Title: The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia (Old Arcadia)
Author: Sir Philip Sidney
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Date: 2008 (c.1580)
Genre: Classics / Prose / Pastoral Romance
Summary: The ‘Old’ Arcadia tells a romantic story in a manner comparable to that of Shakespeare’s early comedies. It is divided into five ‘Acts’ and abounds in lively speeches, dialogues, and quasi-dramatic tableaux. Two young princes, Pyrocles and Musidorus, disguise themselves as an Amazon and a shepherd to gain access to the Arcadian Princesses, who have been taken into semi-imprisonment by their father to avoid the dangers foretold by an oracle.
I feel like I need to preface this review by saying that I am a massive Renaissance literature nerd. I’m literally writing a PhD on the literature of the English Renaissance because I love it so much. So, my idea of ‘good’ literature is probably somewhat skewed. I know that many people just can’t get through this text while others are disappointed that it’s not like Shakespeare. I’m not one of those people and I’m used to reading this type of text so I didn’t experience any difficulty.
Oh, and there is a New Arcadia too which is much longer but incomplete. I’ll probably read this version at some point just to compare the two versions. I’d love to do a Shakespeare Saturday post (which aren’t always about Shakespeare) about this text one day, delving deeper into the themes and the history behind the text – especially Sidney’s own views on the text. I’m not sure anyone wants to read that but I want to write it so I’m sure it’ll appear on the blog one day.
Philip Sidney weaves a wonderful pastoral romance which includes sex, politics, violence, drugs, mobs, and cross-dressing. A typical pastoral romance of the era, really. It’s a hybrid between prose and drama which made for a very interesting structure. I actually really enjoyed the mix because it enabled Sidney to give his story a recognisable five-act structure while experimenting with prose. Prose wasn’t a popular form of writing during this time and novels didn’t exist in English so it makes sense that he chose a more common drama structure.
I did find the plot and the characters very entertaining! The plot itself has a lot of twists and turns where fortune turns against the characters and, to be honest, there’s nothing I love more in a story than a good bit of hoodwinking, a runaway Princess, and a drunken mob. The characters find themselves in a series of unlikely, and sometimes extremely tragic, situations which you’d definitely find in a Shakespearean pastoral comedy but the plot and the character explorations are expanded thanks to the capabilities of prose. Sidney could waffle on for as long as he wanted without worrying about time restraints (or about who was reading it because it was supposed to be for his sister’s entertainment only) and there’s even a long trial scene in the final book of the text.
I think the reason I enjoyed reading this so much is because I love this era of literature. It was a time of experimentation where writers were taking the popular themes of the era and attempting to mould them into new forms of writing. The Old Arcadia is definitely worth reading if you can get past the wall of text you’re presented with on the page – which is occasionally broken up with small sections of poetry – and accept that it isn’t going to be as ‘perfect’ as a pastoral play by the likes of Shakespeare. Just enjoy the weird and wonderful ride that Sidney takes you on!
I tried to find a decent free version of this text, of which there should be a few since the Arcadia so old, but I found a lot of them unreadable.
Image: The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia by Sir Philip Sidney (c.1585) via the Folger Shakespeare Library
Read as part of the Classics Club Challenge. This post does not contain affiliate links.