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The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia (English Library) Paperback – 29 Sep 1977

4.8 out of 5 stars 4 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 880 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics; Reprint edition (29 Sept. 1977)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 014043111X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140431117
  • Product Dimensions: 13 x 4.8 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 807,060 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


"Essential reading for the renaissance."--Susanne Collier, California State University, Northridge"Splendid and affordable, with scholarly glossary and explanatory notes."--Susanne Collier, California State University, Northridge"The best paperback edition I've seen."--Dr. Robert Albano, Troy State University, Dothanr --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From the Back Cover

As much a work of entertainment and wit as of instruction, if affords the best insight we have into the tastes and standards of the Elizabethans.

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By Roman Clodia TOP 500 REVIEWER on 1 July 2008
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Beware of the Amazon blurb as this isn't the 'Old' Arcadia (the first version that Sidney wrote), this is the so-called 'New' Arcadia, re-written, expanded and with many of the songs and poems taken out. However it's still my favourite version.

A huge work that deliberately confounds genre this is both epic and romance, both 'novel' and poetry. The closest thing like it is Spenser's The Faerie Queen (although that is verse and this is prose) or the Hellenistic novels, Daphnis & Chloe or the Ethiopica.

Whatever you want to call it though this is a marvellous read: full of shipwrecks and princesses, knights in disguise and love-lorn shepherds. Multiple narratives keep the story moving despite the Elizabethan love of rhetoric (and few do that better than Sidney!) and the sheer ability and love of story-telling come through admirably.

Not always an easy read at first as you do need to get into Sidney's rhythm but a fantastic (in all senses of the word) one.

** Edit **

I've just noticed that Amazon have published this review under all the various editions of the Arcadia, so just to clarify: the Oxford World Classics (called the 'old' Arcadia) IS the old Arcadia; but the Penguin edition called the Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia, despite the Amazon blurb which describes it as the old Arcadia, is actually the 'new' composite version with the first three books revised by Sidney and then tacked onto the last two books of the 'old' Arcadia, with most of the eclogic poetry stripped out.
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Malory apart, the fifteenth century did not see many literary works of any great significance produced in England, and there wasn't a great deal more in the first half (make that the first two thirds) of the sixteenth. Then, suddenly, the last few decades of the century saw a remarkable revival of drama, poetry and prose, including the works of Shakespeare himself, still the reigning heavyweight champion of English literature.

Sir Philip Sidney was one of the key figures in this revival, and his "Arcadia", a prose romance is one of the works by which he is best remembered. It is also known as the "Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia" as he wrote it for his sister, Mary Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke, and may have written it while staying at the Herbert country estate, Wilton in Wiltshire. It exists in two versions, only one of which he actually completed. For many years the only version of the "Arcadia" that was generally known was the so-called "New Arcadia". At some time during the 1580s, Sidney began to revise his original story, reorganising it and adding extra episodes not contained in the first version. In 1586, however, he was killed while fighting in the Netherlands, and the revised version remained unfinished at his death. The version which was eventually published consisted of a hybrid of the two versions. Sidney's original version, today known as the "Old Arcadia", was rediscovered in the early twentieth century, and it is this version of the story which is contained in the Oxford World Classics edition.

Arcadia was originally a rugged, mountainous district of Ancient Greece, known for the honesty of its inhabitants and the simplicity of their way of life.
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If you want to read Arcadia in its traditional version, this Penguin edition is the only choice. This is a work which was regarded as both a classic and a popular favourite for two hundred years and then fell out of sight when taste changed. It is in some ways quite antipathetic to much modern taste: most of the characters are aristocrats; the language is courtly and rhetorical even when the behaviour is extreme; the plot is complex and interwoven; and those who like works to be raw and visceral will be disappointed.

But it is well worth acquiring the taste to enjoy it. It is no harder to read than Henry James or Proust. The story is good and characters really fascinating: the feeble king Basilius, who semi-abdicates because of an oracle; his devious wife Gynecia and their lovely daughters, the strong-minded Pamela and the gentler but still steadfast Philoclea, who must have suggested to Shakespeare some aspects of his comic heroines. Their lovers are good too: the bold Musidorus, who disguises himself as a shepherd and the amazing Pyrocles, who disguises himself as an Amazon named Zelmane. This is sustained for hundreds of pages and Sidney even uses female pronouns and consistently refers to Zelmane not Pyrocles. Philoclea develops a crush on the supposed Zelmane, most sensitively handled, and this turns gradually into a more mature love. Meanwhile both Basilius and Gynecia also fall in love with this ambiguous figure. This reminds me of Viola in Twelfth Night, and I dare Shakespeare picked up the idea partly from here. Then there is Amphialus, the very model of a controlling domestic tyrant, who captures Pamela and Philoclea, is minded to marry one of them but keeps them prisoners and even tortures them.
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