William Shakespeare: To read or not to read

An anniversary is a good time to review and re-evaluate the worth of past achievements.

This Saturday is Shakespeare's 400th death anniversary (and also what is commonly accepted as his 452nd birthday). Ben Jonson, Shakespeare's contemporary and friend, foretold his perennial appeal in his eulogy: "He (Shakespeare) was not of an age, but for all time!" But the question remains: Is Shakespeare relevant in today's fast-paced, turbulent world of multimedia distractions?

Some reasons for reading Shakespeare are common knowledge, such as the fact that although his tales are woven around the events of the time, essentially they are about human beings and their conditions and therefore have a universal appeal which transcends barriers of time and geography. Then again, his characters are not just memorable, they are real and fallible and very much like people anywhere, any time. Even his language, commonly seen as a stumbling block, is replete with words and phrases that he daringly introduced or popularised, and the wonder is that many of these have endured over the centuries and are commonly used today even though many people may not recognise that they are quoting Shakespeare. Consider, for instance, familiar phrases such as "all's well that ends well" (title of a play), "neither a borrower nor a lender be" (Hamlet), "brave new world" (The Tempest), "break the ice" (The Taming of the Shrew), "foregone conclusion" (Othello), "a dish fit for the gods" (Julius Caesar), "full circle" (King Lear) and "good riddance" (Troilus and Cressida).

A major reason for reading Shakespeare's plays is their uncanny relevance to modern management issues and corporate executives lessons. He provides thought-provoking insights into issues which are ubiquitous in the contemporary business and management scene, such as the use and abuse of power, authority, leadership, the management of risk, crisis and emotion, the importance of balancing values and responsibilities, and the skills crucial to a leader's success. These lessons are undoubtedly relevant in, for instance, today's business scene in Singapore. The principles of good leadership and the hazards of incompetent authority are the same whether applied to 16th-century England or contemporary management boards.

Through his characters, Shakespeare illustrates points on power, action, communication and decision-making. King Lear, Richard II and Mark Antony failed because they believed their authority alone gave them the right to lead and they should be obeyed by virtue of their position. Macbeth portrays a leader who starts out as a loyal subject but, following the witches' prediction that he will be king, his latent ambition is kindled and he proceeds to kill the king. The lesson is that ambition can have positive value if it helps to drive change and innovation, but "vaulting ambition" which "o'erleaps itself" can be destructive.

A statue of William Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon, the playwright's birthplace in England. Shakespeare's works have a universal appeal that transcends barriers of time and geography.  PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Then there is King Lear, which demonstrates the problems of an ill-planned retirement and the disastrous results of a divided leadership and the inability to recognise and adapt to one's changing responsibilities. Lear decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters but this divestiture is based on responses which cater to his ego (and which demonstrate his failure to recognise hypocrisy: whoever says she loved him the most would get the biggest share) rather than on sensible planning. This could well be a cautionary tale about bad management and how not to devolve power. Lear foolishly assumes that he will continue to wield authority even after he has given away his kingdom. The play further highlights the need for one leader and the unity of command. While Goneril, the eldest daughter, cribs about King Lear's retaining the trappings of power after divesting himself of the kingdom, and the chaos created by Lear's knights, her sister Regan complains about the impossibility of managing people "in one house under two commands". On the positive side, King Henry V (in the play with the same name) is a powerful example of how an inspiring leader can galvanise his team - his "band of brothers" - to achieve the impossible and to triumph in the most adverse circumstances.

Shakespeare's plays are packed with precious nuggets of wisdom. His pithy advice is as relevant today as it was to his contemporaries. He talks about the need to be cautious and measured, to think things through rather than rush into making injudicious decisions simply to proclaim how fast one is: "Go wisely and slowly. Those who rush, stumble and fall" (Romeo and Juliet). The best strategies and plans are those based on strong facts and solid data: "Strong reasons make strong actions" (King John). Long-winded speeches and explanations are unnecessary: "Brevity is the soul of wit" (Hamlet). And if you make a mistake, it is best to own up, clear up the resultant mess, and quickly set about making things right because "oftentimes excusing of a fault doth make the fault the worse by the excuse" (King John). Be smart about taking risks and recognising opportunities: "There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries" (Julius Caesar). And above all, "to thine own self be true" (Hamlet).

A major reason for reading Shakespeare's plays is their uncanny relevance to modern management issues and corporate executives lessons. He provides thought-provoking insights into issues which are ubiquitous in the contemporary business and management scene....

Shakespeare had the magical ability to write fantastic plays and poems which entertained his contemporaries and still retain the ability to entertain people, whether in authentic performance, traditional drama or modern interpretation on the stage, or in film and television adaptations, through countless printed editions, and now through versions available on smartphones and tablets. We can select from among the myriad choices now available to us. Reading and enjoying Shakespeare in today's increasingly interconnected world will help to open up our minds to a range of human conditions, accept different perspectives, appreciate new experiences and old cultures, acquire an understanding of management issues and develop a keen sensitivity towards language with all its subtle nuances and complexities.

  • The writer was founding Dean of the School of Arts and Social Sciences at SIM University, writes poems and stories for children, and is now working on her first novel.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 21, 2016, with the headline 'William Shakespeare: To read or not to read'. Print Edition | Subscribe