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Historical Context in The Lady of Shalott

Victorian Women: The Victorian era (1837-1901) was characterized by a very strict set of rules governing social interactions. Women, especially upper class women, were relegated to the domestic sphere and often barred by their fathers and husbands from participating in society . There was a large emphasis on chastity and purity, which meant that interaction between men and women was limited to the domain of family. Women mostly remained indoors and performed household tasks like weaving, cooking, and cleaning. The isolation experienced by the Lady of Shalott echoes the situation of the cloistered Victorian woman, who has very few rights and almost no personal agency.

Historical Context Examples in The Lady of Shalott:

Text of the Poem

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"A magic web..."   (Text of the Poem)

The Lady’s “magic web” is most likely a tapestry, a form of textile art in which colored threads are woven together to create patterns or images. The oldest known tapestry dates from the 3rd century BCE and the form continued to be popular through the 17th century CE. Tapestries were often commissioned by the aristocracy and commonly depicted religious iconography, hunting scenes, and family symbols or lineages. Noblewomen like the Lady would have been proficient at weaving, as tapestry making and cloth mending were tasks they were expected to perform. The act of weaving is also often associated with magic. A common motif in European folklore is the image of the fates, most commonly depicted as three sisters who weave a tapestry that represents the flow of life.

"She floated down to Camelot:..."   (Text of the Poem)

This stanza has been the inspiration for several famous paintings, including many by the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (1848–1853). The Brotherhood was a group of artists, poets, writers, and thinkers who embraced an organic approach to art and rejected the careful composition of many post-renaissance painters. Tennyson was a major influence on their works and “The Lady of Shalott” was admired by the brotherhood for its medievalism and Arthurian source. Though they were essentially dissolved by 1853, the ideas of the Brotherhood went on to influence many other artists of the Victorian age. One of those artists was John William Waterhouse, who painted one of the most famous representations of the Lady of Shalott’s float down the river in 1888.

"She looked down to Camelot...."   (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.

"look down..."   (Text of the Poem)

Tennyson is often counted as a successor to the Romantic poets, who rejected the reason-driven, Enlightenment-inspired poetry popular in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Instead, Romantics foregrounded emotionally-driven reflections on man’s relationship with nature. This required the poet to retain a certain distance from society in order to maintain the purity of the artistic soul. Here, the curse on the Lady can be read as the call of her artistic sensibility to retain the necessary distance from Camelot, and society, in order to protect the purity of her relationship with her art.

"Or is she known in all the land..."   (Text of the Poem)

Tennyson’s rhetorical questions reinforce the Lady’s isolation. She is surrounded on all sides by a bustling river and the castle of Camelot, but she does not interact with the people who pass her and most of them do not even know she exists. In Tennyson’s time, Victorian women, especially those of the upper classes, were expected to remain chaste and avoid any behaviors that might result in rumors of impropriety. This meant that they were relatively isolated within their family circles and were often excluded from public life, which was seen as the domain of men.

"Camelot..."   (Text of the Poem)

In Arthurian legend, Camelot is the seat of King Arthur’s power. Tennyson based this poem on the story of Elaine of Astolat, which he claimed to have taken from a thirteenth-century Italian story of unknown authorship, “La Donna di Scalotta.” The framework of the story is older than that, and it also found its way into Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d'Arthur (1485). In that version of the story, Lancelot briefly stays with Elaine’s family before a tournament and Elaine falls in love with him. Though he agrees to wear her token in the tournament, Lancelot later rejects her. Heartbroken, Elaine wastes away. She dies ten days later after requesting that her body be sent down the river to Camelot holding a note expressing her love for Lancelot.

"She hath no loyal knight and true,..."   (Text of the Poem)

Medieval romances frequently expressed the idea of courtly love, a set of idealized social rules defining acceptable interaction between men and women of the upper classes. In these stories, knights wore favors or tokens—frequently a piece of richly decorated fabric—during tournaments as symbols of their devotion to a particular lady. The tragedy of Sir Thomas Malory’s Elaine, as depicted in Le Morte d’Arthur, is catalyzed when Lancelot agrees to wear her token as a part of a disguise; she interprets his choice as romantic encouragement. By referencing this literary tradition, Tennyson shows the Lady of Shalott to be a noblewoman, someone who could reasonably expect to have a devoted knight were it not for her exclusion from the social life of the court. This combined with the symbolism of Shalott’s lilies suggest a romantic or sexual subtext to the Lady’s confinement.

"To a lady..."   (Text of the Poem)

One of the defining themes of literature that depicts the chivalric code was that of knightly devotion to idealized women. This tradition is the source of the familiar narrative wherein a heroic knight rescues a fair damsel in distress. Knights dedicated their successes to the names of their chosen lady-loves and looked to them as embodiments of virtue. That Lancelot’s shield shows him kneeling to a lady is both a nod to the mythic tradition, wherein Lancelot was the devoted lover of Arthur’s queen, and an ironic comment on male-female relations—both in the context of Arthurian legend and in Tennyson’s time. While Lancelot depicts himself as subject to the desires of a lady, in this poem he actually becomes a catalyst of her downfall. In a parallel sense, the women of Tennyson’s time were held to a strict and confining code of conduct by the imposition of a benevolent sexism that held them to be fragile and in need of protection.

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