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SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 42.1 (2002) 63-83

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Politics and Shifting Desire in Sidney's New Arcadia

Benjamin Scott Grossberg

Sir Philip Sidney's shepherd Claius articulates a wider ideal than he realizes when he asks his friend and erstwhile rival Strephon: "'Hath in any but in her, love-fellowship maintained friendship between rivals, and beauty taught the beholders chastity?'" 1 By "'her,'" Claius refers to Urania, the virtuous shepherdess who is the object of his and Strephon's "'love-fellowship.'" The significance of the two shepherds and Urania is one of the mysteries of the New Arcadia. In terms of their dramatic function, the shepherds serve to guide Musidorus through the opening scenes. But as the first draft of the Arcadia suggests, these scenes are not crucial to Sidney's dramatic arc. The Arcadian characters, then, must serve a critical function thematically. But what is that thematic function? Their place in the text gives them prominence, as does the nature of their roles--essentially outside all dramatic action. They belong to almost another genre, a purer pastoral, rather than the hybrid text--romance, epic, drama, and pastoral--in which Sidney works. If nothing else, they seem represented less through irony than other characters; their ideal of beauty, Urania, is a purer ideal, one the reader might take more seriously.

Claius's question about "'love-fellowship,'" rivalry, and chastity points to two related aspects of male-male interaction apparent in any patriarchal environment. Bonds are characterized by violence and the constant threat of violence; and bonds are also characterized by a desire which is almost indistinguishable from the erotic in its primacy, passion, and articulation. Claius's formulation [End Page 63] acknowledges the former when he identifies his companion Strephon and himself as "'rivals,'" and the latter when he describes their friendship as maintained by "'love-fellowship,'" invoking just the kind of erotic triangle Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has identified with male-male desire. 2 Claius also notes that "'beauty,'" the figure of the shepherdess Urania, has "'taught the beholders chastity.'" Urania's virginity instructs her devotees, who become similarly chaste in controlling their desires. Their actively sexual desire is subjugated to the nonsexual demands of loving her, and their desire for each other, the idealized homoeroticism suggestive of Elizabethan male friendship, is also subjugated to her because it is expressed through her. 3 Sexual desire is repressed; patriarchal desire, which might exclude her, is rerouted. What Claius calls chastity, we might call containment. His description of loving Urania echoes the ideal functioning of the Elizabethan court. 4

The shepherds are also "'chaste'" in restraining violence. They have "'friendship between rivals.'" This restraint is especially important in terms of Elizabethan politics. The need for Elizabeth to contain male-male violence was dire due to the constant possibility that such violence might move beyond her control. Her courtiers might attempt to kill each other, as was threatened in the rivalry between Sidney and the earl of Oxford, which compelled Elizabeth to write Sidney a chastising letter in order to stem a duel. The escalation of such feuds might also lead to factional violence, to courtiers keeping retainers, forces of their own that could potentially threaten the realm. 5 An equally dangerous possibility was that her courtiers might become involved in violence outside the kingdom. Such involvement could embroil England in foreign struggles, such as the rebellion by the Protestant Netherlands against Catholic Spanish rule. The dynamics fostered by Elizabeth's chivalric revival served to redirect violence toward safer avenues, functioning as both an outlet for masculine physical aggression and as a contained way to compete for power, to present a suit to queen and public. 6

Previous readers have recognized representations of Elizabethan politics and Elizabeth herself throughout the New Arcadia. 7 But in most cases these readings have been confined to specific characters and specific situations, a one-to-one correspondence with historical persons or events. The introduction of Strephon and Claius indicates a broader design, one which requires Sidney to introduce...


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