Monday 10 January 2022

Book Review: The Old Arcadia by Philip Sidney (Classics)

Title: The Old Arcadia
Author: Philip Sidney
Publisher: Oxford World Classics
Publication Date: 2008 (1593)
Format: Paperback
Genre: Classics
Source: Xmas Gift

Philip Sidney was in his early twenties when he wrote his `Old' Arcadia for the amusement of his younger sister, the Countess of Pembroke. The book, which he called 'a trifle, and that triflingly handled', reflects their youthful vitality. The `Old' Arcadia tells a romantic story in a manner comparable to that of Shakespeare's early comedies. It is divided into five `Acts', and abounds in lively speeches, dialogues, and quasi-dramatic tableaux. Two young princes, Pyrocles and Musidorus, disguise themselves as an Amazon and a shepherd to gain access to the Arcadian Princesses, who have been taken into semi-imprisonment by their father to avoid the dangers foretold by an oracle. As a vehicle for Sidney's prophetic ideas about English versification, the `Old' Arcadia also includes over seventy poems in a wide variety of metres and genres. In clarity, symmetry, and coherence the `Old' version is greatly superior both to the ambitious but unfinished `New' Arcadia and the amalgamated, `composite' version, a hybrid monster which Sidney himself never envisaged.


The Old Arcadia, as the blurb suggests, has a plot that would not be out of place in a Shakespeare comedy, with cross-dressing disguises and romantic problems. That part of this work was quite whimsical and fun, if you can bear with the density of the prose. For me personally, the poetic interludes between the main parts of action were a bit of a drag, so I did skim a little faster through those, but appreciation of those sections will probably depend on how much of a poetry fan you are. I am glad I finally got around to reading this work, but I don't see it as one I would be much inclined to reread in the future, so I am giving it three stars. It's worth checking out if you are a fan of 16th century literature or enjoy the plots of Shakespeare's earlier works.

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