Business Lessons from Shakespeare

March 19, 2013 | By | Reply More

Remember the time when you were asked to read about Shakespeare and memorize his soliloquies from Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and MacBeth? If you were like me, I was just so happy to graduate from school and forget about those passages. My only encounter with anything Shakespeare lately were the movies that came out based on his works – from Leonardo di Caprio’s hip “Romeo + Juliet” to Gwyneth Paltrow’s award-winning role in “Shakespeare in Love.”

It is time to dust off your old textbooks. According to Norman Augustine and Kenneth Adelman in their book “Shakespeare in Charge: The Bard’s Guide to Leading and Succeeding on the Business Stage,” studying Shakespeare’s characters – and the sticky situations they find themselves in – can offer entrepreneurs advice about surviving in today’s competitive marketplace. The authors contend that business people will find that “Shakespeare’s plays offer deft and gripping exploration of the world of power which remain as relevant today as they were in the sixteenth century.”

William Shakespeare

While the book focuses on corporate executives, small and home-based entrepreneurs can pick up lessons in leadership, management, conflict resolution and change management. According to the authors, “business involves people, and people – fundamentally – don’t change.” Shakespeare clearly articulated human nature and relationships. He looked deeply into what it takes to be a leader, and how leaders need to act under demanding and extreme circumstances. By studying his works, it can allow you to gain insights on the each of the characters that you will encounter in your daily business life – from your customers, investors, consultants, and other players.

Consider The Taming of the Shrew: Petruchio’s goal is to train Katherine to become a model wife so he can marry her and obtain her dowry. Each time Katherine displays her shrew like behavior in response to his wooing, Petruchio must regroup and redefine his plan of attack. The lesson, the authors say, is to adapt to a changing environment, as 3M learned when it developed Post-it notes out of a failed attempt to create super strength glue.

In Shakespeare’s play, King Henry V of England gained valuable information when he disguised himself and walked among his soldiers the night before a battle. Unlike the sugarcoated advice he got from his lieutenants, the leader didn’t always hear what he would have liked from the rank and file. As the authors recount, AOL learned that lesson after an outside consultant said it was on the wrong track to increase sales. So AOL gave the consultant the reins and the result is the successful Web network

Some of the business lessons that you can learn from Shakespeare include:

Success comes to those who perseveres over a long period of time even in the face of staggering adversities.

The key is to set your business goals, determine the strategies that will help you reach that goal and pursue that goal with everything you’ve got.

Take Petrucio in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Petrucio’s goal is to marry a rich wife. He identifies Katherine as the target, and begins to pursue her with all the creativity and imagination that he can muster. His first tactic – honeyed compliments – is met by insults from the shrew Katherine. Undeterred with the failure of his wooing approach, Petrucio tries a different approach, this time more forceful and threatening. The approach works! With Katherine responding positively, Petrucio continues to implement his wooing tactics until she softens and overcomes her resistance to him. Katherine becomes his wife, and Petrucio is able to achieve his original goals showing that determined persistence can bring success.

When you are thinking of expanding your markets and/or your products, it is best to begin in fairly familiar territory.

If you will move to an area where you have inadequate knowledge and you have insufficient resources to cover your expansion, you run the risk of failure. Avoid spreading yourself too thinly, particularly during the start-up phase.

This is exemplified in one of Shakespeare’s best characters, Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Falstaff was at his best at the Boar’s Head Tavern with Price Hal (the future King Henry V) where he instigates much amusement and commotion from those around him. He boasts, “I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men.” However, when he moved to Windsor, he stretched himself beyond his capacity. His jokes were no longer amusing and his insights seemed trivial.

The authors illustrate the need to stick with your core competency with a modern-day corporate example. Victoria Secret, the lingerie retailer, expanded in the early 90’s its product line to include bathing suits and evening wear  By doing so, they neglected the product that put them on the map: bras. Victoria Secret’s bottom line collapsed and sales fell when its competitor, Sara Lee, launched the WonderBra. The company started to refocus itself to its original product and launched the Miracle Bra. By going back to its main strength, Victoria Secret reaped huge rewards. In 2001, Victoria’s Secret Stores Inc. posted sales of $2.3 billion, or a growth of 10.2 percent from the previous year.

To be a successful entrepreneur, you must have the ability to recognize, and then leap, on new opportunities in the midst of misfortunes.

Change is inevitable; you must adapt fast enough to survive in the highly competitive business environment.

Some of the changes you will experience may come in the form of personal misfortune. Prospero, the Duke of Milan and hero of The Tempest, suffered tremendous setback when his brother Antonio overthrew him. Prospero and his infant daughter Miranda were sent adrift in the sea, surviving against all odds until they landed on a tropical island. The father and daughter built a happy new life, where he proclaims “my library was dukedom large enough.” Years later, the same band of conspirators was shipwrecked to the island. Prospero seized the opportunity to regain what is rightfully his.

In a present day example, the authors cite Bill Lederer, founder of, as an entrepreneur who has shown the ability to transform a tragedy into an opportunity. When his father developed cancer, he quit his successful Wall Street career in 1997 to return to his family’s framing and art supplies business. He then expanded his business to the Internet, where it became the online poster and print shop In 1999, was bought by Getty Images, the giant stock photo and film footage company, for $84 million in cash and $200 million worth of stocks.

Shakespeare in Charge: The Bard’s Guide to Leading and Succeeding on the Business Stage” does not provide any major new insights and earth shattering business revelations. Rather, the book is a worthwhile read as an entertaining Business 101 course, using Shakespeare as the guide. Much more useful are the modern-day translations of the business concepts demonstrated by Shakespeare’s characters.

Recommended Books on Business Lessons:


Lyve Alexis Pleshette

Lyve Alexis Pleshette is a writer for She writes on various topics pertaining home businesses, from startup to managing a home-based business. For a step-by-step guide to starting a business, order the downloadable ebook “Checklist for Starting a Small Business” from

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Lyve Alexis Pleshette is a writer for She writes on various topics pertaining home businesses, from startup to managing a home-based business. For a step-by-step guide to starting a business, order the downloadable ebook "Checklist for Starting a Small Business" from

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