Discuss the idea that "The Lady of Shalott" is a poem about transgression and punishment."

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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"The Lady of Shalott" by Alfred Tennyson can be seen as a poem about transgression and punishment, which may have been how some readers in the Victorian era read it, especially those of a Puritanical persuasion, although this is not one of the commonly attributed primary themes. The Lady of Shalott was happily living in a high tower under both an enchantment and a curse. Tennyson directly states the existence of the curse but only suggests the existence of an enchantment.

The Lady's occupation is to weave the scenes of life in Shalott as they go on below her tower window by the aid of a mirror suspended from the ceiling angling downward to reflect to her vision the activity below. Her enchantment is that she is able to weave on her loom the rapidly changing scenes of life as they fly past behind her while she sees their "shadows" in her mirror. She is quite happy until one day she sees a funeral, which she has seen before, wend its way to Camelot followed by "two young lovers lately wed," after which she cries, "I am half sick of shadows."

It is afterward that she sees Lancelot returning to Camelot. He "flamed" in the "dazzling" sun while he "ever kneeld / To a lady...,"though only in his shield, which "sparkled." His equipage "glitter'd" like "stars" and his "bells rang merrily." She, the enchanted, became in an instant enchanted with Lancelot. She ran to the window and directly looked at life, directly partook of life, to see Lancelot. Her life was forfeit, the curse enlivened.

In terms of the theme of transgression and punishment, the Lady's transgression would have been that she threw wisdom aside and partook of the forbidden pleasures of life. Her punishment would be that she was irrevocably subjected to the inexorable consequences of the curse, creating a direct cause and effect relationship rendering the inescapable consequences of her action, which would be that she must "loose the chains" of life and die with the last breath of her daily heard song.

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