The Lady of Shalott is a great poem that when understood in its original context has a deeply impactful meaning. There are many interpretations but I want to get at the core theme of the poem by examining the tragic mistake the Lady of Shalott makes that ultimately leads to her death. Why does the Lady die? She pursues Lancelot down the river and ends up dying on her journey. Why does she does she pursue Lancelot? She says at the end of part two “I am half-sick of shadows”. This line has tremendous meaning. It suggests that she has had unfulfilled desires before Lancelot arrived. It also suggests that she is self aware, not the avatar of a supernatural ideal but rather a real person who is conscious of the decisions she is making. Her tone is also dismissive and maybe filled with a certain amount of frustration as well (understandable given her situation). I think the dismissiveness however is indicative of a certain amount of hubris. She dismisses and expresses some contempt for the “shadows”. What do these shadows represent? They are her understanding of the world because of the curse she has which prevents her from gazing upon the world directly. She calls her image of the world a ”shadow” and that she is “half-sick” of it. However these “shadows” are a necessary condition given the curse that she is beholden to. This is why her statement contains some hubris, she believes she is not beholden to the curse or that her desire is enough to overcome it.
Goblin Market has a similar theme of capitulation to desire. “We must not look at goblin men, We must not buy their fruits: Who knows upon what soil they fed Their hungry thirsty roots?”. There is the precedent set, the temptation and the succumbing to temptation eventually when the protagonist enjoys the goblin mens fruit. There is more explicit sexual imagery in Goblin Market in my opinion. “Clearer than water flow’d that juice; She never tasted such before, How should it cloy with length of use? She suck’d and suck’d and suck’d the more Fruits which that unknown orchard bore; She suck’d until her lips were sore”. In The Lady of Shalott the sexual desire is more innocent but more explicit.
The Lady of Shalott is an archetypal western story. In the western tradition dating all the way back to Euripides and his play the Bacchae it has been understood that freedom is the absence of or triumph over desire and that slavery is the capitulation to desire. Pentheus, the king of Thebes, is corrupted by the god Dionysus who lures him to his death by unleashing his carnal hunger. Pentheus loses control of himself and is consumed by perversion. In the end he is torn apart by his own mother, taking him for a lion in her own blind frenzy, who was also under the spell of Dionysus. The moral of the story and its traditional interpretation is that when you are consumed by desire you are held captive by a hedonism that transcends your being and ultimately leads to your destruction.