Arcadia (1580) by Philip Sidney
English Literature

Arcadia (1580) by Philip Sidney, A Brief Critical Evaluation

Arcadia (1580) by Philip Sidney
Arcadia (1580) by Philip Sidney

An Introduction to the Text:

Arcadia (1580) by Philip Sidney is the first prose pastoral romance in English. It sets a style: “Arcadian”…many later writers imitated this style in their writings.

Full title: The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia

1577–  Mary (Sidney’s younger sister) married Henry Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. They started living at Pembroke’s Wiltshire mansion, Wilton House.

Sidney often visited her. He wrote his long romance Arcadia (1577-1580)

After completing 180000 words of the old version in 1580, he began a long and intricate revision…

Anyway, he didn’t live to complete it. So New Arcadia was unfinished. 11 years after his death in 1593…  his sister published his significant works in a collection called ” The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia”.

Old Version romance in five books…muse was his sister Mary.


  • Chivalric romances in French and Italian…

  • Arthurian legends in English.

  • Classical influence- Apuleius’s Golden Ass, Heliodorus’s Aethopian Historie.

  • It epitomises courtly love. Its pastoral quality reminds Virgil’s Eclogues.

  • Italian poet and humanist Jacopo Sannazaro’s (1458-1530) humanist classic Arcadia was the inspiration for Sidney’s Arcadia.

1583: Sidney married Frances Walsingham. In that year Sidney was knighted by the queen

It is his most significant ambitious work by him. It is his Magnum opus.

Two versions of it were found…Old Arcadia

New Arcadia

He wrote this with the purpose to entertain his sister, Mary Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke.

Around 1580 Sidney completed the older version…Old Arcadia.

It was forgotten and lost in oblivion till, in 1908 Bertrand Dobell, an antiquarian found his Arcadia that he had bought differs from the other published editions.

Story of Old Arcadia

Story of Basilius, Duke of Arcadia, who journeys to the Oracle at Delphis and receives a dark foreboding. His daughters will be kidnapped by undesirable suitors. He will be cuckolded by his wife. His throne will be insured by a foreign state.

Basillus being frantic with their predicaments entrusts the Arcadia Govt. to his loyal subject, Philanax and retires to a pastoral cottage with his wife Gynecia and their daughters Pamela and Philoclea. Their servant Dametas also joined them.

Samuel Richardson adopted the name of his novel. Pamela, Virtue Rewarded from here.

Importance of New Arcadia:

The most famous version throughout the Renaissance

Longer than the Old Arcadia more than double and several episodes with the older version…episode of rebel Amphialus.

Sidney has not finished this due to his untimely death in 1586.

  • The New Arcadia is a romance…it combines pastoral elements with political treachery, kidnapping, battles and abductions.

1593: Published by Mary Herbert.

Later Influences:

William Shakespeare borrowed from The Arcadia the plot and structure of his famous plays King Lear, The Winter’s Tale and Hamlet.

  • Even the later dramatists like Samuel Daniel, James Shirley, John Day, Beaumont and Fletcher were influenced by it.

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