The complexity of the court cards comes from the different ways they can be read in a situation. Like the pips, the court cards can give an indication about what is going on in a situation. They can also (and more typically) show a person’s personality or how they act in the situation (the who and how, respectively).
How do you distinguish between the two? The simplest answer is look at the question. If you are asking how to deal with a situation, then the court cards tell you how to deal with it and the best approach to take. If you are asking about what is going on, they can represent one aspect of the situation or a person. Whenever you are reading for someone, keeping their question in mind will help guide the reading.
The other thing to keep in mind is what other cards are around them. If there are a predominance of court cards, what does it tell you? Are there a lot of cooks in the kitchen? Is the questioner acting sporadic? Do they need to approach the situation from different perspectives at once?
Here is a basic break down of each of the court cards:
The pages, historically the messengers, herald news, change, and works in process. They represent the element of earth and relate to the Trump Strength. The page is a person who is new to situation and he is entering an unknown field. He is inexperienced but passionate.
The knights are activity, they are constantly in motion and have a hard time sitting still. They represent the element of fire and the Trump the Hanged Man. The knight identifies with a cause and then pursues it. He is a person advancing towards a goal; they are the movers and shakers of the deck.
The queens, historically occupied either roles of power or authority. She carries her power in her influence of a situation and her ability to be diplomatic. In the what role, she represents stability, solidarity, growth & development. Their element is water and her Trump is Death. The queens are Kali, the creator and destroyer; they balance opposites and can see things from all sides. They approach things with the power of diplomacy the ability to bring people to their side without brute force.
The king is the card of influence and authority, he expresses power, control, and authority. He brings a readiness to move in a new direction and the solid ground of experience. His element is air and Trump is Temperance. The king is the “philosopher king”, he expresses control and authority rooted in experience and maturity. They drive situations; while knowledgeable of their realm, they have an eye of the world beyond their own.
The court doesn’t represent gender or age, you can simultaneously be a page and a king in different parts of your life. They are energy, the energy that is in the situation. An older interpretation ascribed stages of life to one of the card (i.e., pages were young people; knights young men; queens were women who weren’t pages; and kings were men in the prime of their life). I think of the courts as personalities, regardless of age. A person may be a king in one aspect of their life, but a page in another. Or you can move between court cards depending on the situation (when I’m a student I’m more of a page, but when I’m at work I’m a king). Do not think of the courts as static, but rather dynamic aspects of your life. Whatever way the card comes up in a reading, they are messengers. They guide us about the people around us and the situation around us.