“In the Arcadia, as in some luminous globe, all the seeds of English fiction lie latent.” –Virginia Woolf. The Second Common Reader, 1932.
“There is everything in it: prose and verse, both alike exquisite, pastoral and romance, stories, some of them sensational, ethical discussion and moral guidance. … Other poets rifled it, notably Shakespeare.” –A. L. Rowse, The Elizabethan Renaissance: The Cultural Achievement, 1972
“A much richer, more complicated, more satisfying reading experience than the simpler version (known as the Old Arcadia). … To the old version is added a much sharper sense of menace, especially in the character of wicked Cecropia. … The multifaceted and variegated prose is interrupted at regular intervals with verse of dazzling proficiency.” –A. N. Wilson, The Elizabethans, 2011.
For 200 years the Arcadia was the most popular piece of original prose fiction written in English. Sidney invented the name PAMELA for his heroine. ("Pan" means "all" in Greek; "melos" means "sweetness.") Two of the first original women authors in English wrote continuations to the Arcadia: Anna Weamys, A Continuation of Sidney’s Arcadia, and the Countess of Montgomery, Urania.
Like The Lord of the Rings, Sidney's Arcadia is patterned on an oracle. As we learn from premonitions, feelings of fate, and curses that come true in literature (as they always do in Shakespeare), the point of oracles is the assurance that some power of goodness is at work. King Charles I is said to have recited Pamela’s prayer as he went to the scaffold in 1648.
Sidney was a courtier and close observer of Queen Elizabeth I. His father was three times governor of Ireland. Not himself in the corridors of power as Sidney was, Shakespeare borrowed Sidney's language and style. Sidney's astute analysis of statesmanship prefigures Shakespeare's history plays and understanding of politics. Gloucester in Shakespeare's King Lear is modeled on Sidney's blind Paphlagonian king. The torture sequences in John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi are modeled on scenes in Cecropia’s dungeon in the Arcadia. Book 3, chpt. 20.
Like Shakespeare, Sidney used reason and rhetoric to express erotic passion and strong emotion. Basilius, the aging king of Arcadia, pursues a young, cross-dressed Amazon--the story's hero Pyrocles in disguise--whom his wife also desires. Philoclea, the king's daughter loves the same Amazon and then learns that he is a man. Her bewilderment is the source of Juliet's confusion when, on her balcony, she wonders how she can love Romeo when she is supposed to hate him as a Montague.
Watch a recreation of part of a paper on Sidney's Arcadia and Shakespeare given by Charles Ross at the Renassance Society of America, April 1, 2017: 15 minute video.