In the popular mind, Sir Philip Sidney matches Ophelia’s description of Hamlet as
The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s eye, tongue, sword,
Th’ expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion, and the mold of form,
Th’ observed of all observers (Hamlet, III, i).
The romanticizing of Sidney began with his tragic death in 1586 and was already well under way when Fulke Greville told of the mortally wounded knight’s giving his water to a dying soldier; by the nineteenth century, Percy Bysshe Shelley could describe him in Adonais (1821) as “Sublimely mild, a spirit without spot.” Without ignoring his significant contributions to English literature or his personal charm, Duncan-Jones offers a more balanced assessment of a fascinating, complex Elizabethan.
Even the “Sir” in Sidney’s name is misleading: For most of his short life he was untitled. On his mother’s side he boasted an impressive genealogy. Among his aunts was Lady Jane Grey, queen of England for nine days during the abortive effort to keep the Catholic Mary Tudor off the throne. His uncles included the powerful earls of Leicester and Sussex; his godfather was King Philip II of Spain. Yet his father was a Kentish gentleman, of good family but not of the nobility. Sidney received his long-sought knighthood in 1583 when he represented John Casimir at the installation of the Knights of the Garter; Sidney himself never entered that order.
Despite Queen Elizabeth’s fondness for young men, and despite Sidney’s many efforts to win her favor, Sidney was an unsuccessful and, Duncan-Jones believes, an uncomfortable courtier. The author suggests that both Andromana (man-mad) and Basilius (ruler) of the Arcadia (1590) allude to Elizabeth. The former has red hair and small eyes; the latter ignores the good advice of Philanax (who sounds much like his creator). In more than a decade of attendance upon Elizabeth, Sidney secured few honors and appointments. Like his father he was Royal Cupbearer, a nominal post. In 1577 he was sent as ambassador to the Holy Roman Emperor; the mission achieved nothing. Seven years later he was named to a delegation that was to go to France to comfort Catherine de’ Medici on the death of her son, Alençon, but the French court broke up before Sidney could leave England, and he was ordered to stay in the country. In 1585 he was at last appointed Joint Master of the Ordnance and charged with fortifying Dover Harbor; later in the year he became governor of Flushing. Until almost the last year of his life, then, he received no money from court and little recognition, though his father had impoverished himself and his family in serving the queen in Ireland. Sidney’s hopes of excitement and fortune in the New World or on the continent were repeatedly dashed by Elizabeth’s indifference, perhaps distrust.
Duncan-Jones indicates that Elizabeth may have questioned Sidney’s Protestantism. During his European journey of 1577 he visited Edmund Campion, who had converted to Catholicism and who would eventually return to England and be executed for his religion. This trip also may have produced marriage offers from a German princess and from William of Orange, who was seeking a match for his daughter and found Sidney impressive. Elizabeth, who insisted that her dogs wore her collars, may have been offended by this foreign popularity, as she may have resented the French barony Sidney had received in 1572.
His position was made painfully clear in the tennis court quarrel with the Earl of Oxford. On August 28, 1579, Oxford, wanting the court that Sidney was using, ordered the players off. Sidney refused to obey, and Oxford, angered, called him a puppy. Sidney gave Oxford “the lie impossible,” and a challenge followed. Elizabeth forbade the duel but reminded Sidney of the difference between himself and an earl and of the respect that he owed his superior in rank.
The antagonism between Oxford and Sidney was no doubt heightened by the earl’s successful wooing of Anne Cecil. Sidney had been betrothed to her, but Lord Burghley had broken off the match when the richer and very aristocratic Oxford sought the girl’s hand. The marriage proved unhappy but showed Sidney that status and money counted for more than ability or affection. A decade later the lesson was repeated with Penelope Devereux, the “Stella” of Sidney’s sonnet cycle. The Earl of Essex had hoped that this daughter would marry...
(The entire section is 1841 words.)