duties in order to hang around drinking and occasionally robbing coaches with him. But when his father dies, Henry realises he must now face his responsibilities as King. When Falstaff approaches him to ask a favour, Henry replies:

“I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;
Reply not to me with a fool-born jest.
Presume not that I am the thing I was;
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turned away my former self;
So will I those that kept me company.”

It’s natural to be lenient towards old friends, and those of us who aren’t king of England can afford to be a bit less harsh than Henry is. But the point stands: if someone is holding you back, your should be willing to let them go, if need be.

Lesson #2: Be Decisive (Hamlet)

Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s best plays, famous for this legendary speech:

“To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them.”

This is a moment of real indecision. Hamlet is told in the first act that his uncle killed his father, but it takes several scenes of messing about with amateur dramatics before he does anything about it. Hamlet is essentially a play about procrastination, and while that makes for good drama, it makes for pretty terrible leadership.

Lesson #3: Put people at ease (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

Speaking of amateur dramatics, Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream contains one of the first amateur dramatics companies in English literature. These are the Mechanicals, led by the notorious Bottom, played by Matt Lucas in the BBC’s most recent adaptation. This version provides our key insight for the play. When the Mechanicals are performing for Theseus, ruler of Athens, he is deliberately hostile, shouting insults and putting off the actors. As a result, the Mechanicals understandably perform far worse than normal. People work better when treated with respect, and Theseus’s threats to kill the Mechanicals probably didn’t help either.

Lesson #4: Use Technology Wisely (Henry V)

As well as business, Shakespeare is especially interesting to history buffs. Kenneth Branagh’s famous film of Henry V portrays the shock victory of the English army at the Battle of Agincourt. They were able to win partly through superb use of brand new weapons, specifically the bow and arrow. While not mentioned in the original play, this is a fine example of how great leaders use new technology to their own advantage.

Lesson #5: Don’t Stab Your Colleagues in the Back (Macbeth)

Macbeth, played in the most recent film version by Michael Fassbender, becomes King of Scotland by literally stabbing the old king in the back. While initially pleased, he soon realises that he cannot trust anybody, precisely because of the way he became king.

“My way of life
Is fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf,
And that which should accompany old age,
As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have, but in their stead
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honor, breath
Which the poor heart would fain deny and dare not.”

Most of his men do not trust him, and those who do are too sycophantic for their ‘mouth-honour’ to be useful. It is natural to jump at any chance for career advancement, but it is important to remember how your colleagues will perceive you. Allow promotions to arise naturally, and avoid betraying your colleagues, and you will find people are generally much happier to cooperate.

Though it may also help to not piss off any witches.



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