Shakespeare’s Greatness: Art and Business

Shakespeare’s success story is part of what makes him the GOAT. We have a canon of great art produced by tragic figures who killed themselves or drank themselves into oblivion and ridicule. Shakespeare not only produced an incredible body of work, but he was also a popular success and was able to maintain social rank despite doing something for an occupation that was deemed unworthy of a gentleman. What was it about Shakespeare that gave him the energy and stability to have such a perfect career in less than stable conditions and times?

I’ve started listening to the audiobook version of Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World, which is a biography of Shakespeare. Using the public records of Shakespeare’s birth, his father’s career, his education, his marriage, and his entrance into the London theater scene, Greenblatt pieces together a portrait of the bard that is compelling and insightful. 

The plays themselves are fully capable of capturing our interest on their own. I’m not suggesting that Shakespeare’s biography holds some secret keys to understanding his plays. That’s not what is interesting to me. I’m interested in how Shakespeare ran his career like a business. It is the story of a great artist/ entrepreneur. This isn’t an interpretive key as much as another way of reading the work altogether. Literature that is produced for the critics, for the academy is much different than work that is produced for the public. Shakespeare produced work for the public that also is canonical to the ultimate degree. 

Thinking about Shakespeare as an entrepreneur also shifts the way we consider greatness in art and its popular appeal. Another thing I find interesting about Greenblatt’s biography is it helps to create this image of a world contained within London where there was excitement about the theater. It’s kind of funny to think of people that long ago wanting to be actors. It goes back much further to the roots of Ancient Greece at least. Dudes want to make up stories and act them out.

The competition to be the greatest writer or the best performer is almost central to our human condition. How essential is art to human society? It almost seems to go hand in hand. As soon as we have a group of people, we have clowns trying to entertain them. We also have people trying to lead them. A group of people is a potential audience. It’s an opportunity for an artist to give them something to think about.

What we can see by looking at Shakespeare’s career is more important than looking for clues to understand his psychological drives. When we see how Shakespeare hustled, and how he kept his productivity so high, it shows us how the greats perform. It’s motivational to artists who strive to have a great career. Making great art is just the first part. You must find a way to make it last. That’s why figures like Henry Miller are so important, too. Certain artists figure it out and live great lives worthy of being studied. 

It’s strange to have a figure who set the high mark for achievement over four hundred years ago. In every other human pursuit, we have made tremendous advancements, but in writing nobody is even coming close. Thinking about Shakespeare’s career, putting his literary achievements in the context of a world of supply and demand, we have an opportunity to challenge our times. If we demand a Shakespeare, she will come.