I do love Tennyson. especially The Lady of Shalott, but god, reading it this morning did depress me a little bit, it has such a miserable underlying message.
So, the lady sees Lancelot, and falls in love, and looks out of the window, so putting into action the curse which leads to her death. In other words – she, who is totally innocent, she knows there is a curse but doesn’t know what effect it has, dies because she breaks an arbitrary rule, no mention of who sets in place that rule, or why.
This seems to have two results, the first being that of experience, while she is almost totally unaware of the outside world, seeing it only indirectly, in a mirror, she is safe, but as soon as she has desires other than that sanctioned by whoever placed the curse on her, and experiences the world directly, it comes into action. The other is of sexual experience, as soon as she desires Lancelot the curse takes effect.
There is a blurring of sexual desire and desire to see the world, both become equated to the same thing, so the only condition allowed for the lady is enforced innocence, with the outside world representing sexual awareness, not a new idea, though not often as total as this, apart from in fairy tales such as Rapunzel.
Of course The Lady of Shalott is supposed to be a tragedy, but I think the reason it especially saddens me is not so much her death, as her life, and her enforced innocence, proved by her desire to see Lancelot properly even though she knows it will inflict the curse upon her. Possibly unknowingly, Tennyson suggests that sexual and worldly knowledge, though dangerous, is worth the risks, however short a time it is achieved for.