Trojan Horses: The Political Effects of Disguise and Veiled Rhetoric in Sidney’s Old Arcadia

ImageThe political atmosphere in Arcadia makes Pyrocles and Musidorus’ courtships of Pamela and Philoclea in Philip Sidney’s Old Arcadia illicit.  As a response to the social and political barriers, the princes are forced to hide their amorous intentions as they pursue their beloveds. Thus, both physical disguise and rhetorical veiling characterize these courtships. They enter Arcadia with their intentions and bodies disguised, much like Trojan horses.  The restrictions governing these courtships fail to make them any less erotic. On the contrary, the necessary veiling and revealing makes the wooing much more mysterious and intriguing, and therefore successful. These techniques are so effective that, due to the affected character’s political role, the stability of Arcadia is put at serious risk. As the characters begin to succumb to their inadmissible desires in response to the veiled rhetoric, the political stability of Arcadia is threatened. The restrictions imposed by the political climate in Arcadia force the princes to resort to unconventional means of disguise and manipulation. Though the princes arrived with intentions simply to court the princesses, they nearly destroy Arcadia just as the Trojan horse destroyed Troy.

Philip Sidney’s Old Arcadia begins with Arcadia’s Duke, Basilius, visiting an oracle that warns him that his oldest daughter shall “by princely mean be stolen and yet not lost,” and his younger daughter shall have an “uncouth love, which nature hateth most.”[1] In order to prevent these catastrophes, Basilius decides to abandon his state and hide away with his family. Unknown to Basilius, two princes have come to Arcadia to court his daughters.  The state of Basilius’ political hideout makes the princes’ desired courtship of the princesses inadmissible, thus the princes are forced to disguise themselves in order to gain access to them. Pyrocles dresses as an Amazon, Cleophila, while Musidorus dons the apparel of a shepherd, Dorus.  As princes, they have no chance of getting close enough to the princesses to court them.  These disguises, which would seemingly make courting the princesses impossible—a woman, and a man of a lower social status—actually allow them access to the princesses. By constraining their courtship, Basilius forces the princes to circumvent these obstacles by veiling their both their communication and identities, which ultimately leads to a more erotic pursuit.[2] The boundaries set in place by Basilius, though certainly complicating the courtships, not only fail to prevent it, but actually aid the suit.

Musidorus, because he is disguised as a shepherd, has a difficult time gaining Pamela’s ear. In order to gain her attention, he begins courting Mopsa, the daughter of one of Basilius’ servants.  Despite Pamela’s distain for Dorus’ social class, she cannot help but be jealous of Mopsa, “so falls it often in the excellent woman that even that which they disdain to themselves yet like they no that others should win it from them.”[3] As Dorus achieves Pamela’s attention, Pamela realizes the incongruities between his words and Mospa’s virtues.[4] “But the more she marked the expressing of Dorus’ affection towards Mopsa, the more she thought she found such phrases applied to Mopsa as must needs argue either great ignorance or a second meaning.”[5] Dorus’ ability to pass information only unto her convinces Pamela that Dorus must be more than a mere shepherd. This courtship is made more erotic both by Dorus’ appeal to Pamela’s intelligence, and the fact that this expression of illicit desire is expressed in a public place. Upon learning Musidorus’ true identity, Pamela runs away with him, leaving the state without an heir to the throne. The combination of veiling and revealing desire creates an excitement for Pamela that would not have been present in a straightforward pursuit.

When Pyrocles first lays eyes on Philoclea, it is she, though probably unintentionally, that attracts Pyrocles using physical veiling. “She appeared in her nymphlike apparel, so near nakedness as one might well discern part of her perfections, and yet so apparelled as did show she kept the best store of her beauties to herself”[6] Through a combination of concealing and revealing, Philoclea manages to appear more desirable than she would if she were simply naked. Pyrocles is able to see a glimpse of her beauties, but just enough is revealed to make him want to see more. The combination of knowledge and mystery makes the sexualized figure of Philoclea all the more attractive to Pyrocles.[7]

After rescuing Philoclea from a lion, Pyrocles’ female disguise proves to be a bit too effective. He does gain access to Philoclea, but he also attracts Gynicia and Basilius, Philoclea’s mother and father. Interestingly, each character’s interpretation of and attraction to the disguise of Cleophila is vastly different. “Fortune had framed a very stage-play of love among these few folks, making the old age of Basilius, the virtue of Gynecia, and the simplicity of Philoclea, all affected to one; but by a three-headed kind of passion.”[8] Basilius is immediately convinced by Pyrocles disguise and is simply attracted to his/her beauty. Gynicia realizes the possibility that Cleophila is a man in women’s clothing and falls in love with the man underneath the disguise. Cleophila intrigues Philoclea, however she is uncertain in her love for her.  She is unclear about her feelings, as she has not yet experienced erotic love.  “But sweet Philoclea grew shortly after all other into worst terms; for taking her to be such as she professed, desired she did, but she knew not what, and she longed to obtain that whereof she herself could not imagine the mean.”[9]  

Cleophila’s act of valor is much less effective in wooing Philoclea than the lines of poetry Cleophila presents in Sapphic verse in the first ecologues. Veiled rhetoric proves more erotic than outright deeds and causes Philoclea’s uncertain desire to morph into realized erotic love.[10] Philoclea falls passionately in love with Cleophia, though she is dismayed with herself because she still thinks her a woman.  It is clear that her love has become a sexual one when Philoclea prays to Diana, the virgin goddess, “O Diana…I would either the cloud that now hides the light of my virtue would as easily pass away as you will quickly overcome this let; or else that you were for ever thus darkened to serve for a better excuse of my outrageous folly.”[11]

Philoclea’s susceptibility to this veiled rhetoric further reveals the power of disguise, both in appearance and in rhetoric, as an erotic weapon. Not only is she ashamed for her seemingly unnatural love, she is tortured by the fact that she cannot consummate it. “It is the impossibility that doth torment me; for unlawful desires are punished after the effect of enjoying, but impossible desires are plagued in the desire itself.”[12]  Because Philoclea thinks her love impossible, she is able to look at her unlawful desire for Pyrocles when he reveals himself with less resistance. She is left to dwell on her seemingly unattainable desire, making her vulnerable when she is presented the opportunity of achieving it. Upon revealing himself as Pyrocles, Philoclea surrenders immediately, “How may that well be; when thou wert Cleophila, the despair thou mightst not be thus did then most torment me? Thou hast then the victory; use it now with virtue.”[13] Kathryn DeZur describes the dangers rhetoric poses to women in her essay, ‘Defending the Castle,’ “Persuasive rhetoric, when not read within the confines of a woman’s primary obligation as a huswife – the assurance of her chastity – can inflame the female imagination and tempt her into sin.”[14]  Though seduction certainly has a personal effect on Philoclea, her position as a princess makes her actions have an effect on the political structure. As Blaire Worden observes, “”Sidney’s language of politics is full of the language of private life. His language of private life is no less full of the language of politics.”[15]  Philoclea and Pamela’s virginity is frequently referred to by Sidney as their “castle” creating simultaneously sexual imagery, a castle for the princes to conquer, and political imagery, a castle as the center of the state.[16]  The political positions of the characters make their personal actions have much graver consequence.

At this point in the plot, Basilius is thought dead, Gynicia is being prosecuted for murder, and the heiress to the throne, Pamela has gone missing with Dorus.  Philoclea would have been the natural back up had she not fornicated with Pyrocles. Arcadia is left without a ruler as a result of the seduction of Pamela and Philoclea.

The princesses are not the only characters in the play who fall prey to erotic desire caused by the veiled rhetoric and physical disguise. Basilius and Gynicia’s adulterous desire for Cleophila prove the most destructive due to their political positions as rulers and their marital status. Their personal choices affect the integrity of the state in addition to their marriage.[17]

Basilius is the least discerning character. He is completely convinced by both veiled rhetoric and disguise. His complete inability to govern his passions reflects on his incapacity to govern the state effectively. Indeed, Basilius is described on the very first page as, “a prince of sufficient skill to govern so quiet a country.”[18]  His desire for Cleophia is inadmissible as a ruler and as a husband, yet his foolish disposition and lack of intelligence makes Gynicia more accountable for her actions.

As the wife of a ruler, Gynicia should be a model for the women of the state to follow; yet her susceptibility to veiled rhetoric and disguise lead to an inadmissible desire that cause her to violate her marriage and thus her role as queen. Her desire for Pyrocles, stemming from a desire for him to reveal his suspected male self, causes her to change from a ruler to a slave. “And this doubt framed in her a desire to know, and desire to know brought forth shortly such longing to enjoy that it reduced her whole mind to an extreme and unfortunate slavery-pitifully, truly, considering her beauty and estate.”[19]  Interestingly, Gynicia is the character most able to see through physical and rhetorical veils. Accordingly, she is held to a much higher moral standard than Basilius.  She is the only character, with the exception of Dametus, who suspects that Cleophila is actually a man. It is only when she allows her illicit desire for Cleophila to overcome her reason that she is duped.  When Cleophila seems to promise a sexual encounter to Gyncia, she says, “For I will now to my too much joy take the charge upon me within few days to work your satisfaction and my felicity.”[20] Gynicia assumes her “satisfaction” is referring to sex with Cleophila, while she is really being set up to have sex with her husband, and Cleophia’s felicity will be caused by a sexual encounter with Philoclea.[21] 

            After giving her husband a potion that is supposed to increase erotic desire, it appears Gynica has killed Basilius.  Subsequently she is put on trial for both adulterous desire and murder. Eucharus equates Gynicia’s seeming murder of her husband to the revolt of a subject in her trial as her actions have both private and public connotations.[22] “Both in private and public respects, this woman has most heinously offended.”[23] The punishment decided upon is to be buried alive with Basilius. Luckily, Basilius was simply asleep so no one is killed, and the princes marry the princesses. However the realization of the ability of veiled rhetoric to change people is painfully present within the happy ending.

         The Arcadian political regime restricts the princes’ ability to court the princesses.  This causes them to resort to physical disguise and veiled rhetoric to reach their goal.  This rhetoric and disguise is incredibly effective, possibly even more successful than a straightforward courtship, winning the love of both princesses. However, the disguise of Pyrocles unfortunately causes Gynicia and Basilius to also love him, which causes political unrest due to the king and queen’s obligation to rule, and private conflict because their desire is adulterous. Basilius’ hiding of the princesses nearly destroys the state because it causes the princes to utilize disguise and rhetoric and enter Arcadia like a Trojan horse, creating political and private conflicts.


[1] Sir Philip Sidney: The Old Arcadia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 5.

[2] Kathryn DeZur: ‘Defending the castle: The political problem of rhetorical seduction and good huswifery in Sidney’s Old Arcadia’, Studies in Philology, Vol. 98: Iss. 1 (2001).

[3] Sidney, The Old Arcadia, 87.

[4] Richard C. McCoy: Sir Philip Sidney: Rebellion in Arcadia (Hassocks: Harvester University Press Limited, 1979), 111-112.

[5] Sidney, The Old Arcadia, 87.

[6] Ibid, 34.

[7] DeZur, Studies in Philology.

[8] Sidney, The Old Arcadia, 49.

[9] Ibid.

[10] DeZur, Studies in Philology.

[11] Sidney, The Old Arcadia, 98.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Sidney, The Old Arcadia, 107.

[14] DeZur, Studies in Philology.

[15] Dr. Blair Worden: The Sound of Virtue: Philip Sidney’s Arcadia and Elizabethan Politics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 320.

[16] DeZur, Studies in Philology.

[17] DeZur, Studies in Philology.

[18] Sidney, The Old Arcadia, 4.

[19] Sidney, The Old Arcadia, 43-44.

[20] Ibid. 181.

[21] DeZur, Studies in Philology.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Sidney, The Old Arcadia, 331.


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