The Shakespeare Oracle by A. Bronwyn Llewellyn; paintings by Cynthia von Buhler
Review by Diane Wilkes

If you would like to purchase this deck/book set, click here.

This exciting new tarot deck starts out with some interesting verbal contradictions. The publisher isn't Llewellyn, but the designer of the deck and author of the book is named Llewellyn and the name of the deck is the Shakespeare Oracle, but it's a true tarot (as opposed to some decks that have the name but lack the game). Perhaps because there is a fairly well-known Shakespeare Tarot by Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki that the publisher decided a different title was in order. Who knows? I suspect, however, that most tarot enthusiasts will concur with my assessment of this deck as tarot.

The Majors are quite traditionally titled; the only change is that the High Priestess has been renamed "The Abbess." The card assignments are as follows:

Card Title Shakespeare Oracle Correspondence
The Fool Feste (Twelfth Night)
The Magician Shakespeare
The Abbess Aemilia (The Comedy of Errors)
The Empress Queen Elizabeth (Henry VIII, time of her reign)
The Emperor Henry VIII
The Hierophant Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester (Henry VI)
The Lovers Romeo and Juliet
The Chariot King Henry (Henry V)
Justice Portia (The Merchant of Venice)
The Hermit Caliban (The Tempest)
Wheel of Fortune Fortune Theatre (Shakespearean play venue)
Strength Katharina and Petruchio (Taming of the Shrew)
The Hanged Man Hamlet
Death King Lear
Temperance Prospero (The Tempest)
The Devil Puck (A Midsummer Night's Dream)
The Tower Timon (Timon of Athens)
The Star Cleopatra (Antony and Cleopatra)
Moon Three Witches (Macbeth)
Sun King of Navarre & Princess of France (Love's Labour's Lost)
Judgment Vincentio (Measure for Measure)
The World Globe Theatre (Shakespearean play venue)

Obviously, the more familiar you are with Shakespeare's plays, the more these archetypal matches will mean to you personally. The author brings the reader up to speed with the relevant backstory, though, so even a complete ignorance of  Shakespeare's works will not detract from one's use of the deck and understanding of the card.  

Because I am at present working on a deck with a similar theme (the works of Jane Austen), I found the Shakespearean Oracle particularly interesting, both as an object lesson (what I want to incorporate, what I want to avoid) and in terms of some similar mental attributions. One example: Llewellyn has chosen to make Shakespeare the Magician in her deck; I assigned the High Priestess to Jane Austen in mine.

I found the author's assignment of Queen Elizabeth to the Empress a bit odd (the Virgin Queen a symbol of fecundity?), though I understand that, for Shakespeare, she created an environment where he and his work could flourish. Henry VIII as the Emperor is far more universal a counterpart, I think, as he embodies all the positives and negatives of this archetype. I love the illustration of the Hierophant--the image is gentle and holy and reminds me of St. Francis of Assisi. So many Hierophants are either depicted as tyrannical and overbearing or are completely unlike the original image (a Buddha, a goddess). This one manages to hew to traditional imagery, maintaining historical integrity without the attendant negativity.

Another card that personally resonates for me is Portia as Justice. I played the wise judge in a Sunday School reading of The Merchant of Venice and have always loved her famous speech ("The quality of mercy is not strained..."). The image of this card captures the way I envision Portia--and Justice--beautifully.

Other delightful correspondences include the mischievous Puck for the Devil and the Three Witches in Macbeth for the Moon (shown above). Both the cards' art and attribution show that depth and a light touch can go hand-in-hand.

Some of the Major Arcana images are a bit off the beaten track--Prospero as Temperance gives us the unusual sight of a bearded man in that role; the Sun shows a young adult couple dancing. Judgment depicts a man with a book in one hand, scales to his right, a hanging couple to his left, offering an unusually deliberative version of Trump XX.

The Minor Arcana is considerably less interesting artistically. The suits are Sceptres (Wands), Chalices, Quills (Swords), and Coins (again, I am struck with the similarity to the Jane Austen Tarot--the suits I have chosen are Candles, Cups, Pens, and Coins!), and are pip cards with no additional image to help the novice remember the meaning. Instead, there is a Shakespeare quotation written on a flowing white ribbon that streams about the suit designator, which offers a verbal, as opposed to pictorial, mnemonic. As a predominantly verbal person, this doesn't bother me as much as it might someone who is more visual.

The Three of Sceptres (Wands) contains the classic line, "To thine own self be true," from Hamlet. Not only is the Shakespearean correspondence extremely pertinent to this card, the quotation can be one you graft onto almost any other deck's Three of Wands in a reading. Sometimes the expression cited on the card is a warning about the negative aspect of a card, such as, "Gold that's put to use more gold begets" for the Four of Coins or "Neither a borrower nor a lender be" for the Six of Coins.

Sometimes the quotation alone doesn't illuminate the card's meaning--you need the context in order to understand it. The Seven of Quills (Swords) bears the line, "Words before blows," from Julius Caesar. If you are familiar with Caesar's fate, you know that Brutus' words are as conniving as any Seven of Swords could be, but otherwise, you must read the text to understand the connection.

Some other wonderful matches with famous lines include the Five of Sceptres (Wands) -- "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!"; the Eight of Chalices -- "The course of true love never did run smooth"; and (my personal favorite), the Two of Quills (Swords) -- "To be or not to be, that is the question."

Some of the Court Cards have also been renamed. The Page/Princess is Lady and the Knight is now a Lord. The Queen, and King remain the same. The attributions are as follows:

Court Card Shakespeare Oracle Correspondence
Lady (Page) of Sceptres Volumnia (Coriolanus)
Lord (Knight) of Sceptres Richard Plantagenet (Henry VI)
Queen of Sceptres Katherine of Aragon (Henry VIII)
King of Sceptres Philip the Bastard (King John)
Lady (Page) of Chalices Rosalind (As You Like It)
Lord (Knight) of Chalices Valentine (Two Gentlemen of Verona)
Queen of Chalices Hermione (The Winter's Tale)
King of Chalices Antony (Antony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar)
Lady (Page) of Quills Viola (Twelfth Night)
Lord (Knight) of Quills Armado (Love's Labour's Lost)
Queen of Quills Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing)
King of Quills Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke (Richard II)
Lady (Page) of Coins Mistress Page (The Merry Wives of Windsor)
Lord (Knight) of Coins Falstaff (Henry IV)
Queen of Coins Helena (All's Well That Ends Well)
King of Coins Shylock (The Merchant of Venice)

Some of the more unusual illustrations include the Queen of Sceptres (Wands), who holds a monkey in her arms. Usually, the requisite animal ally for this queen is feline. The King of Quills (Swords) is particularly interesting because it depicts the once and future kings in Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke. As Llewellyn writes, "Perhaps if Richard could have been Henry's speechwriter, a happy balance might have been reached." Shylock, the successful, but mercenary, moneylender in The Merchant of Venice, is an apt choice, as he embodies two aspects of the King of Coins.

There are several other Shakespeare-themed tarot decks. The most well-known one is, I think, Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki's Shakespearean Tarot.  I find it interesting that the deck's creator acknowledges being relatively new to the world of tarot (the first time the author used tarot was in July of 2001), but as an English Major, brings a wealth of knowledge of Shakespeare to the table. Ashcroft-Nowicki is best known as an occultist, so her deck seems more to emphasize that strength.

One quotation Llewellyn uses to show Shakespeare's expressions are ones we are still familiar with today is, "Brevity is the soul of wit." Clearly, the author has taken these words to heart; this book is possibly too succinct. There is a short introduction that tells us more about Llewellyn and Shakespeare's relevance than the tarot. Then there's a page on the structure of the card descriptions and the author's view of reversals, some wonderful Shakespearean-themed layouts, and the card descriptions themselves...and that's it! While those who are familiar with tarot will need nothing more, a Shakespeare fan who picks this up without knowledge of the tarot may feel a bit adrift. The Major Arcana and Court Cards interpretations are approximately two pages in length, and each card is broken down into categories, Character and Role. Character offers us the background material, the Role speaks directly to the card interpretation. The Minor Arcana card interpretations only receive one page and are not written in the Character/Role format. 

The art for this deck is absolutely perfect for its subject, both stylistically and in terms of the artist's palette, which has a mellow, aged quality. The thick oak-colored borders just enhances the antique look of this deck.  The cards are oversized and on very thick card stock--shuffling would be a challenge even for Othello, with his giant hands. The cards are quite sturdy, but the edges aren't perfectly smooth. The card backs are reversible and elegant--basic black with an "S" for Shakespeare in a circle in the center of the card (good thing "S" is a reversible letter!).

This is my favorite Shakespeare-themed tarot and I recommend it highly to both tarot and Shakespeare enthusiasts. If you're interested in learning a bit about Shakespeare's work in a painless, tarot-related way, this deck is also for you. Just don't expect to shuffle it!

You can see a sample reading with this deck here.

If you would like to purchase this deck/book set, click here.

The Shakespeare Oracle: Let the Bard Predict Your Future by A. Bronwyn Llewellyn
Publisher: Fair Wind Press
ISBN #: 1592330169


Three of Sceptres

To thine own self be true.  -- Hamlet

Polonius speaks these words to his son, Laertes, who is about to leave for Paris.  Although Polonius is a bit of a pompous windbag, his are some of the most quoted lines in Shakespeare.  Above all else, he cautions his son, don't compromise your virtue or integrity; remain honest with yourself. (Of course, the old man doesn't quite trust Laertes and has him spied upon, but that's another matter.)  This card suggests elements of work-related travel, perhaps a high-risk venture, commerce, or long-term planning. You're in command and at the top of your game.  Maybe you're refining plans and preparing to take action, full of enthusiasm and acumen.  Or perhaps a project's already started and you're moving into the next phase. Hard work is starting to pay off, but you may need to collaborate with others to garner new ideas and fresh energy for the next push. You can see the big picture and its boldness doesn't unnerve you. You have the courage of your convictions.

Reversed, help may be in the offing, but it comes with ulterior motives or maybe treachery, like the solicitations of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  You might refuse help because you fear deceit.  A plan could be rejected or creativity blocked.  Hopes and desires may not be translated into action.  There could be work conflicts or opportunities missed. Energy is expended in vain or imprudently.  There may be a feeling of loss or disappointment.  Perhaps your ambition was too lofty or you were too obstinate or distrustful to ask for help, like Coriolanus.  You might feel out of the loop or think others are wasting their time on pie-in-the-sky possibilities rather than the business at hand.

  Yes No
78 cards X  
Reversible Backs X  
Strength VIII, Justice XI   X
Color Images X  
Standard (RWS) Titles of the Major Arcana X  
Traditional (RWS) Suits (Rods/Wands, Cups/Chalices, Swords, Pentacles/Disks) X  
Traditional (RWS) Golden Dawn Suit-Element Attributions X  
Standard dimensions (approx. 4 3/4" X 2 3/4")                     X
Smaller than standard                                             X
Larger than standard
(approx. 3 3/4 " x 5 1/4 ")                                             

Images 2003 Fair Winds Press
Review and page 2003 Diane Wilkes