Dramatists, actors and the entirety of Britain have been celebrating the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, the western world’s first great literary figure. He even gets his own Google Doodle! That makes now an excellent time to dive back into his life and works, and see what productivity lessons we can learn from the great Bard of Avon.
From his personal struggle with the loss of his son Hamnet to the countless idioms he bestowed upon the English language, Shakespeare’s life and works offer any number of inspirational pointers:
1. Good artists copy, great artists steal
Shakespeare may have been a literary giant, but he had some help along the way – sparking endless conspiracy theories. Predominant among them is that he stole or borrowed from William Marlowe, a better-educated writer who plied his trade in Elizabethan London at the same time. There are also many works that may have been written by Shakespeare with collaborators that are claimed as his own. While we don’t condone theft, learning from others and riffing from their work can only help your own products.
2. Look beyond your own horizons
Shakespeare never traveled, but his stories range from the Americas to Italy and Greece; his inspirations came from business, royalty, the gossip of his time and many other sources. Whatever you are trying to write down, don’t do it in isolation, locked in your own mind. Reading makes people better writers, travel expands the mind (even virtual travel in this day and age) and helps make you a more rounded person.
3. Get your work out there
Like endless writers before and since, Shakespeare could have faded into obscurity, but he did everything in his power to get his work out there. Being part of the theater scene, his plays were performed by many groups, while poems and other works were distributed as quartos. Only after his death were books of his compiled works published, with each folio worth many millions. However, in his lifetime, live performance was the key to ensuring his legacy.
4. “Strong Reasons Make Strong Actions”
From The Life and Death of King John, this is a key tenet for anyone planning on being more productive. We can all be productive at the wrong task, the wrong time or use the wrong tools. Whenever you are about to perform a task, consider the reasons why you are doing so. Is it the best use of your time? Are you doing it for the right reason? And, are you doing it in the most efficient manner? If the answer to any of those is no, then you might want to reconsider. Wise words, and you can’t go wrong with a play featuring a character called Bastard!
5. “Now is the Winter of our Discontent”
If ever there was a phrase that is more misinterpreted, it is the soliloquy from Richard III. Almost universally accepted as a heavily depressing downer, it is only by reading the full text that we see it is actually about the better times ahead. Whatever you are working on, if you need to read some documentation, take the effort to read the whole thing and understand the context. Be it a shiny piece of marketing – “we are a global leader in xxx” always makes us chuckle – or a piece of technical advice where step 13 of 15 is clearly faulty, missing or obviously wrong. Take a few extra minutes to read the fine print, the full instructions or specifications and avoid making a costly mistake.
6. “Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.”
Julius Caesar and his fellow emperors conquered much of Europe and North Africa at a time when empire building was achieved by foot, horse and boat. If you ever feel you’re failing or stumbling in some task, consider how they felt trying to rule the known world in sandals. Death may be low on the agenda with most of the decisions we make in life, but running away from those decisions will usually only make you feel worse. Being wrecked by a sense of what could have been can cripple even the brightest of souls, so be brave and go for it.
Shakespeare may be loathed by many in school as unfathomable and irrelevant. However, as yet another generation grows up respecting his words, the meaning behind his plays and his amazing life can all help you become a more productive, better disciplined and prepared person. As expressed in The Merchant of Venice, “You have too much respect upon the world; They lose it that do buy it with much care.”