Tennyson's 1859 Idylls of the King responds to and comments on a complex of mid-Victorian fears centered on female sexuality, adultery, and the rising assertiveness and power of women. Tennyson revises his medieval sources in order to make adultery the unifying element in all four early idylls. By making his characters severally revise the appearance of Guinevere's adultery, Tennyson illustrates England's growing difficulty in determining truth.
Because Tennyson's poem is now usually read as idylls excerpted from the whole or as the completed work of twelve idylls, it is difficult to see the centrality of the Woman Question in the 1859 idylls each named for a woman: "Enid," "Vivien," "Elaine," and "Guinevere." Critics often read the women as schematic versions of "true" or "false": Enid the true wife, Vivien the false harlot, Elaine the true and innocent virgin, Guinevere the falsely adulterous wife. Tennyson, however, undercuts each of these stereotypes, while at the same time illustrating the hazards of individualism.
All four women defy traditional authority in ways not found in Tennyson's sources. Geraint believes that Enid, like Guinevere, is potentially adulterous. Enid is not, but she moves from being properly assertive to becoming dangerously controlling. Vivien is not the unprincipled harlot that Merlin names her, but she seizes powerful knowledge that had previously belonged only to males. Elaine, kept from marriage by Lancelot's adulterous love for Guinevere, is not the sweet medieval maiden who dies for lack of love. Instead, her sexual willfulness becomes monomania; she chooses death and controls her family. Guinevere's adultery is indeed contagious, but Tennyson shows clearly that, nonetheless, Guinevere has a far clearer-eyed view of reality, of life's "lights and shadows" than does her "blameless" husband. The kingdom falls not because of Guinevere's adultery, as Arthur believes, but because of many misguidedly selfish decisions, including those of Arthur himself.
By the end of the 1859 Idylls, it is evident that Tennyson is investigating the transition in nineteenth-century England from traditional authority to individual choice, with all its "wealth and all the woe." Women's increasing assertiveness is central to that worrisome process.