The Lady of Shalott Themes

The three main themes in “The Lady of Shalott” are deprivation, art and artifice, and infatuation.

  • Deprivation: The Lady is isolated, forced to observe the world indirectly through a mirror, and does not initially seem to object to this deprivation.
  • Art and artifice: The Lady is presented as an artist, more involved in her creative version of her indirect experience than with life experience itself.
  • Infatuation: The Lady is often interpreted as dying of a broken heart because she is suddenly infatuated with Lancelot and he does not return her affection.

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In this poem, the main character exists under a spell without knowing what its origin is or why it has been put on her and without thinking of how she can remove it. She seems to accept it as her fate: "And so she weaveth steadily, / And little other care has she" (lines 43-44), the poem explains. The one stipulation of this mysterious curse is that she cannot look out her window at the panorama of nature and humanity that is so clearly outlined in the poem's first section. She does not seem to care that she is deprived of direct contact with the world. She does not question why she has been cursed like this. Tennyson does not provide an explanation for the curse; he does not offer a reason why this woman is denied the immediate pleasures and problems of real life. Perhaps the poet wanted the psychology behind her captivity to be open-ended and to invite readers to apply various interpretations to her situation and behavior. The important point is that she is isolated, forced to observe the world indirectly through a mirror, and she does not seem to object to this deprivation until her interest in handsome Lancelot overcomes her initial detachment.

Art and Artifice
The Lady of Shalott's view of reality depends on the reflection she perceives in her mirror. Mirrors may be thought of as devices that accurately duplicate the scene they reflect, but images in mirrors are different than reality. They reverse the subject and relegate it to two dimensions. Moreover, the objects reflected in this mirror cannot hurt the Lady of Shalott the same way objects viewed directly can. The reflected scenes of the Camelot countryside are further altered by her artistic imagination, as she incorporates them into her tapestry: it is her delight "[t]o weave the mirror's magic sights" (line 65). The Lady is thus presented as an artist, more involved in her creative version of her indirect experience than with life experience itself. Indeed, she represents the nineteenth-century emphasis on the problems and issues connected to the artist's subjectivity. Reality as she knows it is flat but gives the sense of depth; she transforms that reality imaginatively with her bright threads, yet she also renders it two-dimensional. When she faces actual reality by looking out the window, it breaks the mirror that she no longer needs to see through and also destroys her handiwork. Reality makes the art she has created vanish.

Quite a few critics suggest that the Lady of Shalott dies of a broken heart because she is suddenly infatuated with the dazzlingly beautiful Lancelot and he does not return her affection. This reading applies to the traditional tale that is the source for the piece; in the story of Elaine of Astolat, Elaine does indeed suffer from rejection. The Lady of Shalott, however, is a variation on that character, different in several ways. Tennyson changed the setting from Astolat to Shalott, an ancient variation of the name. In his poem, the Lady and Lancelot never meet: when he does see her for the first time, dead in her boat, he expresses belated interest.

Readers are told of Lancelot's physical appeal well before the Lady knows anything about it. He is described as having a broad, clear brow; his shield bares a picture of a knight kneeling to a lady, and his saddle is decked with jewels. But what draws the Lady to look out the window is the sound of his beautiful singing. As soon as she sees him, her weaving literally flies out the window, and her mirror cracks. "'The curse is come upon me'" (line 116), she says.

This reaction can be seen as symbolic. Being distracted by Lancelot brings the curse upon her. The curse may be understood as the loss of her creative perception of the world. Stated differently, she loses her way of keeping her mind occupied with work. In turn, the mirror's cracking suggests the idea that she can no longer focus only on artwork once her interest in another person draws her into the world at large. She is not "rejected" by Lancelot because, in this version, he is unaware of her until the end; still, she finds herself so drawn to him that she takes her life into her own hands, just to see the face that goes with that voice.

After she realizes that the curse has come upon her, the Lady of Shalott does not die immediately. Her exposure to the real world, even though it means her death, also means that she can express herself directly in the world. She leaves the tower, finds a boat, and writes her title on it before lying in it and casting off. Her trip down the river is her passive entry into the world of action. Or it could be understood as her acquiescence to her feelings. Curiously, even though it is Lancelot who distracts her from her weaving and thus seals her fate, her final action does not focus on him. She lets the river take her where it will, past all of the people and places she only has intuited partially in the mirror, and she sings, expressing herself in this moment to the world around her.

Themes and Meanings

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“The Lady of Shalott” has most often been read as an allegory of the artist’s condition in a society indifferent or even hostile to art. The Victorian age was not, by and large, especially sympathetic to art and artists. Many Victorians believed that poetry had had its day and could offer little of use in an age of serious scientific, industrial, and social effort. Put plainly, many Victorians believed that poetry “did” nothing, that it was merely idleness and frippery. Others, perhaps no more sympathetic to the real requirements of the artist, suggested that poetry could justify itself if it celebrated the serious social achievements of the modern age—if, in other words, it put itself to work providing moral edification for the reading masses. Certainly, many of Tennyson’s contemporaries took him to task for writing poems remote in their imaginative wonders from the mundane struggles and triumphs of the passing hour. Tennyson had a strong tendency to idealize the isolated, self-absorbed artist rapt in his visions of unearthly beauty, and this “art for art’s sake” doctrine came in for strong criticism from well-meaning Victorian critics. “The Lady of Shalott” is, in one dimension, Tennyson’s allegorical rejoinder to those utilitarian critics.

In the allegorical scheme, Camelot represents the world of commerce, politics, social responsibility, and daily life. Lancelot himself represents the temptations of worldly fame and power to which the artistic temperament succumbs at its peril. The mirror and the web represent the arts, and the lady the artist. This schematizing is reductive but not inaccurate, for the poem is at some level almost certainly a dramatization of the artist’s desperate condition in a world of commercial energies, democratic sentiment, and mass standardization. The artist, like the lady, is strong only in a world of images, and the price of this strength is isolation. Like the lady, the artist’s connection to the busy world of real life can only be tangential; his or her songs are at most overheard in the bustle of politics and business. In an age making insistent demands on the strenuous efforts of individuals in cooperation with social ventures, the artist may inevitably feel misgivings about his self-absorption and isolation, but the artistic temperament also knows that no reconciliation with such a world is possible except at the cost of artistic integrity. Lancelot is desired at the cost of imaginative power.

If this is Tennyson’s allegorical view of the artist’s position, it is a view far removed from the strong poetic faith of his Romantic predecessors such as Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Wordsworth. The great Romantic poets had believed in the transforming power of poetry. They believed that it was strong enough to act upon the real world and that the poet was a person of might—not so Tennyson, at least not in “The Lady of Shalott.” If the lady is Tennyson’s allegorized poet, then his poet is hiding out and is imperiled in a world of intractable fact. The lady is no match for the commercial power of Camelot; by comparison, her mirror is fragile and her web tenuous, and she turns from them only to be destroyed.

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