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Sir Philip Sidney and 'Arcadia.'(Brief Article)

This selective study of Sidney's Arcadia is presented, on one level, as an uncompromising demonstration of the efficacy and superiority of traditional critical methodologies. Frankly admitting that she finds the fruits of the latest school of critical thinking only rarely persuasive,' Joan Rees firmly distances herself from those interpreters of English Renaissance literature whose intellectual energies and critical productivity are sometimes sapped by a conviction that words are irredeemably shifty, meanings indeterminate, the records of the past unreliable because conditioned by the interests and pressures of their time'. It should not be assumed, however, that this critic has failed to keep herself commendably well briefed on modern developments in Sidney, studies. Within the twelve end-notes to the preface, for example, no less than nine items published after 1980 are cited. Furthermore, the case made in this study, for a major rereading of the Arcadia, emphasizing its subtlety, humour, and compassion, is based upon a sound knowledge of modern critical debate over Sidney,s reputation as both a political figure and a literary artist. The author, it would seem, does not seek to dismiss outright modern critical methodologies but rather wishes (and often succeeds) in deftly remaining one step ahead of them. For her, the intellectual validity and creative sparkle of the text itself, rather than of the critical methodology being applied to it, always remain the pre-eminent concern.

Thus by largely adhering to traditional modes of critical analysis, while not hesitating to draw upon the work of more recent critics if relevant, several important areas of investigation are usefully highlighted in Sir Philip Sidney and `Arcadia'. In particular, a persuasive case is made for regarding the character of Amphialus as a key to the moral outlook of the whole work and as a controlling influence over the reader responses to the two major male protagonists, Pyrocles and Musidorus. Similarly, Sidney's female characters receive close scrutiny in the second and third chapters, in a series of brief but telling sketches of the roles, among others, of Parthenia, Gynecia, Andromana, Cecropia, and Pamela. The fifth chapter, New and Old,, also provides a stimulating and original analysis of the function of the various kinds of humorous episodes utilized in the Arcadia. At this point, however, it is perhaps worth noting that the omission of any significant consideration of the extensive amount of verse included in the Arcadia ultimately becomes a somewhat frustrating limitation. Although Rees is probably right in stating that speculation about their [the eclogues] function and significance must be excessively hypothetical', such a decision inevitably slices away a substantial aspect of The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia as experienced by modern readers. Consequently, while we are provided in the fourth chapter with a subtle reading of Sidney's various narrative strategies in the Arcadia, the strongly mediating, consolidating, and challenging effects of the eclogues between the various sections of narrative cannot be considered here. Nevertheless, in this short study, which concludes with a useful select bibliography, Joan Rees has drawn together a cohesive variety of textual approaches to the Arcadia, which will undoubtedly support and foster further critical consideration of Sidney's major prose narrative.
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Author:Brennan, Michael G.
Publication:The Review of English Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1995
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