Character Analysis in The Lady of Shalott
Character Analysis Examples in The Lady of Shalott:
Text of the Poem
"She looked down to Camelot...." See in text (Text of the Poem)
When the Lady looks outside, her gaze first passes over the surrounding water lilies, flowers associated with purity. She then sees Lancelot’s plumed helmet, an object associated with masculinity and sexuality. In Malory’s story, after Lancelot rejects Elaine and says he will never marry, she disgraces herself by offering to become his illicit lover. These details can combine with Lancelot’s suggestive song for an interpretation of the curse as a symbolic loss of innocence for the Lady, which would have resulted in social ruin during the Victorian era. In both Tennyson’s poem and Elaine’s story, Lancelot unwittingly becomes the downfall for a lady who begins the story as the Victorian ideal of womanhood, isolated and pure.
""I am half sick of shadows,"..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
This is an important moment of agency for the Lady. Her declaration that she is tired of seeing only “shadows” of the world opens up the interpretation that she may be reconsidering her situation and waiting for something worth looking at. It also marks the turning point where her “cheer” and “delight” in her life and work begin to wane. It is notable how soon this moment arises after the statement of her “delight” just at the beginning of this stanza; it is possible that the “delight” is a false report and that the Lady has long felt dissatisfied.
"a glassy countenance..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
“The Lady of Shalott” contains many moments that question the validity of personal agency. Because the curse is not well-defined to readers, it is difficult to tell how much control the Lady has over her actions once it has been invoked. This description of the Lady as being “in a trance” and having “a glassy countenance” seems to imply that she is still under the effect of an external power—especially as “glassy” relates back to the image of her mirror, destroyed by the curse—but she could also be reacting to the major emotional upheaval that would naturally follow the destruction of her artistic work. This could relate to multiple themes, perhaps describing a woman doomed to a single course of action following her “fall,” or an artist who does not know how to live without the isolation of her work.
"the helmet and the plume..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
This is a literary device called synecdoche, where a part of something is used to symbolize the thing’s entirety. Here, the dashing Lancelot, whom Tennyson took four full stanzas to describe, is reduced to a symbol of his knighthood: “helmet and the plume.” When the Lady finally does look away from her mirror, she glances only briefly at Lancelot before shifting her gaze to Camelot. In fact, Lancelot is not mentioned again until the end of the poem, after the Lady is dead. Lancelot’s omission here highlights the ambiguity in the Lady’s motivation. While the content of the previous stanza would imply that Lancelot is the cause for her departure from her weaving, here he is reduced to merely an object, seen after the water-lily and before Camelot itself. The degree to which he impacts the Lady, and the nature of her relationship to or interest in him, are never made textually explicit, allowing the poem to be read on a number of thematic levels.
"Came two young lovers lately wed;..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
The Lady experiences the outside world through her mirror, and the level of emotional disassociation it causes renders all sights equal to her eyes. The funeral she watches lacks any emotional weight, appearing instead almost as a parade: “with plumes and lights / And music.” That funeral is then equated to the approach of “two young lovers,” arguably a more joyous sight. The Lady’s disassociation from the surrounding world goes beyond physical isolation, preventing her from reacting in an emotional manner to the events she witnesses, even as her tapestry replicates them visually.