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Literature Study GuidesArcadiaAct 2 Scene 5 Summary

Arcadia | Study Guide

Tom Stoppard

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Arcadia | Act 2, Scene 5 | Summary



Bernard Nightingale practices his upcoming lecture with the Coverlys as his audience. When Hannah Jarvis interrupts with an update on her research, Chloë Coverly becomes irritated that Hannah and Valentine are not showing more respect to Bernard as they repeatedly point out where evidence does not support his claims. Bernard, too, resents their comments as disrespectful of another scholar. Hannah and Valentine attempt to help Bernard see the shortfalls in his theory, but he does not welcome their criticism. He and Valentine argue about the validity of historical interpretation as knowledge.

Both Valentine and Chloë leave, upset by Bernard's behavior. When Hannah and Bernard are alone, he tries to appeal to her first as a fellow academic but then sexually as he propositions her by telling her more sex in her life would improve her writing. When Hannah refuses him, he lets it slip he already has slept with Chloë and makes a vulgar innuendo. Hannah slaps him, but he is unfazed. He gives her a book he found that mentions the hermit of Sidley Park.

After he leaves, Hannah and Valentine, who has returned, discuss the letter she found earlier. She reads the description of the hermit:

... a wooden stove that must consume itself until ash and stove are as one, and heat is gone from the earth.

Valentine notes the description of the hermit is an example of the second law of thermodynamics. From the date of birth and other information in the book, Hannah realizes the hermit is actually Septimus Hodge, but Valentine points out, like Bernard and his theory, she lacks proof.


Chloë Coverly's angry reaction to the interruptions reveals she has developed an emotional attachment to Bernard Nightingale. Behaving in a romantic fashion, she is unconcerned with logic and the validity of academic arguments; her focus is on the emotional and personal aspects of life. On the other hand, Hannah Jarvis and Valentine Coverly do indeed lack respect for Bernard because he is not diligent in gathering evidence to support his claims. Their frequent interruptions and sarcastic comments show a sense of growing exasperation with Bernard but also show a fatalistic tolerance for his foolhardiness. Hannah sums up her view:

[Y]ou're like some exasperating child pedaling its tricycle towards the edge of a cliff and I have to do something.

Bernard Nightingale, with his inflated ego, demands respect from others; what he really wants is admiration. He plans to make a big splash in the media with his theory about Lord Byron's killing Ezra Chater. Yet in his eagerness for fame and admiration, he is willing to ignore academic standards that require support for such a claim. Stoppard puts the ugly side of Bernard's shallow character on display with his mean-spirited, personal attacks on Hannah Jarvis's work in response to her attempts to get Bernard to see the holes in his theory. Hannah is trying to help him, but he refuses to listen and responds with insults. Bernard further exhibits his nastiness during his argument with Valentine about the nature of knowledge. Speaking about scientists, Bernard tells Valentine, "I'd push the lot of you over a cliff myself. Except the one in the wheelchair, I think I'd lose the sympathy vote before people had time to think it through.'' Bernard is also showing off his wit as well as his animosity. The "one in the wheelchair" is a reference to Stephen Hawking, the theoretical physicist famous for his book A Brief History of Time, which was a popular success and in vogue at the time of Arcadia's production.

Bernard Nightingale's lecture is filled with dramatic irony, which occurs when the audience knows more about a situation than the characters do. For example, Bernard assumes that the three letters that he found in "The Couch of Eros" book were addressed to Lord Byron because they were in a book found in his estate. The audience knows that the letters were written to Septimus Hodge who placed them in the book before Lady Croom borrowed the book for Lord Byron to use. Bernard bases his entire theory about Chater's death on a wrong assumption, thus creating dramatic irony and instilling humor into the words of his lecture. Hannah's and Valentine's attempts to warn Bernard that he lacks proof for his theories—and of the possible consequences for such intellectual shortcuts—foreshadow his embarrassment when new evidence disproves his theory.

The discussion between Bernard and Valentine focuses on conflict between different types of knowledge, such as scientific versus historical. Valentine and Hannah repeatedly point out how Bernard's thesis does not measure up to academic, scientific standards for proving a theory, highlighting their view of knowledge as empirical. Valentine also argues Bernard's thesis is trivial because it illuminates personalities and does not advance scientific knowledge. As their argument reveals, historical knowledge is always limited to interpretation of surviving data in whatever form it is in. Therefore, interpretations of details about personalities and events from history will always be speculative to some degree. Valentine's position is knowledge is not knowledge if it isn't proven absolutely. Bernard, on the other hand, argues there are different kinds of knowledge, such as self-knowledge, that do not meet Valentine's definition yet are equally important to the human condition. The violent imagery that Bernard paints of pushing scientists over a cliff highlights his antagonism toward scientific knowledge in favor of the more speculative and interpretative.

Stoppard brings in the symbolism of heat at the end of the scene with the sexual energy—a relational form of heat—between Bernard and Hannah, resulting in Hannah slapping Bernard. The heat symbolism continues in the description of the hermit, likening his descent into madness as "a wooden stove that must consume itself until ash and stove are as one, and heat is gone from the earth." His decline into madness is symbolic of the second law of thermodynamics—that heat dissipates irreversibly over time and results in death—and, philosophically, the deterioration of the Enlightenment brought on by the romantic era.

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