Imagery, Shakespeare and Tarot Cards

I’ve been reading a wonderful book given to me by a friend, Caroline Spurgeon’s Shakespeare’s Imagery and What It Tells Us. Not much is known about Shakespeare’s life some 400 years ago. Many people find it hard to believe that the greatest writer in English – or perhaps in any language – was a poorly educated actor from the provincial town of Stratford-Upon-Avon. Some have claimed that he was the philosopher and scientist Francis Bacon, while others argued for the upper-class playwright Christopher Marlowe.

Spurgeon showed brilliantly that the way to know Shakespeare was through his imagery. By exploring his imagination, she reveals a man of humble life who loved his garden, lived in a small house (the room his writing evokes most is the kitchen) and enjoyed playing bowls. Published in 1935, Spurgeon’s book is still fresh as a daisy; or as Shakespeare put it,

Fresh as a bridegroom; and his chin new reap’d
Show’d like a stubble-land at harvest-home;

The quotation above is from a satirical description of a fashionable lord flouncing about a battlefield in Henry IV, Part I.  Shakespeare got to know such arrogant, wealthy young men as he rose to prominence, but the image of “a stubble-land at harvest-home” reveals his lifelong familiarity with farming and its seasons.

All of which is a roundabout way to talk about how imagery can be useful in counselling. Often the key message for the counsellor is not in what someone says, but in the word pictures used to illustrate it. Images, being entwined with our emotions and instinctual responses, are always showing us something.

From the DruidCraft Tarot

The Tarot deck is one way to access the power of imagery, and I will often make use of this to awaken my awareness of what might be hidden. Sometimes I will ask a client to draw a card at random and to speak of what she or he sees. Or I might do this myself in private, and hold the image in mind, wondering about it. If this client were seen in the light of this image, how might that change how I see them?

I can’t talk too specifically about my clients, but a friend gave me permission to relate this story. He drew a Tarot card, the Two of Swords. Together, we explored what the image said to him, and what seemed to be significant was that neither option seemed safe or advisable. He took that away with him to a retreat shortly afterwards, and on a walk found himself at a very similar place – a forking path next to a tree. Rather than taking either path, he sat down nearby meditating on this, and after a little while a family came along. They were ‘geo-caching’ – a hobby that involves searching with a GPS device for items hidden in advance at a particular location. The boy, of about eleven, started digging at the foot of the tree, and unearthed a tin box, which he showed excitedly to my friend.

The image took my friend on a journey of self-discovery that led him to that tree and to an insight that he needed, about his relationship to difficult choices. Sometimes if we have the patience to wait at a crossroads, something precious might show itself.

For those interested in Tarot, I recommend The DruidCraft Tarot, created Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm. 


  1. You might like the imagery in my son’s Shakespeare Tarot deck…. see it by searching for Chris Leech Shakespeare Tarot

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