Alfred Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott" is a lyrical poem that tells the tale of a cursed weaver. William Holman Hunt drew material from Tennyson's poem to create an oil painting of the same title, The Lady of Shalott, which depicts the moment when the lady leaves her web and the mirror to look out the window as Sir Lancelot passes by — and incites her curse. Hunt takes Tennyson's theme of reality and applies it to his painting.

Tennyson introduces the lady of Shalott in Part II. At line 46, the reader begins to understand her curse:

And moving through a mirror clear
That hands before her all the year,
Shadows of the world appear.
There she sees the highway near
            Winding down to Camelot.

The lady works before a mirror that reflects the outside world for her, creating shadows of the world. Tennyson uses shadows in two senses. In one sense, the shadows of the world do not have the substance of reality, giving the mirror's image a ghostly presence. Shadows have another sense, that of darkness and the despair the lady must feel in her circumstances. Not only is she condemned to a life of solitary weaving, she cannot even weave as she wishes. As she says in line 71, "I am half sick of shadows." Her curse forces her to work from the shadows in the mirror.

At line 114, seeing Sir Lancelot in the mirror causes her to leave her work with datal results:

Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror cracked from side to side;
"The curse is come upon me," cried
            The Lady of Shalott.

This is the moment that Hunt chooses to paint, the moment in which she engages her curse. He creates interplay between the idea of shadow and reality. She shares the central presence with the "shadows of the world" behind her, lower body doused in the same sunlight reflected in the mirror. Shadow dominates two-thirds of her artificial room, but birds of reality have flown in from the bright blue outside, flying through the room as the unwoven web also wildly flies. Her hair is madly strewn skyward, the darkest part of the painting, making it evident that this is indeed a cursed lady.

Questions

1. What other techniques does Hunt use to communicate the narrative?

2. In what ways can we read the nature of the lady based on Hunt's depiction of her figure, clothing, posture, etc?

3. By using the mirror and the lady as central presences, what else does this indicate about her situation?

4. What meaning does the image of the Holy Grail in her weaving have?

5. Hunt bends reality himself with the reflection of the lady in the mirror. How is this read in terms of the Pre-Raphaelites?


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Last modified 30 January 2008