Women of Great Wit: Designing Women in Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia

  • Marea Mitchell
  • Dianne Osland


The whole of Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia can be seen as an exercise in the description of human potential in difficult circumstances. As many critics have recognized, far from representing an escape from the world of politics and the court into a literary other world, Arcadia is probably best seen as an attempt on Sidney’s part to ‘keep faith’ with himself and others in fraught social and political contexts.1 Frustrated in his attempts to play a major role in an international Protestant league, frowned on by Elizabeth I for his attempts to offer advice on her proposed marriage to Duke d’Alencon, Sidney retires to Wilton to compose Arcadia as much in determination to continue his activities in a different form as in a gesture of defeat. Arcadia is both ‘an escape from recent disappointments and a way of obliquely commenting on them.’ As Katherine Duncan-Jones comments, ‘The whole story hinges on an ageing monarch who disregards advice given by a loyal courtier, and is unable to control his own undignified and inappropriate sexual passions’, yet the book is not simply a roman à clef and deals rather with correspondences than precise transcriptions.2 As Dennis Kay suggests, ‘the individual correspondences operate at a relatively simple level, and are part of Sidney’s habitual strategy of hinting at actualities behind his fiction, of implying that his romance is rooted in the circumstances of the world.’3


Female Character Romantic Love Female Protagonist Political Duty Female Desire 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    See, for example, Annabel Patterson, ‘“Under … Pretty Tales”: Intention in Sidney’s Arcadia’, in Sir Philip Sidney: An Anthology of Modern Criticism, ed. Dennis Kay (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), p. 285.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Katherine Duncan-Jones, Sir Philip Sidney: Courtier Poet (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1991), p. 177.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    William Painter, The Palace of Pleasure (New York: Dover Publications, 1966), p. 362.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Barnabe Riche, Farewell to Military Profession, ed. Donald Beecher (Binghampton, New York: Medieval and Renaissance Texts Studies, 1992), pp. 182, 197.Google Scholar
  5. 7.
    See Maurice Evan’s summary in his edition of Arcadia (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977), pp. 20–7.Google Scholar
  6. 8.
    See for example Stephen Greenblatt’s ‘Sidney’s Arcadia and the Mixed Mode’, Studies in Philology 70 (1973): 269–78.Google Scholar
  7. 9.
    Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), pp. 121–7.Google Scholar
  8. 16.
    See, for example, Margaret P. Hannay, Philip’s Phoenix: Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).Google Scholar
  9. 17.
    See Maureen Quilligan, ‘Sidney and His Queen’, in Heather Dubrow and Richard Strier (eds), The Historical Renaissance: New Essays on Tudor and Stuart Literature and Culture (Chicago: 1988), pp. 171–96; and Kay, ‘“She Was a Queen …”’, pp. 18–39; and Patterson, pp. 265–85.Google Scholar
  10. 20.
    Maureen Quilligan, ‘Lady Mary Wroth: Female Authority and the Family Romance’, Unfolded Tales: Essays on Renaissance Romance (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989), p. 263.Google Scholar
  11. 21.
    See, for example, The Poems of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. William A. Ringler (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962), pp. 435–47.Google Scholar
  12. 26.
    Katherine J. Roberts, Fair Ladies: Sir Philip Sidney’s Female Characters (New York: Peter Lang, 1993), p. 48.Google Scholar
  13. 27.
    Sir Philip Sidney was encouraged by some of his peers, at home and internationally, to consider his role in international politics as part of an international protestant league, but this, and his attempts to influence Queen Elizabeth I’s domestic policy (including the vexed issue of her marriage), did not find favour with Queen Elizabeth I. His subsequent retirement to Wilton saw the writing of Arcadia, which critics see as continuing some of his politic interest in pastoral form. See, for example, Blair Worden, The Sound of Virtue: Philip Sidney’s ‘Arcadia’, and Elizabethan Politics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996).Google Scholar
  14. 28.
    Sir Philip Sidney, ‘Apology for Poetry,’ Selected Poetry and Prose, ed. David Kalstone (New York: Signet, 1970), p. 222.Google Scholar
  15. 29.
    Anne Shaver, ‘Woman’s Place in the New Arcadia’, Sidney Newsletter 10.2 (1990): p. 9.Google Scholar
  16. 31.
    Lois Potter, Secret Rites and Secret Writings 1641–1660 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 80.Google Scholar
  17. 32.
    Mary Ellen Lamb, Gender and Authority in the Sidney Circle (Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990), p. 78.Google Scholar
  18. 38.
    Helen Hackett, Women and Romance Fiction in the English Renaissance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 120.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 39.
    Sir Philip Sidney, The Old Arcadia, ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 4, hereafter cited parenthetically (OA).Google Scholar
  20. 43.
    Susan David Gubar, Tudor Romance and Eighteenth-Century Fiction, PhD thesis, Graduate College, University of Iowa, 1972, p. 36.Google Scholar
  21. 46.
    William Craft, Labyrinth of Desire: Invention and Culture in the Work of Sir Philip Sidney (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1994), p. 121.Google Scholar
  22. 52.
    Caroline Lucas, Writing for Women: The Example of Woman as Reader in Elizabethan Romance (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1989), p. 2.Google Scholar
  23. 53.
    Paul Salzman, English Prose Fiction 1558–1700: A Critical History (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), p. 58.Google Scholar
  24. 55.
    John Lyly’s Gallathea provides a point of comparison here, where two girls disguised as two boys fall in love, and explore their dilemma until Venus turns one of them into a boy. This seems to be the play that takes the dilemma of same sex love most seriously because both cross-dressers are of the same sex originally, even though the play is predominantly a comedy. See also Alison Findlay’s discussion of this play, ‘Women and Drama’, in A Companion to English Renaissance Literature and Culture, ed. Michael Hattaway (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), pp. 500–1.Google Scholar
  25. 59.
    Kay, ‘“She Was a Queen …”’, p. 39. See also Margaret P. Hannay, Philip’s Phoenix: Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 18.Google Scholar
  26. 61.
    See Alan Sinfield, Literature and Protestantism in England 1560–1660 (Kent: Croom Helm, 1983), where he argues that while Protestantism and humanism might not be without their points of conflict, in Sidney’s writings common factors emerge.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Marea Mitchell and Dianne Osland 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Marea Mitchell
  • Dianne Osland

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations