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Charles Stanley Ross and Joel B. Davis, Arcadia: A Restoration in Contemporary English of the Complete 1593 Edition of The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia
by Richard Wood

Arcadia: A Restoration in Contemporary English of the Complete 1593 Edition of The Countess of Pembrokes Arcadia by Charles Stanley Ross and Joel B. Davis, with an Essay on Musical Settings for the Poems by Edward Abe Plough. Renaissance and Medieval Studies Series. Anderson, SC: Parlor Press, 2017, pp. xxviii + 613.


This is a very welcome new edition of The Countess of Pembrokes Arcadia.  As its title page declares, Charles Ross and Joel Davis have modernised, ‘restored’ as they have it, the 1593 edition of Sir Philip Sidney’s prose romance.  In what some may regard as a brave endeavour, the editors (or, we might say, restorers) have chosen to present a new generation of readers with an updated version of a much-neglected classic of English Renaissance literature.  For this reader, there is much to praise in a project that encompasses more than the beautifully presented printed text produced by Parlor Press.

The editors have chosen the 1593 text (rather than the 1590 edition or the text of the ‘first’ Arcadia) because this is ‘the book that endured’, this is ‘the version of the Arcadia reprinted and known to everyone until Bertram Dobbell in 1907 and 1908 found three manuscripts of what is now known as the Old Arcadia’ (xiii).  This was also the principle behind Maurice Evans’s edition of the 1593 text, published by Penguin in 1977.  Evans wished to make available, in the form in which it had been read for centuries, the book that inspired King Lear and The Faerie Queene, and influenced the work of Fielding and Richardson.  Similarly, Ross and Davis introduce the Arcadia as the work from which ‘Shakespeare could have borrowed the story of the blind Paphlagonian king in Book 2, which became the basis for the Gloucester subplot in King Lear’; and they highlight echoes of the Arcadia in A Midsummer Nights Dream, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, The Winters Tale and Henry V.  In what is clearly a pitch for the Arcadia’s relevance for a readership already familiar with Renaissance drama, the editors underline Sidney’s mastery of the art of oratory and the ‘lessons in subtle persuasion and ethical appeal’ that Shakespeare and his contemporary playwrights could have learned from the Arcadia’s characters (vii-viii).  And yet, quite unlike Evans, they do not present the text in the form in which it has been read for centuries.

Ross and Davis have themselves learned from twentieth- and twenty-first-century editors who ‘have modernized punctuation and spelling for Shakespeare’; and they have taken some encouragement from contemporary performances of the bard’s work, including Al Pacino’s 2004 film of The Merchant of Venice, where ‘informed your grace’ replaced ‘possessed your grace’ (xv-xvi).  Nonetheless, as they note, a ‘five-hundred-page novel is not a play’, nor are there ‘actors to use phrasing or gestures to make Sidney’s language comprehensible’ (xviii).  For these reasons, in their view, the Arcadia needs the editors’ ‘touching up, and more’ (xv).  To many scholars, such language, and indeed the very idea of ‘touching up’ Sidney’s work, will be anathema.  However, Stephen Greenblatt, quoted on the back cover of the book, praises the editors’ ‘creative updating’ for rescuing the Arcadia from ‘pious oblivion’, read only by ‘a small and steadily shrinking cohort of scholars’, and it is in this spirit that the project appears to have been conducted.

Of course, these editors are well qualified to oversee a venture such as this.  Davis’s work has greatly illuminated the relationship between the different versions of the Arcadia, particularly as regards the divergent editorial approaches represented by the 1590 and 1593 texts, the publications of which were supervised by Fulke Greville and Sidney’s sister, Mary Sidney Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke, respectively (see especially Davis’s 2011 monograph The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia and the Invention of English Literature).  Ross has considerable experience in scholarly translation, including the first complete English translation of Matteo Maria Boiardo’s chivalric romance Orlando Innamorato (published in 1989) and a verse translation of L. Paninius Statius’s Thebaid (2007).  He is also the author of Elizabethan Literature and the Law of Fraudulent Conveyance: Sidney, Spenser, and Shakespeare (2003).  Given such credentials, it is unsurprising that they would be sensitive to the concerns of the established scholarly community, and the meticulous research on display here is testament to that.  It is, however, the commitment to rigorous pedagogy and the development of future scholars, if not an even broader reading community, that are arguably the most impressive aspects of this project.

In setting out to make the Arcadia accessible to a readership unfamiliar with Sidney’s style, his use of the ‘full resources of rhetoric, figures of speech, metaphors, and balanced words and phrases’, Ross and Davis have illuminated the peculiarities of that style to an extent rarely seen in other modern editions of Renaissance texts (xv).  This is made abundantly clear when the revised text is compared to the freshly transcribed ‘Searchable Complete 1593 Arcadia Text’ (based on the Huntington Library copy of the first folio, HL 69478) that is available via the project’s website:; the folio and line numbers for the 1593 text are given at the start of each chapter in the Parlor Press edition. 

The project began with transcriptions and input from an international class of students in English and Comparative Literature at Purdue University (Ross’s employer); and the results were road-tested by classes of undergraduate and postgraduate students from both of the editors’ institutions, all, as Ross and Davis note, to make the text ‘accessible to modern readers while keeping it as close as possible to the original’ (xviii).  This accessibility is enhanced by the addition of useful lists of proper names (each with a guide to pronunciation); family trees for the main characters; annotated maps of the terrain encompassed by the narrative (based on Gerardus Mercator’s Nova et Aucta Orbis Terrae Descriptio ad Usum Navigantium Emendata, 1569); and illustrations from the 1643 German edition of the Arcadia.  The editors have also retained the chapter divisions from the 1590 edition (removed by Sidney’s sister for the 1593 text) and added their own, often jaunty, chapter titles and summaries (e.g. ‘Undercover Lovers’).  There is also an appendix (593-97) containing an essay by Edward Abe Plough on his settings of the Arcadia’s poems to ‘a diverse range of contemporary musical genres’ (593); and the project website contains a taste of these settings with a link to a recording of ‘Over these brooks, trusting to ease my eyes’ from Book 2 (214).

Contrary to the practice of many recent scholarly editions of Renaissance plays, this edition of Sidney’s prose work is very lightly annotated on the text itself.  The annotation that is provided is reserved for the poems.  Though accessibility was their primary aim, Ross and Davis were reluctant to ruin ‘the integrity of the lyric line’, and so decided to ‘respect the iconic aspect of the poems, to leave their language untouched, but to use footnotes and extensive punctuation to make it as easy as possible to follow their thought’ (xvii).  It could be argued that the same respect ought to have been afforded Sidney’s prose.  This would have significantly increased the physical size and weight of an already substantial volume, however, and I suspect its accessibility would have diminished greatly as a result.  In addition, it must be recognised that while they were modernising the (non-annotated) prose sections the editors kept the readers’ scholarly development in mind, ‘tend[ing] to edit more at the beginning of the story than at the end on the assumption that readers who make it that far will have grown accustomed to Sidney’s style’ (xvii-xviii).  And readers new to Sidney’s work are offered a good deal of assistive material: there is a short introduction, providing some literary and historical context, as well as a brief outline of certain key features of the narrative; a ‘Select Bibliography and Biography’ (xix-xxiii) enlarges the available contextual material, as well as bolstering the argument for this particular project with apposite quotations from C. S. Lewis and E. M. W. Tillyard; and ‘A Note on This Edition’ (xv-xviii) explains the editors’ restorative approach, and gives a succinct but highly illuminating introduction to Sidney’s syntax, usages and rhetorical practices.

In ‘A Note on This Edition’, Ross and Davis illustrate their practice by quoting at some length from a passage on the government of King Euarchus from Book 2, Chapter 6 (xvi, 160).  They make a persuasive case for their method here, not least because the passage in question illustrates the awkward effects of Sidney’s syntax, the involutions of his sentence structures and the idiosyncrasy of his punctuation.  As they observe, a restorer’s obligations extend to syntax ‘because reading is a sequential act’, and ‘[a]nything that forces the reader backwards works against the intention of the author’; ‘[p]hrases that seem to go with the wrong words may be moved to bring referent and modifier close together for the reader’s convenience’.  Moreover, [s]entence structure, repetitious syntax, the use of participial and correlative constructions, and passive verbs need not be left untouched, any more than spelling and punctuation’ (xvi-xvii).  I must confess to a personal preference for what is characterised here as Sidney’s halting prose that often forces the reader backwards.  Nonetheless, I can appreciate the length of time it may take (and probably took me) to arrive at this point in one’s literary journey.  I am nonetheless heartened to find that passages that I have worked on in my own studies, and come to treasure, like the ethical tussle between Pamela and Cecropia in Book 3, have retained much of their appeal.  When Cecropia fails in her attempt to persuade Philoclea into a marriage with Amphialus, in Sidney’s original,

she bethought herself to attempt Pamela, whose beauty being equal, she hoped, if she might be won, that her son’s thoughts would rather rest on a beautiful gratefulness than still be tormented with a disdaining beauty. 

In the restored version,

she bethought herself to attempt Pamela, whose beauty was equal.  She hoped if Pamela might be won that her son’s thoughts would rest on a beautiful gratefulness rather than still be tormented by a disdaining beauty. (320) 

There are some (arguably unnecessary) alterations to the syntax and punctuation here, and the replacement of a pronoun with a proper name, all in keeping with the editors’ policy, but much of the character of the text is retained, including the rhetorical flourishes of ‘beautiful gratefulness’ and ‘disdaining beauty’.

Forty years on from Evans’s Penguin edition, Ross and Davis’s Parlor Press edition is an overdue attempt to revivify Sidney studies as a popular pursuit.  It is an impressive attempt to broaden the appeal of the Arcadia as a text to be taught in schools, colleges and universities internationally.  The printed book, the online resources that its production have generated and the scholarly work it has prompted and, I hope, will go on to prompt in the future, are all to be roundly applauded.


Richard Wood

Sheffield Hallam University


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Cite as:

Richard Wood, "Charles Stanley Ross and Joel B. Davis, Arcadia: A Restoration in Contemporary English of the Complete 1593 Edition of The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia," Spenser Review 49.3.18 (Fall 2019). Accessed April 1st, 2023.
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