Under the surface of “The Lady of Shalott” “The Lady of Shalott”, by Alfred Tennyson, is a Victorian ballad based on an early renaissance Italian story “Qui conta come la Damigella di Scalot mori per amore di Lancialotto de Lac. ” While it is on the surface a simple narrative of an Arthurian story, it is impossible not to wonder if Tennyson intended to get something more across. One of the possible interpretations of “The Lady of Shalott” is as a commentary on the relationship between artists and the outside world.
An artist is meant to see a reflection of the world that differs from reality, finding in it what no one else has, and then communicate what they see. In much the same way, the Lady of Shalott sees only reflections of the world she inhabits and weaves the images she sees. The moment she looks at the real world with her own eyes the Lady is stricken by a curse, much like the magic is lost the moment an artist start to take, and portray, the world too literally.
Thus, in order to make good art, an artist must distance themself from the rest of society. However, this is not always easy, as it is in human nature to want to belong to a social group. This clash of desires is evident in the Lady of Shalott; she wishes to see and be part of the real world, instead of viewing it from afar through her mirror, but is at the same time afraid of what may happen if she ever did.
Another possibility is to interpret “The Lady of Shalott” as an allegory for one of the main paradoxes of life – one cannot live without risking death. At the beginning of the poem, the Lady of Shalott leads a sort of half-life, suspended out of time and space, watching as the real world goes by. As soon as she begins to truly live she also begins to die, similarly it can be said that we begin to die from the moment we are born. So it is possible that the Lady of Shalott’s curse is one that we all share – the curse of Time.
In fact, the beginning of part 4 brings with it a distinct sense of acceleration of time, enforced particularly by the image of yellow waning woods. Even if we evade the perils of the world, violence, disease, and accidents, none of us will escape the passage of time. There is also a sense of wilfulness about the Lady of Shalott’s decision to look out the window and face the curse that would suggest a third interpretation of the poem. Tennyson’s time was one of great change and new ideas, and not always very popular ones.
The idea of willingly facing risks in order to do what one believes is the right thing to do, which recurs in many of Tennyson’s early poems, may be commentary on the decisions of the decision of these visionaries. All in all, it is impossible to know for sure what Tennyson intended as the message of “The Lady of Shalott”, as he is no longer around to tell us. But perhaps it is this uncertainty that makes art enjoyable; the same work of art can mean so many different things depending on the interpretation.