The Lady of Shalott vs. Orpheus and Eurydice

While reading The Lady of Shalott, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. The Greek myth tells the story of two lovers, who tragically lose the chance to share their life together, when on the day of their wedding, Eurydice is bitten by a poisonous snake, and dies. Orpheus – who is the most talented musician of his time – enters the Underworld and plays his lyre for the king and queen of the underworld – Hades and Persephone – who allow him to bring Eurydice back with him. However, Hades warns Orpheus that he cannot look back while his wife is still in the dark. He should wait for Eurydice to get into the light before he looked at her. The moment Orpheus stepped on the world of the living, he turned his head to look at his wife, but Eurydice was still in the dark. Since Orpheus looked at his wife before she had seen the sun, like Hades warned, Eurydice was dragged back into the underworld.

Orpheus looks at Eurydice and she is taken back to the Underworld.
Orpheus looks at Eurydice and she is taken back to the Underworld.
Eurydice in Orpheus' arms, reminds me of the images of Lancelot holding The Lady of Shalott.
Eurydice in Orpheus’ arms, reminds me of the images of Lancelot holding The Lady of Shalott.

The Lady of Shalott in Lancelot's arms.

Like Orpheus, The Lady of Shalott cannot help but turn her head from her mirror and look at Lancelot, knowing that this will bring the curse upon her. And it was only in her death that Lancelot has the chance to see her, musing that “she has a lovely face” (1166). I noticed in our anthology that The Lotos-Eaters, is another one of Tennyson’s works, which is based on a short episode from the Odyssey. Since Tennyson obviously had knowledge of Greek mythology, I wonder if the story of Orpheus and Eurydice had any influence on The Lady of Shalott.

 

Lord Tennyson, Alfred. “The Lady of Shalott” Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2012. Print.

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5 Responses to The Lady of Shalott vs. Orpheus and Eurydice

  1. dagny says:

    I was also reminded of Orpheus and Eurydice, and your post expressed the similarities between that myth and Tennyson’s poem effectively.
    One key difference between them is that Lancelot sees the Lady of Shalott only after she is dead, and has no other interactions with her. (While Orpheus already knew and loved Eurydice, before she died.) The Lady of Shalott causes her own destruction (while Eurydice is bitten by a snake) by choosing to look freely at the outside world, and Lancelot does not try to save her, as Orpheus does with Eurydice. This makes her story perhaps more tragic than Eurydice’s because the Lady is alone and unknown. Lancelot is only expressed as musing over her beauty, and the Lady of Shalott is given no second chance at life as Eurydice is, even though Orpheus messes up her rescue by looking back.
    The theme of looking and the penalties of doing so is very intriguing. Looking should be an enlightening act, and yet in both cases you mentioned the act of looking causes doom.

  2. jcdegner says:

    I thought that you brought up a really interesting point in your post! I had not noticed the similarities between the poem and the Greek myth, and I can completely understand how you drew that parallel. I find it interesting to consider that both Orpheus and the Lady of Shalott knew that there would be a great punishment if they glanced back (or out the window). Why would both individuals choose to do this, despite the fact that they realized what the punishment would be? I believe that it is because both the Lady of Shalott and Orpheus could not resist looking at what tempts them most. In Orpheus’ case, he simply felt that he could not wait any longer to see Eurydice again. If he had simply been more patient, they could have spent the rest of their lives together. I think that this myth shows the impatience in the race of man. In the poem, on the other hand, the Lady of Shalott has only ever seen the world she admires from a mirror. When she sees Sir Lancelot, she cannot help herself but to turn around and look at him, because she greatly desires to see him in reality, rather than through a mere reflection. Of course, as soon as she looks, as she knew would happen, a curse is set upon her and she dies shortly thereafter. Both of these stories show the folly and impatience of mankind. I do not think that the glance at what they treasured most was worth their terrible punishments. However, maybe the characters believe it was a worthy sacrifice to make.

  3. mkennedy says:

    In both The Lady of Shalott and the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, what could have been love, ended in catastrophe. Both the Lady of Shalott and Orpheus seem unable to heed their own knowledge, and choose to look when they know they should not. In the Lady of Shalott’s case, it may have been years of frustration of not being able to look, that culminated in her finally choosing to end it all by looking at something she considered worth it. Although she never meets Lancelot alive, he does see her “lovely face” adding to the potential of their love that will never be fulfilled. The Lady of Shalott chose her own death, by looking at Lancelot, but Eurydice is not so lucky. She is merely a pawn first taken from her home, albeit likely willingly, and then due to her new love’s selfishness or perhaps ignorance, she is thrust back into the underworld. Her fate is not as dire as The Lady of Shalott, as she is returning to her former habitat, but nonetheless, her tragedy is almost more acute as she has no part in her own fate. Perhaps it would be better to die as the autonomous Lady of Shalott then live as the powerless Eurydice.

  4. Athena G. Csuti says:

    Now that you mention it I can see the resemblance between the two stories. And I know up until the 20th century it was fairly common for widely read people to study ancient Greek texts, so I imagine it did have an influence on him (even if only subconsciously). But the similarity is mostly just in the inability to look and the temptation to. I wouldn’t call The Lady of Shallot a tragic love story the way I would Orpheus and Eurydice, since the Lady and Lancelot never even knew one another. Also the presence of the supernatural (Gods, the underworld, etc.) is much stronger in ancient Greek texts while it is only hinted at in The Lady of Shallot.

    Is this another story that initially came from elsewhere? What was Tennyson’s source material and how close did he follow it? That makes me question how much of an influence the ancient Greek story would have had on this particular poem (though it could have influenced the writer of Tennyson’s source material?).

  5. stephaniestahl says:

    Interesting connection! This is one of my favorite Greek stories, and I can definitely see the resemblance, as I was also reminded of it. Thanks for bringing it up!

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