What is the character sketch of the Lady of Shalott?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Lady of Shalott, the title character of Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem, is a dynamic character, meaning that she grows as a person over the course of the ballad. As the poem begins, the Lady is living a routine existence isolated in a tower on the island of Shalott. More than isolated, she is stuck in position so that she doesn't even come to the tower window. No one ever sees her, but they hear her singing. She spends her day weaving because she is under a curse that will take effect if she stops. As part of the curse, she cannot look toward Camelot. As a way of dealing with the lot she's been given, she rigs up a mirror that reflects the world beyond her window. She weaves the sights that she sees into a tapestry. For a while she is satisfied to do so, but one night she sees a newlywed couple in her mirror. This causes her to say, "I am half sick of shadows."

Soon she sees and hears another passerby who makes her even more discontented with her situation. Sir Lancelot, shining and singing, rides by. Whether she thinks it through consciously or makes a spur of the moment mistake, she leaves her loom to look at the handsome knight. When the loom breaks and the mirror chacks, she perceives that the curse has been activated. Rather than lamenting her fate, she decides to make the most of whatever time she has left to her. She leaves the tower, gets in a boat after inscribing it with her name, and floats toward Camelot. Her stare is "glassy" because she understands that she is doomed. She lies down in the boat as it winds toward Camelot. As she drifts along, she sings "a carol, mournful, holy, chanted loudly, chanted lowly." Her holy chant is reminiscent of a nun, which is significant in two ways: She presumably never married, and she is considered a virtuous woman. She keeps singing until she dies. The respect paid to her by the residents of Camelot—and Lancelot in particular—confirms that she is a woman who made brave and noble choice.

Tennyson doesn't give readers enough information to fully analyze the Lady of Shalott's character. Some might believe she made a reckless decision to risk death for the mere look at a passing knight. Others may applaud her willingness to grab whatever joy she could and her decision to risk her life for an ideal. The way Camelot honors her implies that Tennyson intended readers to think well of his heroine, who defied her unfair imprisonment and chose to go out in a blaze of glory.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team