The Shakespeare Tarot

Deck Name: The Shakespeare Tarot (Revised Edition)
Creator: Chris Leech
Publisher & Year: Welkin Tarot, ©2019
Availability: Welkin Tarot’s ETSY

A tarot deck by any other name would not smell as sweet — to me at least. For I am a life-long student of Shakespeare; having first encountered his sonnets + the infamous Romeo + Juliet in 6th grade while running my fingers along book spines, wandering through the stacks in the middle-school library. The name Shakespeare jumped out at me, and thus began one of the most enduring author/reader relationships of my life.  Reading Shakespeare, much like tarot, is the process of learning a language that one does not have the right sort of tongue to speak — at least initially. The whole thing is a deep, expansive, dreamy mystery; and the more time spent in that world, eventually clarity emerges from the reflections one sees. 


The deck and 338 page companion book are sold together as a package, and considering a book of this size and depth + breadth of scholastic research could sell separately for upwards of $25, I consider it a deal. The box is two separate halves with a top-lifting lid. The designs on the box are of an Elizabethan motif — an angelic waif figure with an owl and a conceptual model of the universe are the primary visuals. And it also includes an ornate border and a worn looking wood grain texture. It reminds me of an old traveler’s trunk. The two halves of the box fit together well, but the lid lifts off easily; so I would follow my standard recommendation of storing this deck in a cloth bag for travel purposes. 


The cards themselves are 5.75” x 3.5” and are printed in full color on what feels like 300 gsm cardstock. The back image is an open and tattered, well-loved edition of Shakespeare’s collected works. A very interesting feature of this deck — all of the cards have a horizontal, landscape orientation, that of the stage. This is the first deck that I have encountered with this design layout, and I really like the way it shifts the entire narrative structure + my subsequent interaction with the cards. As for the suit names, Staffs is substituted for Wands and Crowns is used in lieu of Pentacles. Swords and Cups are consistent with the RWS system, as is the rest of the 78 card canon. 

Visually this deck is intricately detailed and filled to the brim with symbolically representative materials. The card fronts are photo collages of paintings and various art including sculptures, jewelry, sketches, text, block printings, and church iconography from The Renaissance and Elizabethan England. These images are interwoven and overlaid seamlessly to create interesting compositions that draw the reader/viewer’s eye around the “stage”. They are such complex pastiche that even the astute student of these time periods and themes may feel their head spin — in a good way. For those reasons, I highly recommend keeping the book handy when working with this deck because the author delves into and explains the many layers in their own separate entries. Each card is a striking tableau — a frozen moment of time in a character or characters’ performance of the tarot; and it is psychic dramaturgy par excellence. The way the compositions unfold it is like we have caught the characters enacting their roles and they are just as aware of us as we are of them. The observer effect is in full effect. The methodology of mirroring that is inherent and integral to tarot is so accessible in this deck. It is unmistakable and ever-present. 

Chris Leech’s The Shakespeare Tarot is a masterwork. It interweaves at least 36 (of 39 plays) historically attributed to the pen named Elizabethan era author William Shakepeare, and includes multiple references to The Sonnets as well. The accompanying 338 page book is worth reading cover-to-cover, and is an indispensable guide to working with the deck — even for those well acquainted with the Bard’s oeuvre. The overlay of Shakespearean characters onto tarot archetypes is inspired, poetic, and fascinating. It drives me wild…I think of all the plays I’ve read + seen performed, all the movies of the plays, all the Sonnets, all the bio-pics, AND then swirl and weave that into my tarot studies — it’s a mentally euphoric feeling. And, reading Leech’s book The Shakespeare Tarot Key, is near frenzy inducing. Each card in the deck has its own entry, and wherever relevant includes any associated: dramatis personae, roman a clef, astrology, Hebrew letters, and intertextual relationships to other cards/characters in the deck. The book contains more historical allusions than you can shake a spear at. And, Chris Leech ALSO attempts to unmask the historical personage behind the infamous pen name. 


Spoiler alert: William Shakespeare is a pen name. From the starting gate, the Introduction, Leech wants to provide readers with the antidote to centuries of magical-thinking-as-poison in regards to Shakespeare’s person. He attests, with ample evidence elaborated upon in detail throughout the text, that William Shakespeare the author is not synonymous with William Shakespeare the uneducated merchant of Stratford. Rather, the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere adopted Shakespeare (shakes spear) as a pen name to protect his identity and status within the Elizabethan regime. He writes, “Rather than detract, mislead, and leave in the dark as orthodox Stratfordianism must, knowledge of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as the heart, mind, and soul behind the Shakespeare mask enriches, brings together, and elucidates” (Leech, 6). Throughout The Shakespeare Tarot Key, Leech makes additional claims — again, with historical written evidence — that a collective of thespians, playwrights, poets, and educated elites wrote, edited, and published as a collective under the name William Shakespeare. 

This deck is the result of 5 years of intensive study undertaken by the author. The source materials include but are not limited to: “diverse branches of Western culture — from Ovid to Chaucer, ballads to the Bible — transplanting the Italian Renaissance to England during its formative Empire building under the Maistre of the…Queen, translating this Humanist Renaissance into English along the way” (Leech, 4). In short — most of Western culture from the time of the Romans to the mid-16th century — makes an appearance in this deck. We even get a taste of pre-Christian Greek history + mythology via the circuitous route of the Humanist Renaissance that took hold of England in the 1500s. And, while the paradigms of these ideologies are completed outdated and serve few outside of white aristocracy, like the tarot — the wisdom of the thing can be extracted, and a distilled offering can be incorporated into modernity.  


Like the corresponding pieces of literature that have inspired The Shakespeare Tarot, I will be studying these cards for many years. There are few decks that come into one’s life with that kind of staying power; and like their namesake, the immortal Bard — prove to be a force of nature. Author Chris Leech sums it up quite nicely saying:

“What we the reader bring to the tarot or Shakespeare or in the case of both is what makes the world go around: the fund of human experience which, when audienced by the individual, will shake and appease…The tarot is a tool, a machine of meaning and divination — but it doesn’t divine itself. The Shakespeare Tarot is in part an invocation, and in part an invitation, to play.” (Leech, 9-10)