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A prose romance by Sir P. Sidney, including poems and pastoral eclogues in a wide variety of verse forms. It exists in two versions: the first, completed by 1581, and much of it written at Wilton, is known as the Old Arcadia. Its survival as an independent work was discovered by Bertram Dobell in 1906–7. The second version, now known as the New Arcadia, was Sidney's radical revision, made about 1583–4 but never completed. It was this revised version which was first printed on its own in 1590, with chapter divisions and summaries ‘not of Sir Philip Sidneis dooing’, and then in 1593 and thereafter with books iii–v of the Old Arcadia added to make a complete‐seeming but hybrid work. It was the hybrid Arcadia only that was available to readers until the 20th cent.

The Old Arcadia is in five ‘Books or Acts’. The first four books are followed by pastoral eclogues on themes linked or contrasted with the main narrative. The story is of the attempts of Arcadia's ruler, the foolish old duke Basilius, to prevent the fulfilment of an oracle by withdrawing to two rustic ‘lodges’ with his wife Gynecia and their daughters Pamela and Philoclea. Two young princes, Musidorus and Pyrocles, gain access to the retired court by disguising themselves as, respectively, a shepherd and an Amazon. A complicated series of intrigues ensues, with Basilius and Gynecia both falling in love with the disguised Pyrocles; Musidorus meanwhile becomes enmeshed with the family of Dametas, an ill‐bred herdsman who has been made Pamela's guardian, his shrewish wife Miso, and foolish daughter Mopsa. Pyrocles succeeds in seducing Philoclea and Musidorus attempts to elope with Pamela, but their schemes go awry when Basilius appears to die of a potion believed by his wife to be an aphrodisiac, and Pyrocles and Philoclea are discovered in bed by Dametas. The climax of the narrative is a trial presided over by Euarchus, the just ruler of Macedon, who sentences Gynecia to be buried alive and Pyrocles and Musidorus to be executed. Their disguises and assumed names prevent Euarchus from recognizing the young men as his own son and nephew, but even when their identities are revealed he asserts that ‘If rightly I have judged, then rightly have I judged mine own children.’ The day is saved by Basilius' awakening from what turns out to have been only a sleeping potion.

No new poems were added in the New Arcadia but the method of narration was made far more complex, both stylistically and thematically.

Shakespeare based the Gloucester plot of King Lear on Sidney's story of ‘the Paphlagonian unkinde king’, and Richardson took the name of his first heroine, Pamela, from Sidney's romance.

Subjects: Literature.

Reference entries

Philip Sidney (1554—1586) author and courtier