Shakespeare and the Tarot


Fulgour said:
My copy of Cardenio is one of those old 6 penny quartos,
and while it was right here a minute ago ~ it's lost again!

Duh! says Kwaw, Homer Simpson style, slapping his forehead;)

You play it so straight Fulgour I never know when to take you serious and when your joking.

Good satirical comment on the whole aleph-bateleur tradition, imitating its founder Eliphas Levi in providing an 'authoritive' quote, as was his habit, from a lost or non-existent source no one can check upon.

Quite clever and funny, once I realised your reference. Sorry for being so slow. Once again...




"Pack'd cards" is self-explanatory, and (hinted) further:
"Triumphs" was an old name for "Trumps" viz Tarot.

Act IV. Scene XII. Antony and Cleopatra


My good knave, Eros, now thy captain is
Even such a body: here I am Antony;
Yet cannot hold this visible shape, my knave.
I made these wars for Egypt; and the queen,
Whose heart I thought I had, for she had mine,
Which whilst it was mine had annex’d unto ’t
A million more, now lost; she, Eros, has
Pack’d cards with Cæsar, and false-play’d my glory
Unto an enemy’s triumph.
Nay, weep not, gentle Eros; there is left us
Ourselves to end ourselves.


Hmm there is a verse Hamlet V scene 11 where Osric speaks- that reminds me that it is thought the suits of Tarot reflected the social structure...The Gentry (spades? Wands/Batons?)

nay, good my lord:for mine ease, in good faith.
Sir, here is newly come to court Laertes; believe me,
an absolute gentleman, full of most excellent differences,
of very soft society and great showing: indeed
to speak feelingly of him, he is the card or calendar of Gentry........


Shakespeare's Triumph

Fulgor's quote from Antony and Cleopatra is very interesting.
The word "triumph" is rather common in Shakespeare. This google search finds about 60 occurences.

I could find no other quote as relevant as Fulgor's.
Here is one from Titus Andronicus Act. I Scene I:

Shakespeare said:
And welcome, nephews, from successful wars,
You that survive, and you that sleep in fame!
Fair lords, your fortunes are alike in all,
That in your country's service drew your swords:
But safer triumph is this funeral pomp,
That hath aspired to Solon's happiness
And triumphs over chance in honour's bed.

Could the "funeral pomp" triumphing over "chance" be Death trumping The Wheel?
I find these verses to be in the spirit of Petrarch's Trionfi. Did Shakespeare know Petrarch?
They were both fond of sonnets :)



Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374)

DoctorArcanus said:
Did Shakespeare know Petrarch?
Aparently it is as much a sin to even suggest a "link" between
Shakespeare and Petrarch as it is to make a joke around here.

I was oddly tempted to reply that once upon a time there
was someone, going by the name of William Shakespeare,
who served alongside an elderly Francesco Petrarca in the
Astral Navy of King Omnibus (...but I've resisted doing so).

These quotes from a casual discussion reveal the trepidation
felt by thoughtful and imaginative scholars on the subject:

"I offer absolutely NO scholarly information here. However, given the general move westward of all things Italian over the years before Shakespeare actually wrote the plays, the atmosphere in which he wrote would have been saturated with Dante and Petrarch, Ficino, Machiavelli and Castiglione. The conversations in which Shakespeare would have taken part would have included references to works that others had read, even if he had not."
Marilyn Bonomi

"On Shakespeare's knowledge of Italian, would it be appropriate to quote Hamlet's reference to a play's being written in "choice Italian" and ask if such a reference doesn't indicate that the author of Hamlet could tell the difference between choice Italian and inferior Italian? There is no clincher of proof here, but the way Shakespeare puns on "montanto" and the links between "Beatrice" and "Benedick" or between "Malvolio" and "Benvolio" do indicate that he knew the language he was punning in."
Roy Flannagan

"The question of Shakespeare's knowledge of Italian has been in the back of my mind for many years... I'm curious if anyone else has worked on this (either Shakespeare's knowledge of Italian or lack thereof, or use of Tasso)?"
Karen Peterson-Kranz


DoctorArcanus said:
I find these verses to be in the spirit of Petrarch's Trionfi. Did Shakespeare know Petrarch?
They were both fond of sonnets :)


Without doubt. I know of no scholarly source that would cast doubt on that. In fact some have said the Italian influence is such William of Stratford who is not known to have travelled beyond Oxford to London cannot possibly be the author of plays which show such a detailed knowledge of Italian language, customs and geography. Such usually ignores, Von Daniken style, the evidence that Petrarchism was widespread, international. Known and imitated for his sonnet form in England from Chaucer on; and also ignores the huge English affectation of Italian culture and language in Elizabethan times. And such ususally invents, Von Daniken style, necessities beyond the apparent and obvious explanations that Petrarch was an exemplar of the vernacular for others promoting their own language [in English from Chaucer on] and the general welcome and thus influnce of Italians during the realm of Queen Elizabeth, and the common English/Italian language textbooks with emphasis and inclusion of many translation exercises [Of whom Petrarch was the exemplar of the vernacular] and the popularity of Italian travel books with details of Italian geography and customs, nor of contact with and influence of mentors belonging to an educated class among whom a pilgrimage to and a stay in Italy was customary.

Queen Elizabeth 1st was particular fond of Italian language and culture, and in Elizabethan times in England Italian themes were very much affected among the English, as can demonstrated in Shakespeare, many of whose plays use locations and characters from Italy, and many of which are modelled upon plots, characters and often too even include phrases from Italian novellas, plays and poems [including Petrarch, Boarda, and many other Italian source including Opera [Othello]. Language teaching at that time was based upon translation exercises, and Petrarch was an exemplar of such in Italian vernacular, and it has been demonstrated Shakespeare used sources of translation exercises to be found in English/Italian textbooks of the time.


Lady Orchard

This is an interesting thread; but I think the correlation between Shakespeare and Tarot can be explained: firstly the cards cover pretty much every human situation, idea, thought or emotion.

Shakespeare had a wonderful insight into human nature, and thats why the themes and characters of his plays are still relevant today.

So you could probably apply each of his plays to a major - off the top of my head, Julius Caesar as the Emperor, Romeo & Juliet as the Lovers, and Othello or Macbeth as the Devil (with their stories of jealousy, envy and madness.) It's not coincedence exactly, but I don't know if he would have been working with the Tarot in mind.

Tarot and Shakespeare's plays I believe to be two separate mediums representing the same thing - life.


baba-prague said:
Er, well, not entirely. In fact, John Dee was a very well-respected advisor to Elizabeth 1, and a well-known alchemist. Yes, there was anxiety about con-men, but alchemy was also taken seriously and respected as a science.
Absolutely. So much so that a century later Isaac Newton was a practicing alchemist, looking for the priscia [correction: prisca] sapientia (of which he found a morsel at least).


Great thread

To introduce my comment, I myself see tarot as explicitly based on a bardic tradition (concerning sound and the universe) that entered the culture of the Continent on the backs of Arthur’s 12th-century ‘knights’ (who were originally 5th-century Brito-Sarmatians). It is recoverable still, by putting what has survived of ancient Irish and Welsh poetic tradition together with its kindred tradition in Judaic circles, Kabbalah. These fill each others’ holes and together easily explain the origin of tarot, in my not so humble opinion. (And as a consequence, obviously, I am not of the Italian school of tarot’s origin, which seems the dominant one here.)

So it was interesting to me when Graves (Robert) mentioned that Shakespeare grew up near Wales. Now bardic tradition never really died out, in the sense that bits and pieces are preserved in all sorts of places: mythology, letters-and-epigraphy, and transcriptions by monks of ancient druid books, or memories thereof (e.g. the Irish ‘cycles’). And in Shakey’s day, there were still evidently poets of the old school wandering the Keltic backwaters. So it is quite conceivable to me that Shakespeare—the grandeur of whose poetry I was introduced to at an early age, my father eventually writing a book on the handling of his verse (Shakespeare Sounded Soundly)—may indeed have been an initiated bard. I have long wanted to find time to study his use of tree symbolism, for example, which might yield specific clues.

In a sense it is as Lady Orchard says, that he speaks of life, and so does tarot. Yet it would seem both poet and deck are oriented towards life in a singularly archetypal way. I know my early familiarity with his plays, especially histories, produced a view of life and kingship and love—and heroism—that has made the simple yet archetypal structure of the bardic worldview come alive for me at times, even though I do not live in a pre-industrial age nor... (I started to say ‘nor a heroic culture’, yet there are heroes amongst us, even now).

Sola Busca tarocchi shows hints of being a sort of pagan version of tarot. We see the world-dragon in XXI. XX shows Armageddon as it would appear to an individual—a sinner perhaps? VII is the throne-chariot (here a four-wheeled Merkavah). XVI does feature a crown. VIIII shows the wisdom of age. Most telling is that V has (as its ‘Pope’) CATVLO: now this poet was a Kelt by birth, suggesting that the highest spiritual authority being recognized here is the same as produced Tarot de Marseille, namely the Keltic strand of poetical-metaphysical tradition, yet here coupled with pagan sensibilities, not Christian. But it is very striking, for example, that the Jack of Cups is a thief of the same sort as that in the Marseille, though the ‘Grail Knight’ is hardly recognizable in his shamanic ‘garb’. But after viewing all the pips, I am more convinced than ever that its creators knew (the pagan form of) Qabbalah, meaning the lost teaching of the four ‘Trees’ in the four worlds (corresponding to the four wheels of Ezekiel). But I would only bore most of you with my reasons: they would be attempts to render in words what is quite forcefully portrayed through image, and based on a reconstructed tradition that would have to be explained in detail.

Though the Christian sensibilities of the Marseille are of decidedly Gnostic character, they do not strike a particularly rebellious note, more simply one of the commoners’ idiom. I use the term Gnostic here mainly to indicate that which utilized the pre-Christian tradition of letters and symbols, rather than destroying all records of same wherever found, which was the path of ‘orthodoxy’ (as when St. Patrick reputedly initiated a frenzy of burning of old druid books, which consisted of branches with ogham carved on them). In the Sola Busca, then, the trumps are reinterpreted (or interpreted) in terms of classical figures (many of whom I do not recognize). I should like to know more about the individuals portrayed in these cards, as I suspect an important deeper content not revealed by the forms of the figures alone, many of these being rather similar (bearing shields, etc.).

And namesoftrees (intriguing name: based on the bethluisnion?), I recall a line from the prologue to Henry V: “...Can this cockpit hold / The vasty fields of France? or may we cram / Within this wooden O the very casques / That did affright the air at Agincourt?” (emphasis mine).

Sorry to have rambled on so long.


Lady Orchard said:
This is an interesting thread; but I think the correlation between Shakespeare and Tarot can be explained: firstly the cards cover pretty much every human situation, idea, thought or emotion.

I think a simple explanation is to be found via the Italian sources he mined for his storylines, characters, locations and tropes, such as petrarch, cinthio, ariosto, bocaccio etc and in the parallel italian/english text exercises such as to be found in Florio.