Reading Shakespeare is an art in itself, with layers of psychological wealth awaiting those who brave the waves of Elizabethan dialect and iambic pentameter. But if commerce is more your fancy, the Bard of Avon's life itself, at least the little known of it, has some important lessons.
I realized this on receiving, unbidden, a copy of Shakespeare Basics for Grown-Ups, by E. Foley and B. Coates, two book editors who live in London. There's material aplenty about the language, the various categories of plays, and the poetry. But, at the front, there is a summary of what is known about his life, and, as with any solid example of success, there are lessons to learn.
Learn the basics early
One of the reasons that people who are certain Shakespeare didn't write the material that bears his name is his lack of a university education. But he did go through grammar school, and back then, that meant at least learning Latin and rhetoric and reading classical literature and history. Apparently the lessons more than took.
Get your hands into the business
Too many people fancy themselves visionaries these days. But much of making a business work is just that -- work. Not glamorous, not vaulted, and often not exciting. If you can't take on the daily aspects, your chances of success go down dramatically. Shakespeare had to leave school at 14, with speculation that he probably had to work for his father's glove business because of financial problems. Forget performing in front of royalty; he had to get used to doing the ordinary stuff.
Seize your opportunity when you can
Shakespeare didn't come from a theatrical family. In fact, theater was largely frowned upon. He lacked the university background that the leading playwrights had. But at some point, he had the chance to join a group of players and did.
Keep your nose to the grindstone
I had to check for a moment whether that phrase might have first come from a Shakespearean play, as so much of our language and common metaphors do. (It didn't.) How did he have such an impact? Genius, of course, but he also worked hard and kept at what he had to do. Unlike contemporary writers like Christopher Marlowe, he didn't drink heavily and was careful about his finances, which is one reason he grew to become wealthy.
Yes, there's the whole language and art thing, but Shakespeare's innovation extended far beyond that. He pushed the business model. He pushed to become part owner of the theater where his plays were performed and took a percentage of the box office. By insisting on a different relationship to the entire business, not just the writing or acting, he secured an enviable living for the time.
Many people hit a stride and are happy to rest on what they have done. Shakespeare kept improving his work throughout his career. The Tempest, one of his last plays (although commonly thought to be his last, the authors say he actually went on to write others), was a marvel. You may not become a Shakespeare, but then again, who knows what you could do if you kept getting better.
Keep an air of mystery
Although there have been people who dismissed Shakespeare -- George Bernard Shaw was notoriously dismissive of his work -- most are amazed (or nod when told they should be) by the rich contributions the playwright made to theater, English literature, and art. It is difficult not to wonder, though, whether part of the regard, as well as the controversy about whether the man himself was responsible for all the writing, owes to the lack of knowledge we have of him. It forces people to pay attention to the work, not the personality, along with all the double-guessing there would be about how much of this or that was actually autobiographical. Yes, in modern times the concept of personal brand seems to have demanded that everyone become a completely public person. But Shakespeare proves that going beyond what others can do and otherwise keeping a low profile can be a smart move.