The Lady of Shallot in Tennyson’s poem has been equated with Elayne, daughter of The Fisher King, who falls in love with Lancelot, and seduces him, with the help of Morgan le Fay, by taking on the visage of Queen Guinevere. Elayne bears Galahad, and dies, her heart broken by Lancelot’s indifference. Her body is placed in a boat, and floated to Camelot in a boat to reproach him.
I don’t buy this explanation. The Lady is more removed from the Arthur story than this – she is an observer, and not even a direct observer. Outside her window, away from the isle, we can see people and activity, bustle and buzz. The Lady can watch all this, dimly reflected in a mirror, but she is set apart. There is a curse that prevents her from looking at Camelot directly, its terms unspecified, but implicitly dreadful.
At first the Lady is content. She has her work to do, her web to weave. She is enchanted by the shadows that dance for her. But, over time, she grows aware that she is missing out, becoming dissatisfied as she hears the sounds of lovers at night. She becomes lonely. Finally, Sir Lancelot, every maiden’s dream, comes into view. This is temptation that cannot be resisted, and the Lady risks disaster.
For a wonderful moment, she is part of the real world. Everything is laid out before her in brilliant colour, and beauty; and then the curse comes and snatches it away. Destroyed by her boldness, she dies, and her epitaph is spoken by her unknowing slayer.
Leah M. Sanger in her essay Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott" and the Woman's Place in Victorian Society suggests that the story illustrates the tension between the the traditional and emerging roles of women – the move from cloistered, domestic life, protected and removed from the real world, into an active role where she can be touched, tainted and ultimately destroyed.
Sanger draws no conclusions on Tennyson’s position – certainly he seems sympathetic to the Lady’s loneliness, but even so, he punishes her for her boldness in rejecting her predestined role.
Ultimately, the Lady can’t win – a situation that makes her appealing to teenage girls like Anne of Green Gables the world over. She is the archetypal tragic heroine, beautiful, sheltered, and doomed to live without love, or die reaching for it. What could be more romantic?