Shakespearean Lovers, Competition, and the Five of Wands

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a Shakespeare post. Let’s change that.

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When I say “Shakespearean lovers”, your mind probably goes straight to Romeo and Juliet. Or maybe Antony and Cleopatra. Either way, it’s doubtless a vision of overwhelmingly sappy, passionate love affairs, of True Love™ and destiny and flowery sonnets. But in reality, that’s not what love is about in Shakespeare. At least, not most of the time. In the overwhelming majority of Shakespeare’s writing, love is, well, combative.

The picture above is the cinematic poster for Kiss me Kate, a screen adaption of a stage musical that was, in turn, based on the Shakespearean comedy The Taming of the Shrew. (Younger, more hip readers who aren’t familiar with the musical may know the more contemporary non-musical adaptation Ten Things I Hate About You.)

The Cliff’s Notes version of this play: Kate is angry at the world because she’s a woman trapped in a patriarchal society and that sucks. Her father declares that her younger sister, Bianca, can’t marry until Kate is married, but Kate doesn’t want to marry because of her aforementioned anger at the world she lives in. So Bianca’s suitors pay a jackass named Petruchio to woo and marry Kate. Problem is, Petruchio and Kate don’t much like each other. In fact, they hate each other and spend all their time fighting, and Kate is married off to Petruchio against her will (because her bitch-ass father is relieved to finally be able to sell off his feminist daughter like a heiffer; yaaaay for feminism). At the end of the play, somehow, Kate is reconciled to Petruchio (i.e. she submits to him) and the whole thing closes with an awkward happily-ever-after slapped on the end.*

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Or let’s step away from The Taming of the Shrew for a moment and look at something like Much Ado About Nothing. Beatrice and Benedick are another famous pair of Shakespearean lovers, and at the start of the play, they hate each other. They spend most of the play swapping zingers about how much they loathe each other, with gems like “Scratching a face could not make it worse, an ’twere such a face as yours were”. Yeeeouuch! This is hardly the oozing romanticism that we tend to associate with something like Shakespearean love.

Or take again A Midsummer Night’s Dream. At the very beginning of the play, Hermia and Helena swap the golden lines, “The more I hate, the more he follows me” and “The more I love, the more he hateth me”. Or, lest you think this trend is only to be found in comedies, look at the twisted relationship between Lady Macbeth and her husband the thane. Lady M spends the entire play prodding at her husband, pushing him to do more, trying to wring from him the milk of human kindness. Her exasperated cry of “Infirm of purpose! Give me the daggers” is familiar to anyone who has ever had to rehash the same argument over and over again with a loved one (although there’s a bitter irony in it, because of course she and her husband are arguing about murder and not about leaving the toilet seat up).

And finally, let’s consider Sonnet 130, one of my favorites. For anyone unfamiliar with it, it runs as follows:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hair be wires, black wires grow from her head.

I have seen roses damsked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.

I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.

And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

Whew, dog. That is not a flattering portrait of his beloved. I cannot imagine the hell that would rain down on me if I said any one of these things about a lover, let alone all of them together.

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So what’s the point that I’m trying to make here, and how does it connect to Tarot? For Shakespeare, love is combative. It’s rarely the rosy, über-romanticized vision that we’ve come to associate with his craft. In truth, Shakespeare is no romantic. He knows what real relationships look like; they’re ugly, and messy, and involve an unseemly amount of squabbling. Love for Shakespeare is more often than not about two people sparring with each other, and somehow coming to love each other through the joy of that sparring.

And this brings us to the Five of Wands, one of the most misunderstood cards in the Minor Arcana. I think that this card, more than any other, shows what love is for Shakespeare.

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Here’s the thing about the Five of Wands: It’s really not a bad card. So many Tarot readers, novice and experienced alike, turn over the Five of Wands and tell this long, unpleasant narrative about competition. They’ll talk about feeling cut down by others, about not being treated fairly, and so on. But a lot of what they end up saying really doesn’t belong to the Five of Wands; it’s much more the Five of Swords.

True, the Five of Wands is about competition. That’s pretty difficult to deny. However, it’s not the same kind of competition that we get in something like the Five of Swords. The latter card is dishonest, underhanded, and generally quite unfair. It’s the sort of competition where you never really wanted to participate in the first place, the deck is stacked against you, and you have no way out. It’s everything that we hate about competition. The Five of Wands, on the other hand, is everything that we love about competition. It’s the thrill of the chase, the joy of physical and mental exertion, the euphoric burst of endorphins you get when the finish line is in sight and you make one last push. It’s a friendly, honest competition, without the undercurrents of anger or resentment that we find in the Five of Swords. It’s the Olympics, the Superbowl, March Madness (et cetera, et cetera). It’s competition not because you have to, but for the sheer love of competing.

In Shakespeare, people fall in love because they are a match for each other. Not in an ooey-gooey you-complete-me way, but in a you-can-take-me-on-in-a-battle-of-wits-and-escape-with-your-life** way. They fall in love because they challenge each other, and because they enjoy the challenge. As Pat Benatar (a bard as skilled as Shakespeare himself) said, “Love is a battlefield”, but that’s actually a good thing. I don’t think most Shakespeare characters would survive a love affair without a little bit of conflict. They need that conflict. They thrive on it. And if they didn’t have someone with whom they could engage in a friendly sparring match every now and then, they’d probably go insane.

I’ll be honest; I’m not entirely sure what the purpose of this post was. It needs some editing, but I’m quite ill (so ill that I called in sick to work yesterday, which I hate doing) and am unwilling to take the time to figure out how to make it more coherent. I suppose there are two big takeaways here. Firstly, I like Shakespeare and haven’t written a Shakespeare blog post in a very long time, so I wanted to do something in that vein. And secondly, the Five of Wands really isn’t a negative card, the way that so many people seem inclined to read it. At least, I don’t think it is. Sure, it’s competitive, but it’s a healthy kind of competition, the kind that keeps us sane and balanced. The kidn that challenges us and enables us to grow. And the virtues of the Five of Wands are, I think, the same sort of thing that hold together romantic relationships in just about every Shakespeare play that isn’t Romeo and Juliet.


*Okay, so obviously, as a modern reader who thinks women should not be treated like livestock, I have really serious issues with this play. There are certainly ways to direct it such that Kate figures out how to maintain a sense of personal autonomy despite living in a misogynistic world, where she’s in cahoots with the secretly feminist Petruchio or where she outsmarts him and controls him without him realizing it. But the play, in and of itself, is not kind to women. There are also some pretty horrific scenes where Petruchio refuses to feed Kate and where he tries to make her doubt her perception of reality, so, you know, lots of literal abuse happening. I think the play is still worth reading, and I choose to read it in one of the kinder lights that show Kate as having more control over her situation, but at the end of the day it’s important to remember that Shakespeare was a probably gay man writing in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and such persons are not widely famed for being kind to women. If nothing else, Shakespeare allows us to sympathize with Kate and feel her anger at the unjust circumstances of her life, and that’s more than any other Renaissance writer would have given us.

**Or in the case of the Macbeths, a battle of regicide and infanticide. The family that slays together stays together.

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