The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia, also known simply as the Arcadia or the Old Arcadia, is a long prose work by Sir Philip Sidney written towards the end of the sixteenth century, and later published in several versions. It is Sidney's most ambitious literary work, by far, and as significant in its own way as his sonnets. The work is a romance that combines pastoral elements with a mood derived from the Hellenistic model of Heliodorus. In the work, that is, a highly idealized version of the shepherd's life adjoins (not always naturally) with stories of jousts, political treachery, kidnappings, battles, and rapes. As published, the narrative follows the Greek model: stories are nested within each other, and different storylines are intertwined.

Composition and publicationEdit

Sidney's Arcadia has a history that is unusually complex even for its time.

The Old ArcadiaEdit

Sidney may have begun an early draft in the late 1570s, when he was in his twenties. His own comments indicate that his purpose was humble; he asserts that he intended only to entertain his sister, Mary Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke. This version is narrated in chronological order, with sets of poems separating the books from each other. It seems likely that Sidney finished this version while staying at Herbert's estate during a temporary eclipse at court in 1580.

In 1588, Fulke Greville appears to have appealed to Francis Walsingham to prevent an unauthorized publication of parts of the original, as we learn from a letter that also serves as evidence for the circulation of Arcadia in manuscript form:

Sir this day one Ponsonby a bookbinder in Paul's Churchyard, came to me, and told me that there was one in hand to print, Sir Philip Sidney's old Arcadia asking me if it were done with your honour's con[sent] or any other of his friends/I told him to my knowledge no, then he advised me to give warning of it, either to the Archbishop or Doctor Cosen, who have as he says a copy of it to peruse to that end/Sir I am loath to renew his memory unto you, but yet in this I must presume, for I have sent my Lady your daughter at her request, a correction of that old one done 4 or 5 years since which he left in trust with me whereof there is no more copies, and fitter to be printed than that first which is so common, notwithstanding even that to be amended by a direction set down under his own hand how and why, so as in many respects especially the care of printing it is to be done with more deliberation,[1]

Sidney's original version was all but forgotten until 1908, when antiquarian Bertram Dobell discovered that a manuscript of the Arcadia he had purchased differed from published editions. Dobell subsequently acquired two other manuscripts of the old Arcadia: one from the library of the Earl of Ashburnham and one that had belonged to Sir Thomas Phillipps. This version of the Arcadia was first published in 1912, in Albert Feuillerat's edition of Sidney's collected works.

The New ArcadiaEdit

The version of the Arcadia known to the Renaissance and later periods is substantially longer than the Old Arcadia. In the 1580s, Sidney took the frame of the original story, reorganized it, and added episodes, most significantly the story of the just rebel Amphialus. The additions more than double the original story; however, Sidney had not finished the revision at the time of his death in 1586.

After Sidney's death, his revised Arcadia was prepared for the press and published in two differing editions. Fulke Greville, in collaboration with Matthew Gwinne and John Florio, edited and oversaw the publication of the 1590 edition, which ends in mid-scene and mid-sentence.

In 1593 Mary Herbert herself published an edition in which the original version supplements and concludes the part that Sidney revised. Later additions filled in gaps in the story, most notably the fifth edition of 1621, which included Sir William Alexander's attempt to work over the gap between Sidney's two versions of the story. Other continuations and developments of Sidney's story were published separately.

The hybrid editions did not efface the difference between the highly artificial, hellenized revised portion and the straightforward conclusion Sidney wrote originally. Nevertheless, it was in this form that Sidney's work entered history and reached a wide readership.

Reputation and influenceEdit

The work enjoyed great popularity for more than a century after its publication. William Shakespeare borrowed from it for the Gloucester subplot of King Lear;[2] traces of the work's influence may also be found in Hamlet[3] and The Winter's Tale.[4] Other dramatizations also occurred: Samuel Daniel's The Queen's Arcadia, John Day's The Isle of Gulls, Beaumont and Fletcher's Cupid's Revenge, the anonymous Mucedorus, a play of the Shakespeare Apocrypha, and, most overtly, in James Shirley's The Arcadia.

Sidney's book also inspired a number of partial imitators, such as his niece Lady Mary Wroth's Urania, and continuations, the most famous perhaps being that by Anna Weamys. These works, however, are as close to the "precious" style of seventeenth-century French romance as to the Greek and chivalric models that shape Sidney's work. The Arcadia also made a small appearance at a crucial moment in history. According to a widely-told story, Charles I quoted lines from the book, an excerpt termed "Pamela's Prayer," from a prayer of the heroine Pamela, as he mounted the scaffold to be executed. In Eikonoklastes, John Milton complains of the dead king's choice of a profane text for his final prayer; at the same time, he praised the book as among the best of its kind.

In the next century, Samuel Richardson named the heroine of his first novel after Sidney's Pamela. Despite this mark of continued respect, however, the rise of the novel was making works like the Arcadia obsolete. By the beginning of the Romantic era, its grand, artificial, vaguely euphuistic style had made it thoroughly alien to more modern tastes. However, in the 20th century, the Latin American poet Giannina Braschi spins her own rendition of Arcadia in the trilogy "Empire of Dreams" which features the book "Pastoral; or the Inquisition of Memories". While the original is still widely read, it was already becoming a text of primary interest to historians and literary specialists. The Arcadia contains the earliest known use of the feminine personal name Pamela. Most scholars believe that Sidney simply invented the name.


  • Bullough, Geoffrey, ed. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. 8 Volumes, New York, Columbia University Press, 1957-75.
  • Rees, Joan. Sir Philip Sidney and "Arcadia." Rutherford, KY, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1991.


  1. G. A. Wilkes, "'Left ... to Play the Ill Poet in My Own Part': The Literary Relationship of Sidney and Fulke Greville," The Review of English Studies 57 (2006), no. 230, pp. 291-309.
  2. Bullough, Vol. 7, pp. 284-6, 398-9.
  3. Bullough, Vol. 7, pp. 47-8.
  4. Bullough, Vol. 8, pp. 125-6.

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