Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1136

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...

(The entire section contains 1136 words.)

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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) in keeping with the tenet of instruction through entertainment in his Defence of Poesie (1595; also known as An Apologie for Poetry).

The New Arcadia also makes greater use of simile and metaphor, in accordance with Sidney’s intention of creating an epic prose poem. His rhetorical figures, while sometimes far-fetched, still avoid the overwrought euphuistic style derided even in Sidney’s own day.

Sidney abandoned the revision, however, possibly because he could not mesh the literary genres of the two versions. Generic mixing, or contamination, was forbidden by most Renaissance literary theorists, including Sidney in his Defence of Poesie. The Defence of Poesie, composed between the old and new Arcadias, may also explain why, in the revision, Sidney ceases to portray royal personages as sometimes behaving like buffoons. The Defence of Poesie attacks plays that “be neither right Tragedies, nor right Comedies; mingling in kings and clowns . . . with neither decencie, nor discretion.”

Despite the differences between the two Arcadias, one shared theme—an instructive basis for comparison—concerns the disparity between the Platonic ideal and the real. In both Arcadias, the ideal is represented by the closed system of the pastoral world, while the everyday world continually threatens to invade this closed system.

The invasion of a closed system by worldly reality is a common subject of Elizabethan literature. In Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost (pr. c. 1594-1595, pb. 1598), for example, male characters set up a small academy where no women are to be admitted and hence no traumatic love entanglements can occur. Almost immediately, it becomes obvious that the arrangement cannot be maintained. Similarly, in the Old Arcadia, Basilius flees to a pastoral corner of his country with his family to avoid a prophesied series of disasters, only to encounter the dreaded disasters in this supposed refuge. Moreover, as in Love’s Labour’s Lost, the principal characters of the Arcadias begin by railing against love and attempting to fortify their world against it. However, the real world defies all efforts to keep it out of the closed system, and eventually those characters who railed most vehemently succumb, themselves, to love’s force.

Love is not the only invasive force against closed systems. The very needs of the political state invade Basilius’s attempts to escape them in the idealized Arcadia. For, ironically, in Sidney’s work, Arcadia is the name of the political state that Basilius rules, and also the name of the idealized refuge to which he escapes. There is a real-world Arcadia located in southern Greece, reported extensively by ancient historians such as Polybius (c. 203-120 b.c.e.). In literature, Arcadia has served as an idyllic pastoral setting since Heliodorus of Emesa’s Aethiopica (third century c.e.). In Elizabethan literature the Arcadian convention continues, primarily as an adaptation of poetic themes in Vergil’s Eclogues (43-37 b.c.e.; also known as Bucolics; English translation, 1575), celebrating a peaceful, harmonious life in nature.

In Sidney’s work, the stability of the country ruled by Basilius is threatened by his abandonment. Given his impulsive flight, the peaceful literary Arcadia becomes a satiric target when held up to the literal place of the same name. Conversely, the “real” Arcadia demonstrates how far the real world falls short of the literary ideal.

In terms of complexity and of moral aims, the Arcadia, especially the new version, is Sidney’s most ambitious work. As a work of moral instruction, the Arcadia may have been written partly to counter arguments in favor of the proposed “French marriage”—an offer of matrimony from a French nobleman to Queen Elizabeth I. As opponents (including Sidney) believed that a French marriage—whether for reasons of passion or of politics—would constitute an abandonment of the sovereign’s duties to her people, so the Arcadian king’s headlong flight—first into illusory security and then into heedless romance—results in political disharmony, illicit love, and in the New Arcadia, rebellion by the populace bereft of its leader.

Sidney’s treatment of these themes had helped make his work admired and imitated in his own age. On the other hand, although the Arcadia is not a novel in the modern sense, Sidney, especially in the New Arcadia, anticipates the uses of perspective and psychological insight in modern fiction.

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