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The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia Summary
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The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia is a prose pastoral romance by Sir Philip Sidney. The first version was completed by the late 1570s. Sidney then went on to write a revised and expanded version that remained uncompleted at the time of his death in 1586.
The story takes place in a province of Ancient Greece called Arcadia. Duke Basilius rules Arcadia well, maintaining peace and prosperity in the region. Basilius has a loyal wife, Gynecia, and two beautiful daughters, Pamela and Philoclea. A crude servant, Demetas, his wife, Miso, and their daughter, Mopsa, care for the family.
Curious about what the future holds for his family and country, Basilius travels to the oracle at Delphos to receive a prediction. Shockingly, the oracle tells him that Pamela will be stolen from him, Philoclea will enter into an unsuitable love affair, and Gynecia will cheat on him. Basilius tells his friend Philanax what has happened and leaves Philanax in charge of the kingdom while Basilius takes his family and retires to the countryside accompanied by Demetas’s family.
Pyrocles, a young prince, spots Philoclea in passing and falls in love with her. Accompanied by his friend Musiorus, Pyrocles disguises himself as a female warrior named Cleophila and goes to Basilius’s pastoral lodge to meet Philoclea in person. Basilius falls in love with Cleophila and invites her to stay with the family. Meanwhile, Musidorus is enamored with Pamela and disguises himself as a shepherd named Dorus to get closer to her.
While listening to the shepherds sing one day, the group is attacked by a lion and a bear. Cleophila kills the lion, leading Gynecia to suspect she is a man, while Philoclea feels a deep affection for her. Dorus kills the bear, saving Pamela, but she is not interested in him. He continues to pursue her, but in order to cover his tracks directs all his shows of affection to Mopsa, who remains oblivious to the fact that Dorus loves Pamela and not her. Finally, Dorus reveals that he is a prince, and Pamela accepts his proposal that they run away and elope.
Pyrocles also reveals himself to Philoclea who agrees to marry him, but before they can, a rabble of Arcadian citizens arrive, angry with Basilius for neglecting his duties as a leader. The group drives off the rabble.
Musidorus tells Pyrocles that he is going to run off with Pamela. Pryrocles and Philoclea cannot do the same because Pyrocles is constantly being watched by Basilius, who is in love with Cleophila, and Gynecia who has figured out that Pyrocles is a man and is in love with him. Gynecia tells Pyrocles that she will reveal his identity unless he sleeps with her. Pyrocles pretends to agree, sending Gynecia to meet him in a cave. He sends Basilius to the same location, pretending as Cleophila to want to sleep with him. He hopes that the husband and wife will distract each other, giving him time to get away with Philoclea.
Meanwhile, Musidorus and Pamela head for the nearest seaport. On the way, Musidorus attempts to rape her, but they are interrupted by the arrival of another mob from Arcadia. Meanwhile, Dametas finds Pamela missing and goes to look for her with Philoclea. He interrupts Philoclea and Pyrocles in bed and locks them in while he goes to fetch Basilius.
Basilus and Gynecia spend the night together, but Basilius accidentally drinks poison that Gynecia has prepared for Pyrocles and dies. Philanax arrives to investigate and decides to execute everyone involved in Basilius’s death. He throws Pyrocles in prison and then sets out to find Musidorus and Pamela. He discovers them being held captive by the mob, which wants to ransom them. Philanax kills the members of the mob and puts Musidorus in prison with his friend.
Pamela demands to be made the new leader of Arcadia, as is her right, but Philanax refuses to let her ascend until her father’s death has been sufficiently investigated. Meanwhile, the populace of Arcadia continues to revolt at the prospect of a new leader. Different factions support different claimants to the throne.
It is then that Euarchus, the ruler of a nearby province, arrives to visit Basilius. Euarchus is Pyrocles’s father, but he has no idea that his son is also in Arcadia. Euarchus is persuaded to rule Arcadia while Philanax holds a trial for Basilius’s murder. Gynecia, Pyrocles, and Musidorus are all sentenced to death for their various crimes. Only after the end of the trial does Euarchus learn that his son was involved in the incident, but he decides to uphold his death sentence. However, just as the executions are about to be carried out, Basilius’s corpse begins to move. The Duke wakes up from a deep coma just in time to pardon the princes and marry them to the princesses, ensuring a happy ending for all.