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Case 7 - Sidney Family Ties

The Sidneys were one of the most literary families in Tudor and Stuart England. The matriarch, Mary Dudley Sidney, knew several languages and was a great letter writer. Her son, Sir Philip Sidney, wrote a sonnet sequence and composed the prose romance Arcadia, based on Ariosto, for his sister, Lady Mary Sidney. After Philip’ early death in 1586, Mary Sidney completed her brother’ work, and it was published as The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia. In the next generation, their niece, Lady Mary Sidney Wroth, wrote her own sonnet sequence and the prose romance Urania. Thus they carried on the Italian heroic romance tradition in England, and inspired other writers such as Anna Weamys, who composed her own Continuation of the Arcadia in 1651, indicating the work’s continued popularity.

Philip Sidney. The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia. London, 1593

Mary Wroth. Sonnets and Songs. Manuscript, ca. 1625

Mary Wroth. The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania. London, 1621

Anna Weamys. A continuation of Sir Philip Sydney’s Arcadia. London, 1651


In dedicating the Arcadia to his sister, Mary Sidney, countess of Pembroke, Philip Sidney says it is the work of his youth, written “most of it in your presence, the rest, by sheetes, sent unto you, as fast as they were done.” Sidney left the work incomplete, and after his early death, Mary Sidney took over the complicated editorial work of arranging the manuscript versions he had left into the revised edition on exhibit. It is credited in the introduction as being “most by her doing, all by her directing.” The Folger's copy was owned by Dorothy Wylde, who wrote her name and the date 1645 across from the dedication to Mary Sidney.


Philip Sidney's niece, Lady Mary Wroth, wrote two of the items on display: the Urania and the sonnet sequence Pamphilia to Amphilanthus. In 107 sonnets and songs, Pamphilia to Amphilanthus develops the theme of Pamphilia’s unrequited love for Amphilanthus, reversing Petrarchan motifs, as Italian women writers had done, to make the beloved a man. Like the poetry of her uncle, Wroth’s poems first circulated in manuscript among her friends, and the copy on display is the only known manuscript of Mary Wroth’s sonnet sequence in her own hand. Some of Wroth's poems were later published with her prose romance, Urania, the first romance written by a woman in English. It also examines Pamphilia’s frustrated love for the unfaithful Amphilanthus. Lady Mary Wroth wrote a second volume, but it was not published at the time because characters and events in Urania were seen as too close to real life for the noble families involved. Certainly, part of the story suggests Wroth’s own involvement with her cousin, William Herbert, with whom she had two children out of wedlock.


Although not related to the Sidneys, Anna Weamys was influenced by Philip Sidney's writing and wrote a sequel to the Arcadia in which she rewrites some of Sidney’s plot and finishes several of the unresolved love stories by marrying off the couples. Like Mary Wroth, she was especially drawn to the character of Urania, but the two women writers treat her differently. Wroth’s Urania tends to be an agent of action in others, while Weamys’ Urania is acted upon, a victim of her parents’ authority and of male desire. As a royalist, Weamys used the romance genre to write about courtly virtues at a time when the English royal family of Charles I was in exile.


See the Sidney and Clifford family tree.

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