The Kersh and Skalak Mash-up Extravaganza

Prior to the era of Victorian poetry, the genre of medieval romance had flourished in Europe from around the eleventh to the fifteenth century. Having taken several medieval literature classes with Professor Skalak and being somewhat knowledgeable on the subject, I found the parallels between thirteenth century Arthurian romances and Alfred Tennyson’s nineteenth century “The Lady of Shalott ” especially interesting. Throughout his poem, Tennyson draws on traditional medieval tropes and references famous medieval icons, like Sir Lancelot and Camelot, to critique the subjugation of women in the nineteenth century; framing the narrative of his poem hundreds of years before the time period of his criticism allows Tennyson distance from his otherwise obtuse commentary on the repression of female agency. 

Tennyson establishes the Lady of Shalott’s lack of agency throughout the first three parts of the poem. Despite being the main character of the narrative, the Lady of Shalott, trapped within “four gray walls, and four gray towers” on a desolate island, remains unnamed and unknown to everyone else; the poem’s narrator rhetorically asks, “who hath seen her wave her hand?” and “is she known in all the land?” to emphasize the Lady’s isolation and invisibility (134). While she is trapped in the physical space of her tower, she is also trapped emotionally by a curse that prohibits her from directly looking at the outside world. Instead of seeing and interacting with the outside world, the Lady has no choice but to stay in her tower, watch the world through a mirror, and weave. Many traditional medieval romances also employ this “damsel in distress” (and often trapped in a tower) trope, such as Marie de France’s “Yonec” and Chrétien de Troyes’s The Knight with the Lion, to depict female helplessness and the necessity of male saviors. By falling under the subjugation of a mystical curse and being characterized similarly to the “damsel in distress” trope, the Lady of Shalott experiences repression similar to that of women in nineteenth century Europe. In both instances, the women are expected to stay inside, engage in traditionally feminine activities like weaving, and avoid certain social interactions- especially those of a sexual or romantic nature. 

The Lady does not remain helpless or without agency for the entire poem, however. Upon observing a knight, Sir Lancelot, through her mirror, the Lady’s intense feelings of attraction compel her to act. Tennyson describes the Lady’s actions in successive order, as “she left the web… [and] the loom”, “she made three paces thro’ the room”, “she saw the water lily bloom…[and] the helmet and the plume”, and “she looked down to Camelot” (137). The use of anaphora, through the repetition of the phrases “she left”, “she made”, “she saw”, and “she looked”, amplifies the verbs that signify the Lady’s actions and agency. Ironically, the Lady only develops this sense of agency in response to a man, and acting upon it triggers her curse and leads to her death. Unlike traditional medieval romances, the Lady of Shalott is not saved by a man or knight and instead attempts to save herself. Her death, then, acts as a punishment for her earlier displays of independent agency. The Lady cannot win- remaining without agency means being unhappily trapped in a tower, but developing agency and leaving the tower leads to her death. Reading “The Lady of Shalott” as a double poem that criticizes the oppression of nineteenth century women shows the lack of attention given to women’s desires and capabilities, as well as the negative repercussions for challenging these gender norms.

2 thoughts on “The Kersh and Skalak Mash-up Extravaganza”

  1. I love this!! I was also in Skalak’s Medieval Romance class and you can definitely draw huge comparisons here. I find it interesting that it is romance and longing that push the Lady to agency, which makes me think of some other romance protagonists. This plot with the towers and Lancelot below reminds me of that section in The Knight of the Cart where Guinevere is debating jumping from the window but someone stops her. I wonder if Tennyson read that and you can make a connection?

  2. Well observed and well structured. I do, however, have a question about one of your points: in the third paragraph, you note the irony of the fact that the Lady only develops agency through her attraction to a man. I wonder if here you’ve also identified the presence of yet another medieval trope that Tennyson employs, and a concerning one: female hypersexuality. Reading “Lady of Shalott” with that trope in mind does seem to somewhat complicate the reading as a double poem. It doesn’t bring down the whole argument by any means, but it does make me hesitant to give Tennyson too much credit as a paragon of feminism.

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