Shakespeare and the Tarot


Forgive me if this has already been covered: I have only been here for half an hour and as a newbie am not quite adept at searching the forums.

I would like to know if anyone has any information on whether Shakespeare himself is known to have studied the tarot. The reason for my query is thus; The character of the Fool in King Lear is connected with the theme of nothingness, and as we know the Fool bears the number of zero. It just seems to strike a chord, and there is something very tarotesque about Shakespeare plays generally, the themes that they deal with, and the archetype characters. I am aware that there is a Shakespearean deck in existence, but apart from this, can anyone direct me to more info, or give me tips for research?


Hey NightVision

Lots to think about in your post but I'll take it in parts...

No substantive historical connection between Tarot & Shakespeare has been made because at the time he was writing the Tarot (based on the most commonly accepted dating) was only a century and a half old, give or take. There are many "Tarotic" themes in his work, most likely because he is writing in the Medival/Renaissance idiom that underpins most Tarot decks.

That said, MANY folks have posited Shakespeare's magical worldview/wisdom (in the Hermetic or Alchemical sense) and for more on this topic you should check out the following:
Shakespeare the Magus by Arthur Versluis
Scythe of Saturn by Linda Woodbridge
The Chemical Theatre by Charles Nicholl
and tangentially...
Shakespeare's Tragic Cosmos by T. McAlindon

Also, the attribution of the number 0 to The Fool doesn't occur until the Golden Dawn in the Late 19th century, so the link there doesn't carry much weight, althought the Fool/Vagabond in the early Italian decks is seen as the lowest rung on the social ladder, occupying the "0" position as it were.

I'd check out the books above, and if you're still curious I can direct you to more obscure refs. Just let me know.



Actually, some decks did have the label "0" on the fool before the Golden Dawn - For one, that deck now called "Ancient Italian Tarots" from Lo Scarabeo. That deck is 1880, and is just a normal marseilleish playing deck. It's modern descendant, represented with me by the "tarocco Piemontese" by dal negro, also has the fool as 0, and certainly not from any golden dawn influences. This is *clearly* a deck of playing cards.

As for Shakespear, I'd agree that it's more likely that it was just the renaissance milieu he was writing in. The tarot was pretty much unknown in england until the turn of the century, I believe. At least the game was never played there, and Mathers comments in his book that the decks meant to accompany it must be imported from Italy. I believe that so far evidence of *divination* with tarot only extends back into the early 1700s or late 1600s (someone correct me if I'm wrong), and that in Bologne; but nothing like the modern divination until the 1780s or so in Paris. Shakespear, however, died in 1616.


Sola Busca Tarocchi in the year 1491, the "Matto" has a zero.


D'oh! Thanks Mike and Huck. I had no idea the zero predated Mathers.


Scion said:
D'oh! Thanks Mike and Huck. I had no idea the zero predated Mathers.

The old Roman number system (without a zero) and the new arabic numbers (with "0") were both used in 15th century (fighting with each other for dominance).
It's very interesting, that the Sola Busca used an arabic "0" for the Matto, but Roman numbers for the trumps.


Shakespeare & Tarot

There has long been a theory amongst literary critics of Shakespeare that the "Bard of Avon" spent some time in Italy as a young man, and from his experiences there sprang such works as "Romeo and Juliet", "Merchant of Venice", "Two Gentlemen of Verona", "Taming of the Shrew", and "Othello".

We now know that foreign travel in his time, though somewhat difficult, was not as rare as was once thought.

However, there is unlikely to be any proof of his travels, unless some documentation can be found, particularly in northern Italy.

If he did travel in Italian realms, he would certainly have encountered the card game of tarrochi, or its variants, in Public Houses, Inns, and the like.

Of course, the card game might easily have found its way to England.

So, might Shakespeare have known about Tarot? Yes, the game(s). Did he know about Tarot divination? Less likely, unless he encountered some Italian gypsy who "read cards" and just happened to be using that type of deck, one fine day in about 1587...


Rennaissance milieu

Shakepeare was one of those kids that took himself seriously at a good school when young and soaked it up and never stopped learning!
I wish I was more the same, but I do notice a lot of magical and alchemical wonderful imagery in the plays, even though I can't remember it all now. There was a lot of concern about alchemists at the time being badly behaved men who wanted to con some quick cash, (The Alchemists - Johnson (?)) and devil-addled power-addled mishandlers of magic, so they were dumbed down or put down by the regime of course.

Shakespeare however (I personally believe) cleverly wielded that art of alchemy in the work of his story-telling, and I think there are Archetypes in Tarot that were still strongly apparent in their more ..raw forms present in story, game, divination no doubt and in everyday life that made their way into his plays... don't you think?

There was certainly a strong awareness of pythagorus. It's been said, (to me directly by an expert on the matter) that the design of the globe theatre is based on the numerological studies and work considered by Pythagorus. Have a look at a picture of the Globe's stage, and kabbalists, tarot reader's and numerologists alike will start to see wonderful connections. The towers, the triangular roof.. And of course there's the wonderful association of the round theatre as the 'O' itself. This I'm sure lent itself to Bill's wonderings about all his many comments on the nothingness of O.and the 'Oh's' of nothing. The O as a f. genital reference too and more (but wait there's more!...)

Also In theatre's today there's still the ascension of the top part of the theatre being called the 'God's'.. and the globe used to have a ranked stratification all those things are there mirrored in the walls and in the architecture of the plays themselves so as to reference the audience at the time.
also in Royal courts going back into history, the fool was low in rank.. But an entertainer. someone who was born into a low family but with the wherewithal (love that word) to climbs ranks by learning and entertaining could therefore befriend (and influence) the king!
I think William was aware of himself as the fool of England.
Taking into account the old idea that the proper good ruling kingship was a god given rulership, The match is that ideally the climb through society should be of the same spiritual stuff as the climb through goodliness of life.
April Fool's day would've been fun to watch in one of those big old Castles!

Whoa! ranting and I'm no expert, but if anyone has more on this I'd be keen to hear it.

all the world's a stage


You might not agree, but I thought Shakespeare read Chaucer...

...who borrowed from Bocaccio's Decameron.

The book that I have about English literary authors affected by Florence from their visits there is Charles Hobday's "A Golden Ring".

So I searched the net with the idea of Shakspeare reading Chaucer, who read Boccaccio...

Here's an excerpt after reading through:
What did Shakespeare find in Chaucer? What particularly affected him? Surely many things, as Bloom suggests; he did not leave a diary or an autobiography to help us know. The present study will focus in particular on some ambivalent attitudes to romantic love, beginning with an incident in Chaucer's Knight's Tale that Shakespeare seems to have found of particular interest. It will be helpful to summarize the tale briefly. The Knight's Tale is a rather strange story about a love triangle, that Chaucer adapted in a much shortened form from Boccaccio's Teseida. Boccaccio had obtained the basic setting for his story from Statius's Thebais, but seems to have invented the central plot of the love of Palamon and Arcite for Emelye, in which Chaucer found a fine example of the strange ways of Fortune in the lives of people. Boccaccio claimed to be writing in order to bring pressure to bear on the cruel lady of his own desiring, a certain Filomena, about whom nothing is known. This aspect of his work is not adapted by Chaucer, naturally.

The initial scene is one familiar to many from the beginning of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, with Theseus returning to Athens with the Amazon Hippolyta as his bride. There Shakespeare was almost certainly drawing directly on Chaucer...

.....another link to a more general discussion of Sir Francis Bacon...etc..

Anyway, it goes on...I believe Francis Yates and other scholars of Elizabethan period literary and courtly people can tell you what this time was like...from what I understand, playing cards and tarot really were prohibited in Great Britain during the time periods discussed here?

Let me know what you find--I've not come across anyone who studied or talked of tarot in Great Britain during the Medieval or Renaissance time.




Thank you

Thank you all for the wonderful in-depth response to my question. I think, as an exercise, I'm just going to go through my Shakespeare and see if I can find anything else...