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Symbols and Themes in "The Lady of Shalott" by Lord Tennyson


"The Lady of Shalott" by Lord Tennyson explores themes of isolation, art, and the conflict between reality and illusion. Symbols such as the mirror and the web represent the Lady's separation from the world and her creative process. The river symbolizes the passage of life, leading to her inevitable death when she attempts to engage with the reality she has long observed from afar.

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What do Camelot and Shalott represent in "The Lady of Shalott"?

I am assuming by "poles" of human life you are referring to polarity or extremes of existence.  We see in this poem two extremes - the active participant and the voyeur.  Camelot represents the active participant, engaged in war and life and drama.  Shallot represents the voyeur, sitting quietly and simply observing all that goes on around her.  This extreme is one of wisdom, but also one of sadness, for the lady wants to be a part of all she sees and seems to understand that by only watching, she is not truly living.

It occured to me that you may also have meant to write "roles of human life".  In answer to this question, Shallot represents the artist, recording what she sees and finding beauty in her surroundings.  This is the aesthetic and intellectual role of life.  Camelot is the physical and active role of life, as portrayed by Lancelot, described in glory for his physical strength.

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What Arthurian themes are symbolized in 'The Lady of Shalott'?

"The Lady of Shallot" is a beautiful, romantic ballad that is mythic, all the elements of the poem transcend logic.  She is trapped in a tower, unable to leave, uses a mirror to see the world, falls in love with Lancelot from hearing him sing and then surrenders to her passion for this shining knight offering her death as a testament to her love for Lancelot.

Camelot embodies a tragic love story, the love of Guinevere, Arthur's queen and Lancelot, a favored knight of the round table.      

In this poem, "The Lady of Shallot," the Arthurian legend is evident in the romance that is evoked by the isolated lady's falling in love with Lancelot, a Knight of Camelot. 

She is a symbol of the maiden needing rescue; however, Lancelot cannot save her.  For "The Lady of Shallot," just like Camelot, passion is a disruptive force in her life, which leads to her death.

The poem is also linked to Camelot because it is a fantasy.  The lady has a curse on her and is unable to leave the tower.  The reason for the curse if never explained. 

"The character Tennyson calls the Lady of Shalott is based on Elaine of Astolat, one of the figures from the legend of King Arthur."  

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What does the Lady of Shalott symbolize?

The lady in The Lady of Shallott, symbolically represents the conditions that existed in society that controlled the lives of Victorian women. As sons were gaining more freedom in upper class families, daughters were still considered possessions to be guarded and controlled by the Victorian family which was ruled by men, fathers, uncles, grandfathers, or male guardians who made all decisions for young women.  The imprisonment in the tower could be viewed as a metaphor for maintaining the young woman's purity, by keeping her out of the real world of temptations.

"Possibly the most important, and most broadly felt pattern dominating the life of the Victorian woman was what the reformer Jane Addams once called the "family claim." According to the family claim, women, far more than men, were regarded as possessions of their families."

 As a metaphor for the life of a Victorian women, the lady is held prisoner in a tower, which could be symbolically viewed as her "family home," where she is bound by a curse which is also symbolic of the control that her male protector imposes on her.  She is restrained from engaging in any illicit romances because purity, modesty and virginity were key to a Victorian woman's potential marital arrangements. So daughters were held captive in their homes, protected, guarded until a suitable marriage arrangement could be made by her father or male relative.  

"The poem's popularity rests, more than anything else, on its embodiment of the highly complex Victorian conception of woman, and the correlative Victorian attitude toward the home. The overwhelming problems Victorian England faced created a psychological need to retreat into the safety of the home where delicate spiritual values could be protected and preserved."

The lady in the tower, or the escaping teenager, leaves the confines and safety of her home to seek romance, looking for her knight in shining armor, Lancelot, she runs away from home longing to be embraced by love.  She breaks the rules of her family, society and reduces her stature as marriageable material, figuratively she is dead in this society, marked by a stain.

The lady dies after she leaves the tower, figuratively the young upper class Victorian young woman who escapes from her family home to seek adventure and romance with a dashing knight could be considered dead to her family since she has betrayed their trust and ruined their reputation.  Imagine if in "Pride and Prejudice" Lydia Bennett, through the intervention of Mr. Darcy, did not get properly married to Mr. Wickham, she would be socially dead to her family, killing all chances of a proper marriage for herself and her sisters.  

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What does the Lady of Shalott symbolize?

In Alfred Lord Tennyson’s famous poem “The Lady of Shalott,” a fair maiden is trapped in a tower weaving, cursed if she ever stops her work to gaze out her window. Light bears symbolic significance in the poem. Let’s examine the first description of light that appears in order to understand what that light represents:

The sunbeam showers break and quiver

In the stream that runneth ever

By the island in the river

Flowing down to Camelot.

This description of the sunlight on the river that leads to Camelot indicates that the water surrounding the Lady’s tower isolates her from the outside world. The water itself “breaks” and makes “quiver” sunlight, which suggests that the light represents a connection with Camelot, or other people.

In parts 1 and 2, the speaker describes moonlight and what the Lady of Shallot is able to glimpse in her mirror during the nighttime. After making out the shape of two newlyweds, the Lady of Shallot remarks, “'I am half sick of shadows.’” This suggests that she feels isolated and trapped by the darkness that consumes her surroundings. This makes darkness the symbolic opposite of light.

The true significance of light, however, becomes clear when the Lady sees Lancelot for the first time:

The sun came dazzling thro' the leaves,

And flam'd upon the brazen greaves

Of bold Sir Lancelot.

. . . His broad clear brow in sunlight glow'd

Lancelot is literally swathed in sunlight, and the Lady of Shallot is so enamored of the knight’s beauty that she is compelled to turn away from her weaving and gaze upon him. If one considers that the Lady of Shallot is lonely, and that the shadows she is “half sick of” are happy lovers, the light in which Lancelot is bathed represents her desire for love. In addition, this desire is a temptation for the Lady of Shallot, who dies shortly after admiring the physical form of a man.

Overall, light in this poem represents desire, love, connection, and temptation.

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What does the Lady of Shalott symbolize?

There are a number of ways to interpret this poem. Looked at literally, as mizzwillie does in her post above, the poem resonates with ideas of loneliness, isolation and eventually a yearning for life. 

However, if we read the poem more figuratively (metaphorically), we might see "The Lady of Shalott" as a poem about death. 

The Lady in the poem is repeatedly associated with death, from Part I all the way to Part IV. 

The first connection to death comes early in the poem. 

The reaper, reaping late and early,
Hears her ever chanting cheerly,
Like an angel, singing clearly
Reaping is a common metaphor for death as the act of reaping takes place as part of the harvesting of crops (e.g., when a plant has passed through its life cycle). The additional suggestion that the Lady's song and voice reminds the reapers of angels further links her to the idea of death (as angels are often figures of the afterlife). 

The "web" that the Lady is said to be weaving might be taken to be a shroud (used to wrap a corpse). The Lady's tendency to reflect and look back (or backwards through a mirror) also aligns nicely with the notion that she is emblematic of death, seeing life only in retrospect. 

But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror's magic sights,
For often thro' the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights
       And music, came from Camelot
We see again here that the Lady is connected to the idea of death and the poem suggests that she enjoys hearing the and seeing the signs of a funeral at Camelot. 
The Lady dies at the end of the poem and completes her journey, arriving in Camelot as a corpse. Before she dies, however, those passing nearby "heard her chanting her deathsong." The Lady of Shalott seems to be a figure representing death then, not only in her final appearance and in her relation to reaping but also as a reminder to any who pass by. 
One might go so far as to compare the Lady of Shalott to a cemetery or burial ground. She is a symbol of inevitable death and severance from life. 
This is not a cheery view of the poem, but this is not a very cheery poem. The "mournful" song that the Lady sings might serve as a nice analogy for the poem itself. Yet there is a sense that the Lady is revered, even if she is isolated.
She is dressed for death and perhaps is even already in a casket in Part I of the poem.
A pearl garland winds her head:
She leaneth on a velvet bed,
Full royally apparelled
  However, in her appearance and in her effect on those who hear her, the Lady does not bring melancholy. She is cursed to do her work of weaving, but she does not mind. She is alone, but she is unconcerned with the "churls" and "market girls" of Camelot. And when her work in front of the mirror is done, she departs in a final death.
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What does the Lady of Shalott symbolize?

The poem, The Lady of Shalott, has several meanings or themes.  The lady is in isolation, locked in a tower and under a curse though we are never told why.  She lives her life passively through a mirror which is to say that she really doesn't live in the real world because the reflection of the mirror is her world.  Anyone who lives passively eventually wants to join the real world as the lady does  when she hears Lancelot sing.  Now, she joins the real world when she looks at Camelot because of the singing and in essence sets the curse in motion.  For the first time, she can now choose what to do with the rest of her life which is to float down the river in a boat and see the world along its banks. She dies, but before her death, she lives in the reality of life instead of the distance of a mirror. In death, she is without a name and in the end is treated as an anonymous lady from a place called Shalott.  

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What is the theme of "The Lady of Shalott" by Lord Tennyson?

One of the themes of "The Lady of Shalott" is directly tied to symbolism present in the poem. 

At its center, the poem is probably about the role of artists and the creative process.  The Lady as artist is totally isolated from reality.  Her view of the world is limited to what she sees in the mirror.  She does not experience reality, but only a two-dimensional reflection of it.  She is, symbolically, an artist who is out of touch with reality.  She is not allowed to experience reality for herself, but only to view it through her mirror.

When she is drawn to reality (by Lancelot's singing, by the way--another art form) and looks out the window her art "explodes," for want of a better word.  Her art crashes in the face of reality.  The mirror cracks, symbolizing the failure of imagination alone to accurately reflect reality.  The reality of Camelot cannot match her art portraying Camelot. 

The idea seems to be that an artist cannot accurately portray reality if too drastically isolated from it.  Again, the poem is concerned with artists and the creative process.  Perhaps that's why, from the writer's point of view, the Lady of Shalott cannot be allowed to reach Camelot--Camelot, as she portrayed it, doesn't exist.   

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What other symbols are used in "The Lady of Shalott" and what do they represent?

The mirror that the Lady of Shallot uses to view what is outside of the tower represents how people can view things with an altered sense of reality.  The lady could only view the outside world through her mirror, which did not satisfy her and which altered her view of the outside world. Despite knowing that she would die if she viewed what was outside the tower with her own eyes, she decided that she would rather see it for herself and see its beauty, so she climbed down from the tower and floated off in a boat down the river, dying along the way.

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