Arcadia | Study Guide

Tom Stoppard

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Arcadia | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


In Act 1, Scene 1 of Arcadia, what does the opening dialogue between Septimus Hodge and Thomasina Coverly reveal about their personalities?

With intuitive mathematical and scientific comprehension beyond her years and time, Thomasina Coverly also shows curiosity about the world with her endless questions to Septimus Hodge. She demonstrates her ability to absorb information by pointing out details she has seen or overheard, such as the servants' discussion of being caught in a "carnal embrace." Though she is young and lacks life experience, Thomasina is clever and can be manipulative. She indirectly questions her tutor about his affair with Mrs. Chater by coyly pretending to not understand the servants' conversation. Thomasina is confident in her own thoughts and lacks intellectual inhibitions. She is unafraid to ask questions and is confident of getting an answer and seems to understand when manipulation and pretense are more effective paths to information. Septimus, on the other hand, often sidesteps Thomasina's uncomfortable questions by using double entendres and clever wordplay. He demonstrates his intellect by speaking in multiple levels of meaning to answer her questions without wading into inappropriate topics. However, if he is uncomfortable about the topic, he is at ease with language. For example, his answer to her questions about "carnal embrace" plays on different meanings stemming from the Latin root of carnal translated as "flesh." Septimus's duplicitous responses reveal he is a man who prefers to avoid conflict and uncomfortable situations. If he can worm his way out of difficulty, he will.

In Act 1, Scene 1 of Arcadia, why does Septimus Hodge call Richard Noakes a serpent?

Septimus Hodge calls Richard Noakes a serpent in the garden for his role in revealing Septimus's romantic liaison in the gazebo with Mrs. Chater. The gazebo is in Sidley Park's classically designed garden, which Lady Croom refers to as "nature as God intended" and which Mr. Noakes is planning to change completely. Septimus's claim that Mr. Noakes is the serpent in the garden is a biblical allusion to the serpent in the Garden of Eden, which also could be called "nature as God intended." The serpent tempted Eve into eating forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge. Her act, which implies carnal knowledge, as it does here, led to her being banished from the garden. Septimus is implying that Mr. Noakes is a person who, like the sneaky serpent, causes trouble for others.

In Act 1, Scene 1 of Arcadia, how does Thomasina Coverly's description of stirring jam into rice pudding relate to the theme of the flow of time?

Thomasina Coverly points out if one stirs a spoonful of jam into a dish of rice pudding, the swirls of red cannot be undone, and the more they are stirred, the more mixed they will become until the pudding is pink. Therefore, one cannot stir backward to undo the stirring. This description of stirring jam into rice pudding represents the consequences of certain actions, such as the flow of time, that move only in one direction. The stirring creates disorder after disorder until the disorder is complete (in the case of the jam, until the rice pudding is all pink), "unchanging and unchangeable."

How do poor critical reviews reflect the work of Ezra Chater, Hannah Jarvis, and Bernard Nightingale in Arcadia?

All three characters have been the subject of or have written poor reviews but for different reasons—mediocrity, jealousy, and shoddiness. First, the lack of critical acclaim for Ezra Chater's poetry stems from the mediocrity, or less than mediocrity, of the work itself. Chater is not much of a poet, and his work reflects a lack of originality and wit. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that critics like Septimus Hodge would say of "The Maid of Turkey" it is boring and not fit to "give ... to [a] dog for dinner." Dull-witted Chater is easy to fool, for Septimus dissuades him from a duel by offering to write a favorable review, which Chater doubts he would get elsewhere. According to Hannah Jarvis, the bad reviews of her book come from jealous male academics who resent her popular success. She attributes the bad reviews to chauvinism and her position outside the "fraternity" of Byron scholars, even though her research is scholarly and her information accurate. She is articulate in making her opinion of them known when she says, "The Byron gang unzipped their flies and patronized all over it." However, Hannah is reasonable enough to know she has come out ahead and consents to work with Bernard Nightingale for academic reasons. As "one of the Byron gang," Bernard Nightingale did write a dismissive review of Hannah Jarvis's book. Now, however, he expects glowing reviews for his own work when he publishes his theory that Lord Byron killed Ezra Chater. Because he publishes his work too hastily without verifying information, Hannah Jarvis will expose the errors of his shoddy research and embarrass him publicly. Unlike Bernard, however, Hannah will most likely stick to the facts; Bernard would rather be humiliated by her than by his own friends, who most likely will turn on him whereas Hannah is not in a position to do so.

In what ways does the tortoise serve as a symbol for time in Arcadia?

The tortoise is known for having a long life, so it is an easily recognizable symbol of longevity. The tortoise is Septimus Hodge's pet in the past timeframe and Valentine Coverly's pet in the present. That the symbol appears in a parallel fashion in a time span of more than 200 years indicates the continuity of time. In addition, by placing what looks like the same tortoise in both time periods, Stoppard effectively highlights this continuity. Slow but steady movement is also a key characterization of the tortoise; therefore, it is symbolic of the slow but constant flow of time. In Arcadia, the tortoise is always present but it does not take focus away from what is happening in the scene. Sometimes Plautus or Lightning simply sits and is ignored; at other times it is paid more attention, just as people might regard time. But whether in the background or foreground, being petted or fed, it is a constant reminder of the slow march of time.

How does Stoppard use humor in his characterization of Septimus Hodge in Act 1, Scene 1 of Arcadia?

Stoppard uses humor to emphasize the quick wit, ease with language, and broad knowledge of Septimus Hodge. Septimus repeatedly makes witty remarks using double meanings to confound or insult those around him. In Act 1, Scene 1, such an example is his initial definition of carnal embrace as "throwing one's arms around a side of beef," which reflects not only his wit but his knowledge of Latin as well. Another example is his description of Mrs. Chater's sexual reputation as "a readiness that keeps her in a state of tropical humidity as would grow orchids in her drawers in January." Other times his comments are full of verbal irony. For example, when Ezra Chater demands "satisfaction" for the wrong done against him and his wife's reputation, Septimus responds, "Mrs. Chater demanded satisfaction and now you are demanding satisfaction. I cannot spend my time day and night satisfying the demands of the Chater family." His use of humor reveals a superior intellect and often a contempt for others, but it is directed at those who seem to deserve his scorn or sarcasm, such as the Chaters. However, his humor with Thomasina seems much gentler, reflecting his own embarrassment and aiming more to protect her innocence than to mock her lack of knowledge.

In what ways is Ezra Chater a fool in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia?

With his dull wit, lack of talent, and weak character, Ezra Chater is easily the fool in any situation he is in. He is a flat character who never changes and never learns from his experiences. He is blind to his wife's infidelity and blustery in his demands for justice, but he is easily distracted with a few flattering, yet completely false, comments in Act 1, Scene 1. When Septimus Hodge implies he will not shoot Chater because he thinks Chater is one of the two or three best poets alive, Chater immediately wants to know who the others are and cannot sustain his anger once he hears Septimus is writing a review of Chater's latest poem. In Act 1, Scene 3, at the urging of Captain Brice, Chater challenges Septimus to a second duel for reasons that do not seem as clear to Chater as to Brice. Chater seems oblivious to the fact that Brice is in love with Chater's wife and equally oblivious to Brice's motives for putting him in harm's way. In Act 2, Scene 6, Lady Croom indicates Chater has been fooled into thinking it is a virtue that his wife is playing mistress to Captain Brice. Overall, Chater is a weak-willed man who is easily manipulated and usually the butt of jokes he does not understand.

How does Stoppard use other characters' reactions to develop the character of Lady Croom in Arcadia?

Lady Croom may be—or would like to be—the most powerful person on the estate. She is demanding and opinionated, but it is the way that other characters defer to her opinion and avoid contradicting her that reveals she most likely does not tolerate disagreement. The other characters allow her to have the appearance at least of getting her way, though some object in passive-aggressive ways, such as Thomasina's response to her mother's command that she wait in her bedroom, "It is plain that there are some things a girl is allowed to understand ... but there are others, such as embracing a side of beef, that must be kept from her until she is old enough to have a carcass of her own." Mr. Chater foolishly corrects Lady Croom on the author of a book, but she spells out her authority in the house and his role as guest to accept whatever she says as truth.

In Act 1, Scene 1 of Arcadia, how do Richard Noakes's and Lady Croom's visions for the garden represent different intellectual ideals?

Lady Croom prefers the classical, orderly garden marked by well-manicured landscaping, which appears to have nature under control. It is, in fact, the underlying plan of the present garden at Sidley Park, with its clear boundaries and strong hierarchical design. The present garden represents the intellectual ideal of Rationalism—orderly and linear. It is also the status quo, which reveals her desire to maintain her clear position of power. Richard Noakes, however, wants to transform the garden into a picture of wild, untamed nature, which represents the emotional, Romantic ideal of knowledge. The transformation of the garden is symbolic of the intellectual focus on Rationalism during the Enlightenment as it gave way to the idealization of instinctive, emotional understandings of truth in in the Romantic era. The two views represent different definitions of truth.

In Act 1, Scene 1 of Arcadia, how does the phrase "Et in Arcadia ego" support and contradict Lady Croom's viewpoint about her garden?

Lady Croom is fond of her garden as it is and uses the phrase to support her view that the garden is already in a state of perfection. She does not want to change it to a style she believes is characterized by chaos and decay. She says the classical garden is "nature as God intended" and asserts she is in paradise there. She translates the phrase as "Here I am in Arcadia." The statement is contradicted when Septimus Hodge later points out that death also exists in Arcadia with his translation of the phrase as "Even in Arcadia, there am I!" in response to Thomasina Coverly's observation about the constant hunting on the estate. "There am I" refers to the presence of death. Septimus is alluding to the painting by Nicolas Poussin titled "Et in Arcadia Ego" which shows shepherds gathered around a tomb.

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