What is the setting of "The Lady of Shalott"?

The setting of Tennyson's poem is early medieval Britain, in the vicinity of Camelot, the seat of King Arthur and his knights. Shalott itself is an island in the river that flows to "many-towered Camelot," and the Lady of Shalott is imprisoned there, condemned to weave a tapestry and cursed with death when she stops her work.

Expert Answers

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

Throughout his oeuvre, Tennyson was concerned obsessively with Britain's distant past. In The Lady of Shalott he creates a scenario tangential to the primal legend of King Arthur, who is not mentioned, though the most prominent of Arthur's knights, Lancelot, is indirectly the cause of the Lady's misfortune.

Most scholars agree that the Arthurian legends have at least some basis, however tenuous, in fact and are rooted in the period of resistance by the indigenous Britons to the Saxon invaders of the fifth century CE. The exact geographical location in Britain of Arthur's court is not specified in the literary versions of the legend. But Tennyson merely has to mention "many-towered Camelot" for a set of mythic associations and ideas to be evoked in the collective consciousness of the English-speaking culture. These ideas establish a link between the immediate time/place of the Lady's story and the general concept of chivalric romance in old England. The Lady is the type of a doomed female spirit, isolated and condemned to a task, in this case one of endless weaving. She finally sets herself free from the confinement and floats downriver to her death.

Though it's a bit facile to interpret the story as a proto-feminist parable, the medieval setting forms a kind of double-edged literary sword. On the one hand, it is the ideal, pastoral place contrasting with the modern, increasingly mechanized world of Tennyson's era. But encompassed within that setting are isolation, sorrow, and the type of irrational punishment so often enacted in stories rooted in primal human desires and fears. There is also a breakout into freedom, a defiance by a woman of the unfairness of her fate. The death of the Lady of Shalott is one of many tragic events depicted in legend, like the romances of Guinevere and Lancelot, Tristan and Iseult, and Siegfried and Brunnhilde, except that in this case, the Lady remains alone, destined to die merely for intending to break the harsh curse imposed upon her.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team