Table of Contents


Tarot Reflections

 August 1, 2004

Shakespeare's Faux Pages
Peter D. Cowen

Peter D. Cowen began studying Tarot in 1969, and Runes shortly thereafter. He is a 1978 graduate of Southern Illinois University, where he majored in English Literature,  primarily of the Renaissance. He has published numerous short stories and poetry, while working as a graphic design specialist in typography. His preferred decks are the Jean Dodal, Oswald Wirth, and Pamela Colman Smith Tarots, and he makes his own Runes from natural materials. He and his wife Christine, a native of Scarborough, England, operate Flora Tarot from their home in Belvidere, Illinois, and both are readers for the ATA's free reading networks.


Artist Pamela Coleman Smith (left) and actress Ellen Terry (right); Katherine Hepburn as Rosilind

As if by magic a tiny window opened in Elizabethan London between the years 1574 and 1642. It was then slammed shut by the Puritans, who had long awaited their chance to put the English theatres out of business. Of the many voices which were able to emerge and be heard during this brief flowering was that of William Shakespeare, a newcomer to London with a desire to perform upon and compose for the stage. One of the restrictions the Puritans had always been able to maintain was that no women were to be allowed to work as actresses. So, in the spirit of the show must go on, Elizabethan theatre companies wishing to keep their licensed patronage, employed young boys to perform the parts of female characters.

Shakespeare made brilliant use of this boys as girls situation, by often having boys as girls disguised as girls as boys. Modern productions have seldom felt the need to keep the boys as girls, but have made delightful use of the possibilities Shakespeare created using girls as boys. The English theatre which Pamela Colman Smith knew intimately, under the guardianship of the greatest actress of her day, Ellen Terry, surely provided her with a wealth of background and experience when she set about to create her Tarot, and one place we see this most clearly is in her four strikingly inspirational Pages. I have made a brief outline sketch of each character and related my personal views as to the Tarot illustrations I think they most closely resemble in personality and individual spirit, hopefully kindling a renewed celebration of our honoured and joyous roots, since the struggles of medieval times to the glories of the English Renaissance, and despite many obstacles, right up to today.

Lilly Brayton as Rosilind

As You Like It

She seeks to teach a version of love that not only can survive in the real world, but can bring delight as well. By the end of the play, having successfully orchestrated four marriages and ensured the happy and peaceful return of a more just government, Rosalind proves that love is a source of incomparable delight.

Vivien Leigh as Viola

Twelfth Night

She is the character whose love seems the purest. The other characters' passions are fickle. Only Viola seems to be truly, passionately in love as opposed to being self-indulgently lovesick. We can interpret Viola's disguise as something that makes the unprotected young woman feel safer in the strange land into which she has wandered.

Alexandra Carlisle as Portia
Dorothy Minto as Nerissa

The Merchant of Venice

The Duke, wanting to save Antonio but being unwilling to set the legal precedent of nullifying a contract, turns to a young scholar who is actually Portia in disguise as a doctor of civil law. Later as Portia leaves, Bassanio offers her a monetary gift. Portia turns this down, requesting his gloves and wedding ring instead.

Nora Lancaster as Imogen


When they were brought before the King, Lucius spoke out: "Roman with a Roman's heart can suffer," he said. "If I must die, so be it. This one thing only will I entreat. My boy, a Briton born, let him be ransomed. Never master had a page so kind, so duteous, diligent, true. He has done no Briton harm, though he has served a Roman. Save him, Sir." Then Cymbeline looked on the page, who was his own daughter, Imogen, in disguise, and though he did not recognize her, he felt such a kindness that he not only spared the boy's life, but he said: "He shall have any boon he likes to ask of me, even though he ask as a prisoner, the noblest taken."

Cards from the 1909 Rider Waite Tarot © U.S. Games. Photos from Peter Cowen's private collection.


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