Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott portrays the role of women during the Victorian era and the desire for the main character of the poem to relinquish her female restraints and enter a male-dominated society. The Lady of Shalott is set during a period when society was restrained by the Victorian chain-of-being which deemed women to unequal to the supreme male dominance, for example, they had limited access to education and married women of higher classes were forbidden to work. It can be argued that Tennyson uses his main character to represent the increased activity of women activists who were petitioning for equality between the genders and most importantly the right to vote and were ultimately punished for doing so. The character’s rejection of the Victorian values of femininity leads to her ruin as she refuses to accept the boundaries her gender enforces upon her. As a result, the male-dominated society destroys her because there is no place for an assertive female.
Tennyson presents the Lady of Shalott as an outsider who is to remain on the verge of a patriarchal society, isolated on her own “silent isle” through the use of setting. With the use of dismal imagery, Tennyson constructs the setting to resemble a prison with “four grey walls, and four grey towers” entrapping her and physically separating the character from the rest of the world. The colour is repeated to enforce emphasis upon the monotonous and dreary existence of the Lady of Shalott, which contrasts dramatically with the rest of picturesque Camelot as the “sun came dazzling thro’ the leaves” and the darkness is described as a beautiful “purple night”. Although the character’s entrapment appears bleak, the man-made buildings can be viewed as a form of protection, shielding the Lady of Shalott from danger as women were thought to be the weaker sex during the Victorian era and therefore incapable of protecting themselves. Consequently, her lack of liberty and free will is stressed which illustrates the oppressive social and political hardships women suffered during the 19th Century.
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During The Lady of Shalott, the main character remains passive exaggerating what was considered to be feminine traits as she is only permitted to carry out activities within the home such as weaving. There is, therefore, great contrast between the Lady of Shalott and the animated natural movement where “little breezes dusk and shiver” and “the river eddy whirls”. It can be argued that Tennyson uses this to highlight the repression forced upon women by the dominating and controlling male gender. Halfway through the poem, the Lady of Shalott changes as she grows tiresome of her life shown through the use of dialogue which dramatically distinguishes her resentment towards her role as a woman by declaring that she is “‘half sick of shadows”. It is Tennyson’s first use of direct speech within the poem which breaks up the narrator’s description, therefore, establishing the female character’s strength and determination to break free from her restraints. It follows with her refusal to weave and her disregard of the curse’s restrictions which inevitably leads to her downfall shown when she cries out.
This is the last time she speaks within The Lady of Shalott, presenting the insistent male authority over women when they confront and disobey their roles within society. Many feminist critics have noted the main themes within The Lady of Shalott as being women’s sexuality and their place in Victorian society. Tennyson constructs Lancelot as a character comprising of many sexual notions such as the imagery of a “helmet and the plume” which alongside the Lady of Shalott’s “water-lily [blooming]” suggests her arousal. Sir Lancelot sings “‘Tirra lira,’ by the river” which is an intertextual reference to a song from Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale where Autolycus considers “tumbling in the hay” with his “aunts” (prostitutes). The Victorian era was a time where it was seen as a transgression of God’s will for a woman to exploit her sexuality either as a prostitute or with various partners without being credited as “unclean”, but it was perfectly acceptable for a man to use prostitutes or mistresses. It can be argued that Lancelot would have been viewed by a contemporary audience as a stereotypical ‘knight in shining armour’ coming to the rescue of a woman who cannot control her sexual and promiscuous desires.
Tennyson describes the character “bold Sir Lancelot” as a typical knight with “coal-black curls” and a “broad clear brow” so that Camelot is presented as an archetypal Arthurian city with a male-dominated presence. It is believed by many critics that the male character adopts the stereotypical qualities of a man in a medieval context and therefore reduces the Lady of Shalott’s status to the “damsel in distress”. The two characters are presented as antitheses to one another as the Lady of Shalott is described as living in “shadows” and “silence” whereas Lancelot is linked with colours of royalty and wealth such as “purple” and compared with the cosmos such as “meteors”. He is therefore presented as powerful, otherworldly and awe-inspiring in comparison to the Lady of Shalott. This is emphasized in stanza twelve of The Lady of Shalott as Lancelot’s influence and control overshadows the Lady of Shalott as instead of the stanza finishing with “Shalott”, “Lancelot” takes its place.
Tennyson further develops this idea, as Lancelot occupies most of Part II and Part III despite the poem being named after the woman. Therefore, women are presented as second-class citizens as the form of the poem appears to be manipulated by Lancelot ensuring women’s limited power is restrained. The Lady of Shalott is portrayed as a mysterious woman weaving “a magic web with colours gay” which can be interpreted as a reference to classical mythology when Penelope weaved for twenty years while she waited for her husband Odysseus to return. It can be argued that Tennyson presents her as a “fairy lady of Shalott” suggesting that she is a supernatural being and an unknown which therefore beyond the control of a patriarchal society. This is emphasized as her name is never mentioned within The Lady of Shalott and instead referred to by her gender. Tennyson acknowledges a lack of a Christian name as “they read her name/The Lady of Shalott” which develops the idea of the character being mystifying, but also dangerous as she has a link to the pagan religion followed in Ancient Greek mythology and there is no mention of a Christian name.
Tennyson concludes the fear that men feel towards women as they are unable to understand them and therefore cannot accommodate them as equals. The curse upon the Lady of Shalott can be viewed by feminist critics as the curse of being a woman. The female character relinquishes herself from her role as a female and as a result, suffers a punishment as “singing in her song she died.” It is only through death that she is truly recognized for her “lovely face” and gains recognition of being a woman and individual. Lancelot is oblivious of the effect he has had upon the Lady of Shalott which can be viewed as the double standards of both men and women during the Victorian period. The female character’s sexual exploitation is contradictory to the idealized role of women in Victorian society and they are supposedly passive, therefore she is punished and ultimately dies.
Despite this, Tennyson reprimands this notion through his use of description as the Lady of Shalott remains “robed in snowy white” which symbolizes her innocence and purity. In conclusion, it is evident that within the poem The Lady of Shalott, Tennyson includes many archetypes of women and men within Victorian (and medieval) society. He analyses closely the idea of a woman being the weaker sex and the notion of the man as the protecting and righteous gender. The poem can be interpreted by feminist critics as an example of typical Victorian views towards women and their rights. Due to Tennyson’s focus upon nature during a time of industrialization the Lady of Shallot appears as a caricature of how women were previously treated, therefore, suggesting a change in attitudes.