Want to get better at business? Read Shakespeare.

Imagine being such a talented writer that, hundreds of years after your death, your name continues to serve as a shorthand for talent. If I do a bad job writing this post, for example, critics might note that “it’s no Shakespeare.” That’s because William Shakespeare is one of the most influential writers of all time.

But why is that?

There are numerous articles and academic studies that examine the technical prowess displayed in Shakespeare’s use of language, but when you get past the technical, it’s obvious that Shakespeare wrote about central human dilemmas. The kinds of dilemmas that ultimately typify the human condition.

And that’s what makes Shakespeare’s work so enduring. Because no matter how much time passes, humans are driven by the same essential motivators. Understanding this can (obviously) make you a good writer... but can it make you good at business?

In addition to being one of the most famous writers of his time, Shakespeare was also extremely business-savvy. He owned a share in the famous Globe Theatre, which would regularly accommodate more than 3,000 paying patrons per performance. He also was a co-owner of another theater in London as well as a production company. And, on top of all that, Shakespeare invested in both land and property, and he often bought and sold grain.

By today’s standards, Shakespeare would have easily been a millionaire. How did he do it? To find the answer, all you have to do is look at a few of his most famous plays through the lens of business leadership.

Macbeth As A Warning Against Ambition

In one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, the writer pens a story filled with poetic tragedy. Of course, there are a number of factors that push the titular character to action, including a prophecy foretold by some seriously questionable sources. But, like many of Shakespeare’s best-remembered works, Macbeth is a play built around a central human dilemma. In this case, it’s ambition.

Ambition isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is a dangerous thing. While the right amount of ambition will help you get ahead in business, too much of it will ultimately destroy you. It’s a common story in the business world to see a company taken down because its goals are overly ambitious. When read as a book on business, Macbeth is an invaluable study on what not to do.

For further reading on ambition in the workplace, check out The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor. Sure, it’s no Shakespeare, but it does lay out some simple, psychologically–backed tactics for getting ahead in life. One of the key tenants in this book focuses on the proper application of ambition.

The Tempest As a Metaphor For Workplace Rivalry

The Tempest stands out as one of Shakespeare’s most mystical works. The play shipwrecks deposed rulers, usurping siblings and magical spirits on an isolated island, forcing large-scale rivalries to be resolved in a small-scale environment. There’s plenty of backstabbing, trickery, misplaced loyalty, and illusions. 

While there may be fewer sorcerers in the corporate world, the power battles in The Tempest certainly resemble hostile company takeovers. Or, in day-to-day life, simple workplace rivalries.

When read under that lens, The Tempest can convey similar lessons to Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal, which takes a deep dive into the modern history of one of the world’s largest social media networks. To read more about the perils of rivalry in the workplace — and to learn how to combat it — check out our collection of books and audiobooks on the best rivalries in business.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream Is About Business Transformation

Another of Shakespeare’s more fantastical plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream nonetheless forms much of its plot and themes around a central human dilemma. In this case, it’s love, which is, according to Shakespeare, 100 percent a dilemma. In this play specifically, Shakespeare explores the fluidity of love and of human nature. In one act a character might be madly, passionately in love with another and, by the third act, that same character might find their passionate love to be somewhat repugnant. Or, in one act a character could be a human, and in the next act he might be a donkey.

In business terms, we might call that a pivot.

To learn more about how and when to switch gears, consider the aptly titled Pivot, which details the best lessons from the CEO of Peak Potentials. It’s a great resource for anyone interested in finding a new job, creating a new career, or learning practical steps to pivot in any professional situation.

And if you’re interested in reading more — Shakespeare or not —  sign up for Scribd and read free for 30 days. It’s the only reading subscription that brings you everything you need to become your best self.

FeaturedDavid Pemberton