The lady of Shalott: a Greek tragedy

The Lady of Shalott, a poetic creation by Alfred Lord Tennyson, bears intriguing resemblances to various Greek tragedy characters, thereby weaving a tapestry of shared themes and poignant narratives.

The thematic resonance between the Lady of Shalott and Penelope from Homer’s Odyssey is unmistakable, particularly in their shared activity of weaving. The act of weaving serves as a metaphor for their lives, representing a form of passive engagement with the world while encapsulating the isolation and yearning each woman experiences. In Tennyson’s poem, the Lady is described as weaving a magic web in her tower, isolated from the external world. Her weaving is not a mere pastime but a fundamental aspect of her existence, dictated by the curse that binds her. Similarly, Penelope, during Odysseus’s prolonged absence, weaves and unweaves a shroud for her father-in-law, Laertes. This act is both a symbol of her fidelity and a means of delaying remarriage, reflecting her own form of isolation. Lines from “The Lady of Shalott” emphasize the repetitiveness of the Lady’s weaving, underscoring the monotony of her existence: “No time hath she to sport and play: /A charmed web she weaves alway. /A curse is on her, if she stay/ Her weaving, either night or day, /To look down to Camelot.” The act of weaving becomes a ritualistic, almost mechanical, endeavor that defines her secluded life. Similarly, in the Odyssey, Penelope’s weaving is a constant, laborious activity. Homer describes her weaving and unweaving the shroud, symbolizing the passage of time and the hope that Odysseus will return. The repetitive nature of this act reflects Penelope’s own sense of isolation and longing: “She set up a great tambour frame in her room, and began to work on an enormous piece of fine needlework.” In both cases, weaving becomes a symbolic expression of longing and isolation. The Lady and Penelope are tethered to their respective spaces, engaged in repetitive tasks that serve as both a distraction and a form of connection to the world outside. The act of weaving, in these instances, transcends mere craftsmanship; it becomes a poignant expression of the characters’ internal struggles and unfulfilled desires.

Furthermore, the Lady’s fate resonates with the myth of Echo and Narcissus. In the myth, Echo is cursed to only repeat the words of others, echoing the voices around her. Similarly, the Lady is under a curse that forces her to weave ceaselessly without directly experiencing the external world. Both characters are trapped in a form of isolation, yearning for a connection that seems elusive. The Lady of Shalott’s narrative also echoes the tragic fate of characters like Oedipus or Antigone from Greek tragedies. Oedipus, unwittingly fulfilling a prophecy that leads to his downfall, and Antigone, defying societal norms for the sake of her convictions, share a tragic inevitability with the Lady. The Lady’s fate is preordained by the curse, and her attempt to break free from it ultimately results in tragedy. Moreover, the theme of forbidden observation in the Lady’s story reflects the tragic consequences of transgressing divine laws in Greek mythology.

In weaving these threads, it becomes evident that the Lady of Shalott encapsulates the essence of Greek tragedy: a convergence of fate, isolation, and the poignant yearning for a connection that seems forever out of reach. Through these parallels, Tennyson weaves a narrative that transcends time and culture, resonating with the universal human experience encapsulated in both Victorian and ancient Greek literature.

3 thoughts on “The lady of Shalott: a Greek tragedy”

  1. It is so interesting how you connect the Lady of Shallot’s isolation and yearning for freedom to one of the greatest Greek tragedies. I really like how there is such a repetitive action between both works that almost creates this meaning to their streamline, meaningless life. One other work of fiction that comes to my mind about isolation is “Goblin Market” since both sisters are isolated from their own world. Furthermore, the yearning in both works is portrayed as a form of temptation. The sisters is tempted by the goblin fruits, while the Lady of Shalott is tempted to look directly at Camelot. Their desires to break free from their isolated existences and experience something more lead them to make choices that ultimately have tragic consequences.

  2. I really enjoyed this close reading and think you made a fantastic connection between two very different eras of literature. Symbolism is such an important part of literature because it leaves the stage open for so many different interpretations as well as hidden meanings behind a characters actions. I completely agree that the Lady of Shallot has experienced her own “Victorian era” Greek tragedy. In a way, I think Dr. Jekyll has also experienced his own Greek tragedy. Through the character of Dr. Jekyll, Stevenson captures the essence of a tragic figure who’s pride gets in the way and leads to his demise. Dr. Jekyll toys with human nature and isolates his evil side from his good side through the creation of Mr. Hyde. This sinister version of Dr. Jekyll is eventually exposed to the public eye, which shows Dr. Jekyll’s longing for connecting to his own sinister world that is out of reach. This echos the timeless themes in Greek tragedy’s of isolation, downfall caused by flaws, and wanting freedom.

  3. Prophecies can often act as curses to those prophesied about in literature. It’s the Chekhov’s gun of myth and legend before Chekhov wrote his plays. The curse that was bestowed upon the Lady of Shallot was that of knowledge, if she had lived her life in that tower without knowing she had a curse would it be bad if she stepped out without knowing? This poem in particular deals with themes of people forcing their ideals upon the Lady and the Lady trying to break free from them.

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