Astrophel and Stella tracks the development of a love affair. Over the course of the sequence of poems, the protagonist and narrator Astrophel falls in love with the beautiful Stella, a woman who is virtuous, intelligent, and his idealized partner in life. Most of the sonnets consist of Astrophel as the speaker and Stella as the recipient of his speeches. Because Astrophel is the "author" of the sonnet sequence, we can perceive his inner thoughts and emotions but not much of Stella's. Stella's thoughts and personality are revealed to us only through her actions and occasional speeches to Astrophel. The sonnet sequence would be very different if Sidney had provided a more obvious indication of Stella's feelings. As it is, we partake mainly in just one side of the romance.
Although she initially does not return his affection, Stella tries to be kind to Astrophel, or at least, Astrophel believes that she is trying to be kind to him. Although she does not show him any particular favor in the first thirty or so sonnets, Stella never blatantly snubs him. Eventually Stella marries another man, a fact which Astrophel discovers in the middle of the sequence. Stella is extremely unhappy in her marriage, and Astrophel is even more attracted to her because of her personal sacrifice in the marriage.
Stella eventually begins to return Astrophel's affection, but she never is overcome by her passion for him, something which Astrophel is unable to avoid doing. Near the end of the sonnet sequence, Astrophel attempts to coerce her into making love with him despite her marriage vows. He even steals a kiss from her while she is sleeping. Stella realizes that, even though she loves Astrophel, the affair cannot continue if Astrophel needs his passion to be consummated. As a result, Stella ends the relationship.
Using clues in the sonnets and comparing them with Sydney's life, one can interpret that, with the exception of Sonnet 24, the first thirty sonnets of the sequence were written while "Stella" was still the unmarried Penelope Devereux. Though she did not give Sidney any overt marks of encouragement, she also did not express any displeasure with his romantic attentions. These first thirty sonnets probably encompass the poetry of over a year: some dating from before Sidney's exile from court, some from the time spent at his sister's estate, some from time spent seeing Stella at the home of one of their common relatives in the summer of 1580, and some dating from after his return to court.
Sidney discovers Penelope's marriage to Lord Rich between the thirty-first and thirty-third sonnet. The thirty-third sonnet, with its anguished "I might," clearly describes Sidney's first interaction with Penelope as the now-married Lady Rich. As for Astrophel, he nevertheless resolves to continue in his love for Stella-that is, in spite of her marriage. If anything, the fact that she now belongs to another man makes him even more willing to love her and hopefully win her heart. Even though he knows that she is unhappy in her marriage, Astrophel is often consumed by his jealousy, realizing that Lord Rich always has access to Stella but never appreciates her.
Stella first begins to express affection for Sidney around the sixtieth sonnet. It is at this point in the plot that their love affair finally begins to move forward. Astrophel no longer simply describes Stella's beauty and his slavery to Love; he describes real interactions that occur between the two. But as soon as Stella admits her love for Astrophel, the affair becomes far more problematic. The first major conflict that immediately appears in their relationship is Astrophel's too-strong passion for Stella. Because she is already married, Stella is unwilling to enter into a physical relationship with Astrophel. She offers him her love on the condition that their relationship will be platonic.
Astrophel is content with this arrangement for a few sonnets, but then his physical desire for Stella begins to overwhelm him. Several of the sonnets are devoted to this conflict: his rational mind recognizes that the only way to please Stella and continue the affair is to suppress his physical desire for her, yet Astrophel's desire supplants any of his rationality. He thus cannot help but wish to be with her physically. In Song 2, Astrophel kisses Stella while she is sleeping, an act which is the closest Astrophel ever gets to a physical consummation of his desire. The wording of the Song is very telling: the kiss is expressed as a sort of rape.
Stella is incredibly angry at Astrophel's betrayal of her trust, but Astrophel is still unable to appease his desire. The stolen kiss prompts Stella's first major rejection of Astrophel. She admits that she loves him but insists that they can no longer see each other. Astrophel is tormented by her absence, but he is comforted by the knowledge that she still loves him.
The relationship becomes even more dramatic and complicated as the sequence continues. The two are separated, but they continue in their love for one another. Astrophel, in particular, loves her even more deeply than ever. In Sonnet 93, he admits that he has harmed Stella in some way, and he is overwhelmed by guilt and sorrow for the next few sonnets. We never discover how Astrophel has harmed her (he never provides any specific details-is this all about the kiss?), but his actions and guilt make it clear that the relationship is now doomed to end forever.
Stella falls ill in Sonnet 101, which spurs Astrophel to confess his love for her again. He serenades her under her window in Song 11, hoping that she will change her mind and stay with him. Despite his entreaties, Stella refuses to sacrifice her husband and her reputation. For the first time in the sequence, we see her true anger and disdain for Astrophel. She is appalled that he would continue in his attentions even while she has begged him not to do so. Finally, she dismisses him forever. Astrophel ends the sonnet alone and isolated, empty without Stella's presence. Yet, despite the tragedy of the end, Astrophel retains some happiness in the knowledge that he loved Stella and that she once loved him in return.