The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia Essay Questions

Essay Questions

  1. 1

    There are certain elements of this novella that are signature elements of literature written during the Medieval period. What are some of these and where else have you seen examples of them in literature of the same time?

    There are three main elements included in the novella that seem to bear all of the hallmarks of Medieval literature. The first is the concept of men dressing as women to disguise themselves, and this leads to the confusion as to the identity of each of the people who are in disguise. To the reader it seems improbable that nobody recognizes their own family members when they are in disguise but this is one of the central tenets of literature at the time. Another example of this is Viola in Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" who dresses as a man in order to be allowed to take on a role only given to boys and not girls. The writings of the time seem preoccupied with men dressing as women, and the character of Cleophila in this novella is very much in keeping with that. Another element is the juxtaposition of science and religion. At the time, scientists were the new oracles and their sciences were gaining respect and credence, which was making people question what they had previously believed and leading them to lean more on science and less on the oracles and sooth sayers of yore. An example of this is Basilius' belief that as long as he kept out of the way of the "prediction" he could avoid it. Finally, the element of tragic love is also dealt with in this novel although it is kinder than many Shakespeare and Marlowe plays because the characters who seem to have died a tragic death, because of love, have actually not; for example, Romeo and Juliet are forbidden lovers who ultimately die. In this novel, Gynecia is suffering from unrequited love and therefore decides to kill the object of her affections, the confusion in the identity of her companion in the cave leading her to kill her husband by accident. However, because this is not truly a tragic novella, she turns out to have not killed him after all. The main differences are that this is not a tragedy; rather, it is a novella with a happy ending during which tragic incidences occur to the main characters.

  2. 2

    Does Basilius succeed in protecting his family from the unpleasant prediction he received from the Oracle?

    At first, it seems that the prediction came true, because both of Basilius' daughters are taken by suitors, the kingdom of Arcadia is threatened and Basilius' wife is determined to cheat on him, and cuckold him by doing this. This would seem to be the prediction in a nutshell. However, it can actually be argued that Basilius did outwit what was predicted for him to a certain degree because although the events that were predicted occurred, the circumstances surrounding their occurrence were different, and less tragic than those in the prediction. The suitors who took his daughters were not actually unsuitable (although their behavior during the courtship is definitely questionable). They are princes. They are the relatives of one of Basilius' good friends and a man he trusts and admires. They are renowned for their adventures and are chivalrous and brave - which they demonstrate several times including by defending the Lodge residents from attacks by a bear and a lion simultaneously and by fighting off an angry rabble looking for Basilius. They are also very handsome. Although the princesses were indeed taken, they did not end up with unsuitable suitors, but in fact eminently suitable ones.

    The prediction that said his wife would cuckold him would have come true if Gynecia had have had her way as she was really very determined to sleep with Cleophila, which would have cuckolded her husband as predicted. However, because Cleophila is in love with Philoclea he tricks Gynecia into sleeping with her own husband, therefore narrowly avoiding an affair and the prediction coming true.

    Lastly, the Oracle predicted that Arcadia would be taken over by unfriendly foreign powers. After assumed death, a man from another nation did take over the reigns of the country briefly, but he is not an unfriendly foreign power but a respected and loved friend who will govern in the same manner that Basilius has done. Because the outcomes of the events predicted were so different to the outcomes described in the prediction there is definitely an argument to be made that supports Basilius moving his family to the country because he does seem to have avoided the worst consequences of the prediction coming true.

  3. 3

    What do we learn about the historical time of the novella regarding the politics of the day?

    The novella is set at a time of great political flux and impending change. The preoccupation of the day seems to be guarding the borders from unwelcome invasion. The preoccupation within the nation seems to be with the lack of democratic elections, and the fact that succession to the throne is hereditary and therefore nothing at all to do with the will of the people. There is also a concept of the great threats from overseas, as in England at the time the novel[s writing invasion by the Spanish was a great threat; this fear was passed on to Basilius in the novella and translated into his fear of an enemy invasion of Arcadia. Citizens seem to have tired of successive royals abusing their power as whilst Basilius was a king who was true to his word and who governed with benevolence and fairness the people did not take issue with his unelected status at all. It is only when they feel that he has betrayed their trust in him that they begin to consider the benefits of having rulers who become rulers because of a democratic system of elections, rather than by benefit of birth.

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