Reading Romance, and Not Necessarily Minds

Bridget Bartlett explores the double empathy problem reading Sir Philip Sidney’s romance, The Countess of Pemproke’s Arcadia (1593), in a paper presented at the Medical Humanities and the Fantastic: Neurodiversity and Disability Online Symposium.

When Sidney revised and expanded the Arcadia, he systematically removed the supernatural elements found in both the older version of the romance and his source materials (Werth 2010). The New Arcadia (1987) retains something of the fantastic, however, because of its general adherence to the conventions of romance. According to Mikhail Bakhtin (1981), romance is characterized by a wondrous chronotope – a configuration of space and time that makes possible all the improbable coincidences and sudden twists of fate. It is this fantastic basis for the world of romance that gives the romance mode much of its distinctive “feel” (Fuchs 2004) and facilitates its episodic adventures. This notion that romance’s sudden and outlandish changes of situation are themselves fantastic is perhaps all the more powerfully shown in Sidney’s non-magical New Arcadia because, I argue, Sidney uses this fundamental aspect of romance narrative to explore how drastically different phenomenologies can limit people’s mutual ability to “mindread.”

“Mindreading,” also called cognitive empathy, is the ability to intuit what another person is thinking. A deficiency in this skill, termed “mind-blindness,” is frequently ascribed to autistic people in accordance with the theory that they are deficient in the more general ability to understand that other people are uniquely situated subjects with their own particular minds (i.e., autistic people lack a “theory of mind” or ToM). Autistic self-advocates, their allies, and philosophers of science have all expressed concerns over the political implications of the mindreading/ToM-deficit construction of autism. In an article (2017) cowritten by autistic rhetorician M. Remi Yergeau and philosopher of cognitive science Bryce Huebner, for instance, the authors argue that it “promotes dehumanization and social exclusion, as well as a logic of deficit” and write that acceptance by of this “uncritical medicalized perspective” contributes to a discourse about autism that “serves to delimit a highly significant political boundary between normal and pathological minds” (273).

Critiques have also been made of the mindreading/ToM-deficit model on scientific grounds. Among these is Stuart Shanker’s (2004) claim is that the mindreading-deficit model of autism collapses if we reject its cartesian underpinnings. From here, Shanker goes on to offer an alternative theory of autistic mind-blindness that resembles and anticipates Damian Milton’s (2012) “double empathy” theory, positing that it is the radically different ways autistic and non-autistic people experience the world that creates barriers to supposing what another mind is thinking. This view of mind-blindness as a matter of embodied cognition and cognitive ecology is, I argue, broadly shared  by Sidney in Book I of the New Arcadia, where radically divergent kinds of experience engender barriers to mindreading between previously likeminded people. I stress Shanker’s point that the mindreading/ToM-deficit model rests on principles that have become paradigmatic since René Descartes developed them because Sidney wrote in the decades preceding Descartes’s work – a time when all the supporting concepts and competing theories that would make possible his philosophical interventions were circulating throughout Europe. A tale that uses incidences of interpersonal misunderstanding to explore everything from classical theories of friendship to Galenic humoral psychology, Sidney’s Arcadia is deeply invested in the then-current debates over philosophy of mind, epistemology, and the psychophysiological workings of sense perception. In the New Arcadia, barriers to understanding others’ minds arise because the fantastic twists and turns of romance rapidly endow people with new phenomenologies. Shanker and Milton invite us to approach “impaired” mind-reading without the pathologizing valuations of a biased medical framework, and Sidney’s related approach can invite us to do likewise.

Credit: The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia / Written by Sir Philip Sidney Knight.
Wellcome Collection.

Being introduced to Arcadia along with the shipwrecked prince Musidorus, the reader learns that it is an idyllic region full of artistically-inclined shepherds with almost genteel sensibilities and conduct. A wise and generous old gentleman living among them, named Kalender, explains that “[t]his country Arcadia among all the provinces of Greece hath ever been singular in reputation … principally for the well-tempered minds of the people” (16). This shared regional trait is perhaps why even his servants seem able to anticipate the needs of others and communicate to one another with mere glances (12). Kalender himself displays this same ability during a conversation with Musidorus, in which the older man repeatedly realizes precisely what his guest feels and wishes to know from the look on the youth’s face (15).

The most mutual instances of mindreading in the New Arcadia, however, occur between people who are equal and similar in their life circumstances. Equality and similarity were two key elements of the Renaissance ideal of friendship, and it is no surprise that it is the shepherds Claius and Strephon, models of Renaissance friends, who demonstrate this mindreading first and most consistently. Conceptually indebted to classical ideas like Aristotle’s statement that a friend is “[a] single soul dwelling in two bodies” (Diogenes Laërtius 2018, 221) and Cicero’s (1923) characterization of friendship as a relationship in which the two parties are in mutual sympathy and each one supplies what the other lacks, a pair of idealized Renaissance friends were not easily individuated as separate, wholly independent subjects. Crucially, these friends understand the common external stimuli and identical passions that move them. After “setting first down in his darkened countenance a doleful copy of what he would speak,” Strephon says (perhaps only for the reader’s benefit), “O my Claius … hether are we now come to pay the rent for which we are so called unto by our over-busy Remembrance … which claims not only this duty of us, but it will have us forget ourselves.” The “Remembrance” that compels their actions is remembrance of their beloved Urania and her leave-taking. The shepherds are “friendly rival[s],” and they understand each other so thoroughly because of these identical and mutually dependent identities (3-5). They are sympathetic mirrors of the other’s lovesickness, and they are being driven towards forgetting themselves both because they lose their autonomy and former selves in their adoration of a mistress and because this shared adoration has either founded or solidified their relationship into an instance of vera amicitia, or true friendship.

As Strephon and Claius rescue and revive Musidorus, their empathy with him gradually increases as they observe more and more ways he is like them – to the point that they respond to Musidorus’s anguish at losing his friend by using their own friendship with one another as their reference point (9). And their own imagined pain seems to be an accurate simulation of their new friend’s feelings; when Musidorus and Pyrocles glimpse one another as Pyrocles is taken away by pirates, Musidorus becomes upset because “he had nothing to accompany Pyrocles but his eyes; nor to succor him but his wishes” (8). When the two meet again, fighting for opposing armies and unrecognizable in their armor, they somehow decide, without speaking to each other but with “their thoughts meeting in one point,” to remove themselves from the general fray to fight one-on-one a place off to the side (37). The ambivalence they feel about fighting each other is implicitly explained by the fact that the two actually are friends.

In the following I will focus on the fantastic changes happening to Pyrocles/Zelmane. First, love-at-first-sight causes an external image to alter this character’s personality beyond their close friend Musidorus’s recognition (48-55). Then, the female disguise he dons to get near his newfound love so radically changes the lover that even the narrator, despite telling us repeatedly that this is a disguise assumed for specific ends, calls the character by she/her pronouns and the assumed feminine alias throughout the several chapters in which the once and future Prince Pyrocles is the Amazon Zelmane.

Musidorus addresses the changes he observes in the newly lovestruck Pyrocles by criticizing them and berating his friend for failing to be better. Pyrocles insists that his values and outlook have changed and that his new way of thinking is different from but not lesser than the highly martial worldview he formerly shared with Musidorus. But Musidorus, invoking his certain knowledge of Pyrocles’s mind, accuses his friend of “a slacking of the main career” and “let[ting] your mind fall asleep” (49). Pyrocles is compelled by love to pursue his beloved, and after finding it impossible to make Musidorus understand or even just believe this altered subjectivity might be reasonable in itself, he decides to leave in secret without any further confrontation (70-76).

The same general conversation is rehearsed when the two meet again and Musidorus refuses to accept his friend’s life as a woman. Zelmane’s explanations of why women are different but not less intelligent or rational than men cannot sway Musidorus’s deeply-held misogynistic views and the resulting accusations that Zelmane is incomprehensibly forsaking her mind all over again by living as she is (70-76). Musidorus has also fallen in love by this point, however, and this partial reconvergence of shared experience allows the friends to find a place of partial understanding somewhere between that former vera amicitia and their more recent failures of understand each other (71-72). Eventually, Zelmane convinces Musidorus that she is contentedly living as internal and external impulses lead her to live – that her fantastically altered reality is natural and happy. When Musidorus comes to accepts her avowals, he accepts that he does not and perhaps cannot understand Zelmane’s mind and promises to do what he can to be helpful to Zelmane and her happiness (88).

By the time of this second confrontation, Sidney has already presented mindreading as an act that cannot work without the two parties involved sharing a fair degree of common understanding of what it is to exist in the world. By having Musidorus and Zelmane reach this agreement by the end of Book I, Sidney suggests that we can make peace with the fact that major differences in how we experience sensory stimuli and our own bodies can stand in the way of mindreading. Premodern texts have the potential to help us rethink regimes of normativity that have solidified in the intervening centuries. The fantastical treatment of “mind-blindness” in the Arcadia, I have tried to suggest, offers a way of approaching it without privileging one kind of subjectivity.

About the Author

Bridget Bartlett (they/she) is a PhD student in English at the University of Mississippi and graduate assistant for the Shakespeare Association of America. Their research focuses on neurodivergence in early modern English literature. In particular, they are currently examining the interrelationships among neurodivergence, spatiality, the domestic, and language development as represented in Tudor-Stuart plays, jestbooks, and broadsides.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail M. 1981. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Edited by Michael Holquist. Translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Cicero, Marcus Tullius. 1923. Laelius De Amicitia. Loeb Classical Library.*.html.

Fuchs, Barbara. 2004. Romance. Routledge.

Laertius, Diogenes. 2018. Lives of the Eminent Philosophers. Edited by James Miller. Translated by Pamela Mensch. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Milton, Damian  E.M. 2012. “On the Ontological Status of Autism: The ‘Double Empathy Problem.’” Disability & Society 27 (6): 883–87.

Shanker, Stuart. 2004. “The Roots of Mindblindness.” Theory & Psychology 14 (5): 685–703.

Sidney, Philip. 1987. The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia (The New Arcadia). Edited by Victor Skretkowicz. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Werth, Tiffany. 2010. “The Reformation of Romance in Sir Philip Sidney’s The New Arcadia.” English Literary Renaissance 40 (1): 33–55.

Yergeau, M. Remi, and Bryce Huebner. 2017. “Minding Theory of Mind.” Journal of Social Philosophy 48 (3): 273–96.


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