Study Guide

The Lady of Shalott Themes

  • Isolation

    Whatever else the Lady of Shalott has going on, she's definitely alone. We don't know who shut her away in the castle or why, but it doesn't seem fair. We can tell that she's fed up with it; in fact she even says as much. Her desire to be part of the world, to interact, to love and be loved, is what pushes the whole plot of this poem. The fact that she never really breaks out of her loneliness is what gives "The Lady of Shalott" a tragic edge.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. Do you think the Lady of Shalott escapes her isolation by the end of the poem?
    2. Does the magic mirror make her seem more isolated or less? Does that little bit of contact with the world make things worse or better?
    3. Is it better to die or to live the rest of your life alone? Do you think the Lady faces up to that choice? Does she basically commit suicide?
    4. Do you think the fact that the lady spends her days working alone is a metaphor for the place of women in English society?

    Chew on This

    The Lady of Shalott makes a confident choice to break free from her isolation. Although it costs her everything, it's still a strong and meaningful refusal of her shadowy, isolated situation.

    The Lady of Shalott is engaged in lonely weaving, a traditional mode of women's labor. Her imprisoned isolation is a powerful metaphor for the social, sexual, and intellectual repression of women across English history.

  • Man and the Natural World

    "The Lady of Shalott" is stuffed with references to the natural world. Tennyson loops back again and again to the fields and trees and flowers that surround the island of Shalott. In fact, you might get a little sick of hearing about it. Still, the movements of nature (especially the endless flowing of the river) are a big part of this poem's rhythm; they help it all hang together.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. What if you took all the stuff about flowers and islands and rivers out of this poem? Could you still tell this story?
    2. Do you think the Lady misses contact with other people or with the natural world? Is it a little bit of both?
    3. Is there a natural image from this poem that really sticks in your head? If so, what do you think makes it do that?
    4. Is the Lady more a part of the human or the natural world?

    Chew on This

    Finally, it is not just Lancelot that the Lady wants to be in contact with, but the flowers and the river and the leaves. She is a prisoner kept apart from nature as well as from her fellow humans.

    The story of Lancelot and the Lady of Shalott is inseparable from the natural world. The river and its surroundings are a crucial focus of the entire poem and they give it its structure and rhythm.

  • Art and Culture

    Although she's alone, and not too happy about it, the Lady of Shalott does have two things to keep her busy. She weaves and she sings. Even if no one sees her work, she's definitely an artist. A lot of people read this whole poem as a metaphor for the lonely life of the artist. We'll definitely look at that possibility, but even without that big metaphor, we think the theme of art and artists is still a major part of "The Lady of Shalott."

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. Does it make sense to call the Lady an artist? Do you have to be free in order to make art? What other terms might you use for her?
    2. Some people think this poem is about the lonely life of the artist, shut away from the world. Does that make sense to you, or does it seem like making something out of nothing?
    3. Both the Lady and Lancelot are singers. Does the poem treat their songs differently? Do we learn anything about them through their songs?
    4. Is Lancelot, with all his shiny armor, jewels and painted shield, a kind of living work of art? How about the Lady with her name written on her boat, on display for the people of Camelot?

    Chew on This

    The Lady, who spends her days trying to capture shadows, is a representative of all artists, who live partly in the living world and partly in a private dream.

    By writing her name on her boat/coffin, the Lady of Shalott gives herself a title, making her death a work of art. This is a final act of confident self-definition, and proves that she is entirely free from her prison.

  • The Supernatural

    The mysterious curse on the Lady of Shalott is a big part of the plot. It rules her life and causes her death. This little thread of black magic helps give "The Lady of Shalott" its spooky, sad atmosphere, and also connects it to the medieval fantasy world of wizards and spells. We can just tell that, if Tennyson were alive now, he'd be a huge Harry Potter fan.

    Questions About The Supernatural

    1. Why don't we learn more about the curse? Would the poem be better if it had more back-story, like a wicked queen who casts a spell or something like that?
    2. Is the magic web meant to seem evil and scary, or is it a symbol of the Lady's power and skill?
    3. Does all this stuff with magic spells and King Arthur seem a little nerdy to you? Do you kind of love it? Shmoop welcomes all poetry dorks. We understand, trust us.
    4. The reapers call her the "fairy Lady of Shalott." Do you think she herself has magic powers, or is she just trapped by them?

    Chew on This

    By eliminating specific information about the curse, Tennyson focuses our attention completely on the lady and her loneliness. This makes this primarily a human story with magic elements, rather than the other way around.

    By associating the weaving of the Lady with magical power, the poem suggests that all art is a form of magic, a way of casting a spell.

  • Love

    This is a tricky one, since no one in "The Lady of Shalott" admits to being in love. Still, the idea of love, even unspoken love, is so crucial to this entire plot. It's a really old story. Lancelot is the guy or girl you always wanted to talk to but never worked up the courage. Maybe you saw him across the lunchroom, but he never noticed you. Maybe she was in your math class but you never said hi. This is love from a distance, and it's real and raw and painful in this poem.

    Questions About Love

    1. Why doesn't the poem directly mention the Lady's love for Lancelot?
    2. Do you think Lancelot falls in love with the Lady at the end? What does his final speech mean to you?
    3. Would you call this a love story? What other names could you use for it? Basically, is love the most important theme here?
    4. Did you ever risk anything major for love? Do you sympathize with the Lady's decision?

    Chew on This

    This poem uses the love story as an excuse to explore a more powerful and crucial theme, the Lady's choice to set herself free, her refusal to be confined.

    Although it's never explicitly stated, the poem suggests that Lancelot, in his way, is as isolated as the Lady, and as much in need of the connection and happiness that love could bring.