The Shakespearean Guide to Entrepreneurship

Audience at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre

Photo by JustABoy

Everyone knows Shakespeare is the greatest writer in the English language. But did you know he was also a highly successful entrepreneur?

Like Dick Whittington, the young Shakespeare left his rural home town to seek his fortune in London. In common with many entrepreneurs, he didn’t have the benefit of a family fortune or a university education – just his talent, ambition and an enormous capacity for hard work.

In the course of his career in the great city, Shakespeare became a shareholder in an acting troupe called the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, who beat off fierce competition to become the most famous and successful theatre company in the land. They played to packed houses of paying customers and received regular summons to perform before Queen Elizabeth and King James. Shakespeare rose from the ranks of commoners to the status of a gentleman, taking great pride in the coat of arms he was awarded. And he earned enough money to buy the biggest house in his home town and retire there in comfort.

This story doesn’t quite fit the Romantic image of the starving artist or the poet wandering lonely as a cloud – but Shakespeare lived 200 years before Romanticism, so perhaps we can forgive him.

In fact, if you ask me, entrepreneurship was not only compatible with Shakespeare’s art, it made him a better writer. Here’s why.

The Problem with Working for Hire

Do you recognise these lines?

Even as the sun with purple-colour’d face
Had ta’en his last leave of the weeping morn,
Rose-cheek’d Adonis hied him to the chase;
Hunting he loved, but love he laugh’d to scorn;
Sick-thoughted Venus makes amain unto him,
And like a bold-faced suitor ‘gins to woo him.

Don’t worry if they don’t ring a bell for you – you’re in the majority. Many people have never heard of Shakespeare’s poem Venus and Adonis, let alone cracked the covers and read these opening lines. I’ve read the whole thing – but only because I had to for my English degree. And if I’m perfectly honest, it was a bit of a chore.

But in Shakespeare’s day the poem was a bestseller. For a long time, he was much more famous as the the poet of Venus and Adonis than as a dramatist. These days however, critics tend to agree that if he had stuck to ‘pure’ poetry like this, Shakespeare would have been one of the also-rans of English literature.

There’s not a lot wrong with Venus and Adonis, apart from the fact that it appeals to a very narrow audience – educated Elizabethan gentlemen. To appreciate the poem, you needed several things, all of which were out of the reach of most Elizabethans: the ability to read; a classical education; money for books, which were high-end consumer products; and leisure time for reading.

Why was Shakespeare writing for such a narrow audience? Because of his business model at the time. Venus and Adonis is one of two long poems Shakespeare dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. Shakespeare was working within an established tradition of patronage, whereby a rich and noble patron would reward an artist for producing work in his or her honour.

Looking at the poems now, we can see that Shakespeare did a good job for his client, but no one would argue that it was his best writing. This kind of work wasn’t his first choice – he already had several successful plays under his belt, but had turned to poetry when London’s theatres were closed because of the plague. The results suggest his heart wasn’t really in it.

Luckily for Shakespeare – and for us – the emerging enterprise culture of Elizabethan England meant that there was a much more exciting business model on offer …

Enter the Entrepreneur

OK, let’s see if you recognise any of these:

‘To be, or not to be: that is the question.’

‘If music be the food of love, play on’

‘All the world’s a stage’

‘Is this a dagger which I see before me?’

‘The course of true love never did run smooth.’

‘Once more unto the breach dear friends!’

A bit more familiar?

What accounts for the difference? How did Shakespeare go from writing conventional verse to writing so many lines that are instantly recognisable and vivid after 400 years?

There are plenty of literary explanations, but I’d like you to consider the difference made by his change of business model. I put it to you that Shakespeare’s writing blossomed when he gave up being an artist in search of a patron and became an entrepreneur in earnest.

The English poet Ted Hughes, who knew the Bard’s work inside out, gives a memorable description of Shakespeare’s attitude to business:

Throughout his life, notoriously, the money-lending, corn-chandlering, property-speculating, wheeling and dealing dramatist displayed a flexible opportunism, nimbly tuned to market forces.

(Ted Hughes, Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being)

Lend me your ears and I’ll show you how Shakespeare’s entrepreneurial skills were critical to his artistic and commercial success. And I’ll suggest what 21st-century creative entrepreneurs can learn from Shakespeare’s example.

1. Innovate with Your Business Model

While he relied on a patron, Shakespeare’s income was limited by the patron’s generosity. Even an Earl’s pockets were not bottomless (Wriothesley was actually in financial trouble at the time). And while he relied on a single client, Shakespeare was vulnerable – to the patron’s whims, illness or death, or fall from political favour.

Elizabethan theatre, on the other hand, was highly lucrative mass entertainment. It is estimated that the Globe Theatre held almost 3,000 spectators. The ‘groundlings’ only paid a penny each to stand and watch the plays in the theatre yard, exposed to the elements – but the pennies soon added up when the crowds were packed inside. And there were plenty of gentlefolk prepared to pay considerably more for seats in the galleries.

Takeaway: Don’t rely on a single source of income. Grow your revenue exponentially by making your work available to a wider audience.

2. Good Partners Bring Out the Best in Each Other

Shakespeare was a competent actor, but he wasn’t the star of the show. In performance he usually played minor parts, leaving the limelight to Elizabethan celebrity actors such as Richard Burbage, William Kempe and Robert Armin.

Where Shakespeare excelled, of course, was in writing. Elizabethan audiences had an insatiable thirst for new plays containing fantastic adventures in high fantastical language – which Shakespeare delivered in spades. The partnership structure of the company meant that each shareholder could concentrate on delivering exceptional value through his specialist expertise; when the individual contributions were multiplied through collaboration, the creative and commercial results were spectacular.

Takeaway: Don’t try to do it all yourself. Find partners whose talents complement yours, and allow you to do what you do best.

3. Work for Equity, Not for Hire

Shakespeare’s company, the Chamberlain’s Men, was the first in the history of the English theatre where the actors were shareholders. Shakespeare invested £70 for his share of the company – a significant amount, considering freelance playwrights were earning about £6 a play at the time. But it paid off handsomely over the course of his career. Because he received a share of the profits on every performance by the company, he earned far more than he would ever have managed as a freelancer.

Takeaway: If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth owning the results. You’ll get more profit and pleasure from building a business you own than you ever will from working for someone else.

4. Own Your Domain

The Lord Chamberlain’s men owned the Globe Theatre in which they performed for most of their career. Unfortunately, they didn’t own the land in Shoreditch where it originally stood – they leased it from the owner, Giles Allen. When the lease expired, the landlord claimed ownership of the building, forcing the actors to desperate measures: on 28th December 1598, while the landlord was still celebrating Christmas, they armed themselves, and ‘liberated’ the theatre building, dismantling it and hiding it in a warehouse. They later shipped it across the Thames to a new site in Southwark. And because the new site was outside the official limits of the city, it meant they were beyond the jurisdiction of the city fathers, who were often keen to close down the theatres.

Takeaway: Establish your business on your own domain – don’t become someone else’s user generated content. Otherwise your enterprise will be ‘Like a fair house built on another man’s ground’ (The Merry Wives of Windsor).

5. Play Live

Comparing Shakespeare’s courtly poetry with his plays is like comparing a studio album with a live gig. While some artists thrive in the studio, Shakespeare came alive in front of an audience. And he faced the most demanding audience in the history of the theatre.

At the actors’ feet was the rough-and-tumble of the crowd, like a football terrace. These guys were after entertainment – the more riotous and rude, the better – and they were quick to heckle if they didn’t get what they wanted. As well as keeping them happy, Shakespeare also had to ‘play to the gallery’, providing the educated elite in the posh seats with sophisticated literary fare.

Shakespeare responded with a unique mix of high art and low entertainment, intermingling masters and servants, lords and peasants on the stage. He did the same with his language, at one moment flinging a crude joke to the groundlings, then in the next breath offering a philosophical reflection or a burst of pure poetry to the gallery. Words like ‘puking’, ‘clotpole’ and ‘bastard’ rubbed shoulders with fancy new inventions such as ‘captious’, ‘intenible’, ‘multitudinous’ and ‘incarnadine’.

Takeaway: Get your work in front of an audience. If you’re a writer, don’t lock your words in the study – write a blog, where the comments push up against your words, like the crowd at the edge of a stage. The same goes for music, photography, design etc. The web tools now available give you an unprecedented opportunity to get feedback on your work from real people – and potential customers.

6. Keep the Content Coming

Elizabethan playgoers craved novelty and excitement – to keep them coming back, and to stay ahead of the competition, acting companies had to produce a constant stream of new plays. A large part of Shakespeare’s success was down to stamina – 38 plays by him have survived, and it’s likely that several more have been lost.

Most contemporary playwrights resorted to co-authorship to keep up with demand. This could reduce the time taken to write a new play from months to weeks – but it also reduced the fee each writer received, contributing to the financial hardship suffered by many playwrights of the time. Unlike Shakespeare, who was a shareholder and could therefore afford to devote most of his time to sole authorship of plays that would bring him a handsome reward in his own theatre.

Takeaway: Creativity + productivity = success. Make sure your business is set up to sustain your productivity.

7. An Experience Can’t Be Pirated

There was no copyright protection for authors in Shakespeare’s day. Every time he premiered a new play, there would be bootleggers in the audience – representatives of other theatre companies, memorising and writing down the script, to sell the text or use it in rival productions. Legally, there was very little Shakespeare could do about this.

But it doesn’t seem to have done him much harm, financially or artistically. Like most bootlegs, the copies were poor quality, and rival productions were second to market and second best. The bootlegs may even have benefited Shakespeare by introducing his work to new people. None of the bootleggers built a reputation like the Chamberlain’s Men for quality, consistency and sheer spectacle. The Globe remained the place to go for the real thing.

Takeaway: Your work is vulnerable if you reduce it to a simple format such as a text file or MP3. But it’s impossible to pirate a live event or an interactive experience such as a blog, forum or membership site.

Et Tu, Reader?

Do you agree that entrepreneurship and creativity can be mutually beneficial?

Which aspects of Shakespearean entrepreneurship resonate most strongly for you?

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For a free 25-week guide to success as a creative professional, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.

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Responses to this Post


  1. Hi there!

    I loved this analogy and it was wonderful to see the ‘new’ Globe Theatre as I was one of the millions of people world wide that raised funds for its rebuilding!

    I think we could also add other classical muscians here, Mozart and his opera The Magic Flute comes to mind, or the entrepreneurial skills of Bach, Brahms or Puccini to name but a few.

    Again, many thanks for the blog – it pushes all the right buttons!



  2. I’d never thought of Shakespeare as a 21st Century business mentor, but this post changed my mind. Well done!

    There’s another great modern-day parallel to be found in the work of playwrights from the time — Open Sourcing. Copyright wasn’t enforced nearly as strictly as it is today, and you see a lot of influence from people like Marlowe in Shakespeare’s work. (For example, he directly quotes Marlowe’s Hero and Leander in As you Like It.) Some even suggest that he owes his success to the influences of his colleagues.

    Takeaway: Re-using and building upon the work of others can fast track you to success.

    For proof, note that WordPress was forked from an Open Source project called b2\cafelog. Likewise, Microsoft bought QDOS for $50,000, then renamed it and made a fortune by marketing it as MS-DOS. Both were perfectly legal improvements, and both helped to shape the companies we see today.

    Of course, there are the same ethical concerns in profiting from the work of others today as there were in Shakespeare’s time, though I suspect that the rivalry then was a lot more laid-back than the creators of Shakespeare in Love would have us believe!

  3. I enjoyed reading this post – thank you!

    I think what’s interesting here is that “sustainable artists” such as Mr. Shakespeare, are often those who have entreprenuerial interest.

    If he was simply happy with being creative he would probably have continued working to order happy to just be producing creative work.

    The entreprenuer in the artist that tends to spark two things:

    1. Marketing themselves

    Getting the urge and the desire to put their work in front of an audience, and promote their efforts again and again

    2. Sustainability

    An artist who relies solely on their primary skill I think is more likely to “burn out”. They are required to put in first hand effort in order to make money.

    The artists who are able to make money from their art “whilst they sleep” so to speak, are able to last longer, make more money whilst still entertaining the crowds.

    Dolly Parton for example, has proved herself not to just be a blonde bimbo, but a very successful singer, songwriter who has built up a huge multi-million empire. Katie Price – for all the criticisms about her, has also proved that she knows how to creatively market and make a business out of what she
    can offer.

    Elvis Presley however. “detested the business side of his career. He would sign a contract without even reading it”

    Perhaps this left him open to exploitation and would be a contributing factor to his burn out?

    Just some food for thought from me.

    Great blog!

  4. Enjoyable and thought-provoking post, Mark. Melody’s mention of Bach in comment #1 is apt — he produced reams of great music as part of his weekly church duties, just like Shakespeare produced his plays as a matter of business.

    Many other artists have done magnificent work on a clockwork schedule, and they’ve done it with money firmly in mind. I believe that you and I have talked about Trollope in this vein, too.

    You’ve got my mental juices flowing here, Mark — thanks!

  5. Melody — Thanks for supporting the globe! It’s just down the road from me and has become one of the highlights of my summer. Can’t wait till it opens this year, it’s like the first cuckoo of spring for Londoners! And great musical examples, I should give one of them the LA treatment soon!

    Nick — Excellent point about copyright and open source. I think recent developments like Creative Commons are a way of trying to recognise and facilitate the influence and borrowings that have always been a part of creativity.

    Amy — Yes, sustainability is a key benefit of entrepreneurship for the creative. I hadn’t thought about creative burnout in that context, but I think you’re right, neglecting the business side of things can only make burnout more likely and more intense. As Elvis discovered to his cost.

    Tim — Yes there’s something to be said for a clockwork schedule. I only discovered recently that one of the reasons Bach had to be so productive was that his audience expected to hear new music every week, like Shakespeare’s playgoers or modern cinema-goers. Listening to old music is actually a modern phenomenon.

  6. Since all I have this morning is terrible instant coffee, I’m afraid I’m not going to have anything brilliant and witty to add. I do want to say this is one of the best posts you’ve done, Mark.

    I especially cheered at the part where you mentioned:

    You can’t rip off an experience.


  7. Thanks James, rest assured you’ve contributed more than enough wit and brilliance to drop by for a cup of coffee any time you like. 🙂

  8. Terrific post. One could argue that Mozart, who died in poverty, was as great an artist but not nearly the entrepreneur Shakespeare was.

  9. Terrrific post – and I love the analogy.

  10. Wow. I knew there was some reason I liked Shakespeare, and now I can put my finger on it. All this time I thought is was because we were born almost exactly 400 years apart (exactly 400 if he was two months and ten days old at his baptism, because we don’t know his birthday).

    But this is an excellent example of why entrepreneurship is important to creative businessmen. It’s important to remember a best-selling author, painter, musician, etc is one who SELLS best. “Selling” isn’t a passive verb.

  11. Another helpful factor has to be “Have a wealthy Patron” Shakespeares patron was Lord Southampton who was a member of Grays Inn, which lead to his players performing on the Grays Inn stage for the great and good of the day.
    Then, like now, connections matter.

  12. A brilliant analogy and a really inspirational post, too. I’d add that part of Shakespeare’s success was also down to his love for what he did. I think you have to truly enjoy doing something to succeed at it.

  13. Agree with James that this is one of your best yet, Mark!

    You should do a similar treatment for PT Barnum who was brilliantly creative in his mix of art and business. (Or, yeah, I could write it, but then we’d have to wait forever to read it apparently).

    One of my favorite Barnum anecdotes was how he drummed up business for his museum one day (actually museums were his main line through most of his career, the circus came much later).

    A guy showed up looking for work at the museum one day and Barnum initially was inclined to send him away because business was kind of slow. Instead, he hired the guy to walk in and out of the museum, carrying a brick, setting the brick in the street and then carrying it back inside again, over and over all day.

    This odd behavior made passersby curious. Why is this guy carrying the brick out into the street, carefully setting it down and looking at it, then picking it up and taking it back inside? The only way to find out was to pay admission to the museum to see what was happening on the other end. Which many of them did.

    It may not be a brilliant business model, but it gets to the heart of making curiosity pay. And it’s a great example of using resources on the fly to generate crowds and coin where there wasn’t any before.

  14. This was a great read. Thanks!

  15. Mark,

    As a friend of the Globe and my name on the wall at the Globe as a donor, I really loved this piece. I think the other thing was he had his finger on the pulse of the people and was able to push all the right buttons in his day. However, the most amazing part of that is hundreds of years later his imaginative way of delivering a message/story is still reaching thousands every year. Thanks Mark!

  16. I’m not sure how I landed here (twitter?) but this post is wonderfully inspirational and practical. I’d love to hear more about the open source comparison Nick mentioned.

    Personally, I’ve always been struck by the community of Shakespeare’s art–and the community of publication in general. For all the capital limitations of publishing to a patron, it is a wonderful alternative model that emphasizes art as a gift.

    For those of us hobby artists in other professions, gift art is our route to sustainability.

  17. Jean — great example! Would be very interesting to compare and contrast Mozart and Shakespeare. One big difference was what they did with their money once they earned it. Mozart was a notorious spendthrift while Shakespeare was, shall we say, known for being a bit of a ‘tightwad’.

    Suzanne — good point about Southampton’s influence. Maybe writing those poems wasn’t such a waste of time after all. 🙂

    Philip — yes, I think Shakespeare knew all about the joy of work. Like all creative rock stars, he got the best of both worlds — getting paid to do what you love.

    John — great Barnum story! (And yeah, you could write it. 😉 )

    Rosanne — yes, if I had to pick one factor that made the difference, I’d say it was being eyeball to eyeball with that audience and having to hold their attention and get them coming back for more.

    Marcus — if you’re interested in open source, Eric Raymond’s the Cathedral and the Bazaar is a classic essay: And thanks for writing a great article of your own, in response to this one.

    Everyone — you should check out Marcus’s piece here:

  18. Bullet 7 is absolutely fascinating. Intellectual knowledge was then as now difficult to control. I never thought of that being a problem in the old days until just now.

  19. Bill – the evolution of the book trade is fascinating. Lots of parallels with the current developments in online media.

  20. I love this article. Using Shakespeare as a model for being a creative entrepreneur is genius!!

  21. Czech translation of this article:
    (with Mark’s approval)

  22. Thanks Shell, nice to know it hit the mark for you.

    And thanks for the translation Robert!

  23. Very interesting stuff – also because too often, the enterpreneur/financial articles do not take things like these into account and do not deal with arts much:-)

  24. Thanks, I aim to fill that gap. 🙂

  25. Thoroughly enjoyed this post Mark. Some years ago I studied Shakespeare for a year with the Open University and loved every minute of it. The highlight was attending a production of King Lear at the Globe. It always seemed to me that there was great energy from Shakespeare, his use of language, his insights into the human condition etc. Now having read your post I think maybe it came from that can-do entrepreneurial spirit allied to great writing skills. Thanks for the post.

  26. “Own your domain” is so important and I like the analogy. I’ve seen solid businesses fail because management tried to streamline operation (supply chain) and gave away control of the customers.

  27. I would honestly say, No.7 because if someone tries to copy it, then it shows that it was originally great and many will go to the original source. Like the remixes of songs that are played today makes someone want to listen to the original because of the quality and the soul-piercing lyrics.