Basilius is the powerful duke of Arcadia, a quiet and peaceful province of Greece. He rules his faithful subjects happily and well. Overcome by an ungovernable curiosity to learn what the future holds for his family—Gynecia, his wife, and their beautiful daughters Pamela and Philoclea—he consults the Oracle at Delphos. There he is told that his older daughter, Pamela, will be stolen from him and that his younger daughter will engage in an unsuitable love affair and his wife will commit adultery. Also a foreign ruler will sit upon his throne—all within a year.
Basilius repeats the prophecy to his friend Philanax, whom he has left in charge of the country while he, in an effort to escape the destiny foretold by the Oracle, has taken his wife and daughters into a secluded part of the country to live for the year. Basilius lives in one of two lodges with his wife and Philoclea; in the other, he puts Pamela under the care of Dametas, a rude shepherd of whose honesty Basilius has a high opinion.
Shortly after the duke’s retirement, two young princes, Pyrocles and Musidorus, arrive in Arcadia. Reared together in close friendship, these young men of great courage, personal beauty, and integrity have been swept ashore at Lydia after experiencing a shipwreck and many strange adventures as well as performing many daring and honorable acts.
Pyrocles sees a picture of Philoclea, learns of her enforced retirement, and falls in love with her. Determined to see the princess face-to-face, he tells Musidorus of his love and of his plan to disguise himself as a chivalric Amazon and to approach Philoclea in woman’s guise. For a name, he takes that of his lost lady Zelmane.
After a lengthy debate, in which Musidorus attempts to convince his friend of the folly of love, Pyrocles still remains firm in his intention; and the two princes travel to the place of the duke’s retirement with Pyrocles in his disguise as an Amazon. While Musidorus waits in a nearby wood, Pyrocles, now Zelmane, sits down and sings a melancholy song that awakens Dametas, who hastens to the duke’s lodge to tell him of a strange woman who has arrived in the vicinity.
Basilius, upon seeing Pyrocles in his disguise, falls in love with the supposed Amazon. His true identity still unsuspected, Pyrocles is introduced to the duke’s family and invited to remain with them for a while. Soon, a young shepherd appears. He is Musidorus, who has fallen in love with Pamela on sight and has assumed a disguise of his own. Musidorus, under the name Dorus, is taken by the chief herdsman as a servant after telling his contrived tale of having been sent by a friend to serve Dametas.
Zelmane saves Philoclea from a savage lion, but in doing so, the duke’s wife, Gynecia, discovers him to be a man. She immediately falls in love with him. Dorus, meanwhile, saves Pamela from a bear. Before long, both princesses become enamored of the disguised princes.
The Arcadian shepherds, as is their custom, meet and exchange poetic songs for their own entertainment and that of the duke’s family and his guests. The songs, often accompanied by dancing, chiefly concern the gods and the human passions. This occasion only increases the intensity of the tangle of love relationships that have so rapidly developed.
After the pastoral festival, Gynecia and Basilius both declare their love for Zelmane, and Philoclea is puzzled greatly by the strange passion she feels for the person she has...
(The entire section is 1432 words.)