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...
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