As businesses all round batten down for tempestuous times, do Shakespeare's plays contain a blueprint for today's would-be entrepeneurs? Martin Hickes wonders.
Almost four centuries after his death, William Shakespeare's famous words: "All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players", might be more readily revised as "all the world's a business and all the men and women merely clients".
On the 400th anniversary of the writing of what was probably his last solo-penned play, The Tempest, and as the economy prepares itself for choppy waters in the wake of the greatest public sector cuts in a generation, should business leaders take their perhaps unlikely cue from the master writer?
While Shakespeare's art is unquestioned, and his power of language known throughout the world, academics are increasingly looking at his business acumen, and what gave him, in cruder 21st century terms, the X factor from a celebrity and business point of view.
Surprisingly to some, American businessmen are even citing Shakespeare and his works as the new business motivational, asking employees if they are the Hamlet of the boardroom – disinherited and hesitant – or the Goneril or Regan of a family business, scheming and grasping.
While Will might not seem to be the obvious candidate for business models in hard times, by the time he died he left an estate worth at least £2m in today's terms, and had a substantial reputation as a gentleman and businessman.
And coming out of the age of Elizabethan exuberance into the more sober times of the court of James I, some reckon Shakespeare was perfectly placed to witness the changing economic times.
Academics say his skills as a businessman are there for all to see in black and white.
Prof David Lindley, from the University of Leeds, says that while Shakespeare's relatively- modest background and education have persuaded some to question his qualifications for writing the 38 plays, the sonnets and poems, his business mind was as sharp as his language skills.
"While everyone knows of Shakespeare the dramatist – he is, still, the only author that virtually every school pupil must read – his ability as a businessman is an aspect of his achievement which is all too often overlooked," he says. "Shakespeare was a writer, but he was also an actor, a sharer in a theatrical company and part-owner of a playhouse (the Globe, and later the Blackfriars theatres).
"Yes of course, he was a superb writer, but he was also aware of the economics of the theatre – to put it crudely the 'bums on seats' of the business, or in today's parlance the need for 'clients'.
"It's an aspect which is all too often overlooked in studies of Shakespeare – especially at high school level.
"He wasn't of 'noble' stock as such so he didn't have the advantage of old money on which to fall back. His father was a glover, and while for a time a very much respected man in Stratford, his fortunes actually seem to have declined in later years, so Shakespeare probably did not have much, if anything, behind him."
Prof Lindley says that by the late 16th century, when he was in his 30s, Shakespeare had clearly made a fair amount of money – in 1597 he was in a position to buy New Place, one of the largest and most sought-after properties in Stratford, and to make other investments in his home town in the years that followed.
"While his play writing would have made his name, he was successful financially through his position as a 'sharer' in the Globe Theatre itself, and a member of the most successful theatrical company of the day, which came to be known as The King's Men.
"As a playwright he would never really have made it to any sort of 'A' list as we know it today – such a list would be made up exclusively of premier aristocrats and courtiers, but his skills were second to none, and he certainly was noticed by a number of his contemporaries as a major figure on the literary landscape.
"In other words, he was in the right place at the right time – artistically, aesthetically, and from a business point of view."
London theatres represented a revolution in culture, being the first capitalist businesses in the world built entirely around entertainment. The heart of this cultural business model was the actors' company, in which a group of actors invested money in a common stock of properties, costumes and plays and, while old Shakespeare may have been happiest writing iambic pentameter, according to business gurus he also had a keen eye for leadership, a skill which has apparently changed little in the last 400 years.
"Shakespeare is timelessly wise and eternally popular, and his plays are packed with essential insights into human psychology and the use and abuse of power," says Norman Augustine, co-author of Shakespeare in Charge (Talk Miramax Books), a guide to Shakespeare strategies for CEOs, and former board member at Procter and Gamble, Black and Decker and others. "Like almost no other dramatist, Shakespeare looks deeply into what it takes to be a leader, and how leaders need to act under demanding and extreme circumstances.
"Whether it is looking at Henry V's amazing ability to motivate a team facing almost certain defeat and turn the situation around, or King Lear demonstrating the perils of poor estate management, the Bard reveals his management genius in its full glory."
So could the man who has for so long been at the centre of England's cultural heritage, really have lessons for today's business leaders?
"It was the ownership of theatre and company that gave Shakespeare his financial success," adds Professor Martin Butler, also from the University of Leeds. "You only have to look at the careers of other playwrights to see that writing wasn't a way to wealth. You don't find Christopher Marlowe or Ben Jonson at the centre of complex property deals. What sets Shakespeare apart is his investment in theatre as an institution.
"That said, it could be added that his company was probably a comparatively democratic business, focussing on the team rather than the individual businessman. There was a group of sharers (or stock-holders, as we'd say now) who all had an equal stake, and they weren't just a board of directors but workers who actively made the product from which they benefited. Hence one imagines there must always have been a lot of give and take between Shakespeare and his fellows.
"Shakespeare is interested in the psychology of leadership, that doesn't mean we have to see him as necessarily endorsing it; he registers the costs as well as the benefits. So, for example, Henry V becomes a great leader of men, but the cost is he has to turn away from Falstaff and his former friends."
So as everyone prepares to tighten their economic doublets, perhaps the isle of prosperity might still yet be reached, 400 years after the Bard foresaw the tempest.