Arcadia was popular and influential in Sir Philip Sidney’s own time and for a century afterward. William Shakespeare, ten years younger than Sidney, adapted elements of Arcadia for use in King Lear (pr. c. 1605-1606, pb. 1608). Other Elizabethan authors adapted portions of Arcadia for the stage.
However, the work imitated by Elizabethans is only one of three distinct versions; known as the New Arcadia, it constitutes a significant revision of Sidney’s earliest effort, the Old Arcadia. Sidney’s friend Fulke Greville published the New Arcadia in 1590, four years after the author’s death. In 1593 there appeared The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, named after Sidney’s sister and concatenating the New Arcadia with portions of the earliest version. Meanwhile, the earliest, or old, version was lost until 1907 and not published until 1926.
Changing literary expectations and scholarly focus invite a comparison of the critical responses to Arcadia in Sidney’s time and in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, though one must bear in mind that the Old Arcadia was not available to Elizabethan critics. Indeed, the current availability of multiple versions has led many contemporary critics to focus on a comparison of the old and new Arcadias.
Why did Sidney undertake a revision? Although he dedicated the original version to his beloved sister, he spoke slightingly of that version and the haphazard manner of its composition, calling it “this idle work of mine.” It may have been genuine dissatisfaction that led him to begin the extensive but uncompleted revision.
The Old Arcadia, which ends with Basilius waking and Pyroceles and Musidorus saved from punishment, is a pastoral romance in five books with eclogues interspersed. The new version belongs to the epic genre and introduces many new characters in episodic digressions from the main plot. To both Elizabethan and latter-day critics, the change in genre implies a more serious purpose in the new version, but its very complexity, with the parts threatening to overwhelm the whole, has confused some modern readers and led critics such as T. S. Eliot and F. L. Lucas to denounce it as contrived and tedious. On the other side, though both versions display Sidney’s extraordinary wit, the New Arcadia shows an advance in rhetorical skill over the old. The prose is often clearer and, like a modern novel, introduces perceptive psychological insights. Also, the characters rather than the author deliver much of the moral instruction presented in the New Arcadia—a technique used in modern fiction, but also (given the verbal adroitness of his characters)...
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