Arcadia | Study Guide

Tom Stoppard

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Arcadia | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


How does the setting contribute to the time-related themes of Arcadia?

The play is set in different time periods but in the same place—the same room at Sidley Park. The unchanged setting, including the same table, shows continuity over time as well as the inevitable progress of time. The present-day characters attempt to understand what happened in the past as they look into documents that in the past were new, such as Thomasina Coverly's notebook and the estate's game and garden books. Using both time periods also reveals the problem of knowing what really happened in the past because information in the form of hard evidence is limited; therefore, historical knowledge is largely of an interpretative nature, for available data must be interpreted and errors can occur, as exemplified by Bernard Nightingale's erroneous theory about Ezra Chater's life and death.

For what purposes does Stoppard use mistaken identities in Arcadia?

Stoppard uses mistaken identities for comedic effect and to build tension in the play. In Act 1, Scene 2, the audience is aware of Bernard Nightingale's identity. This knowledge creates dramatic tension as the audience waits for Hannah Jarvis to discover him as the reviewer who was so dismissive about her successful book. Stoppard also uses the technique as an homage to comedies of past centuries. The comedies of Oscar Wilde, Molière, and others often focus on mistaken identities and take place entirely in a manor house parlor. Stoppard's use of mistaken identity is a nod to this tradition as well as a foreshadowing of Bernard's unethical behavior later. It shows he is willing to do or say whatever is necessary to get his way even if it means deceiving others in the process.

How is the name Mr. Peacock fitting for Bernard Nightingale's character in Arcadia?

Bernard Nightingale arrives at Sidley Park wearing a conservative suit, and on the basis of a peacock blue-colored pocket square, Chloë Coverly gives him the name Mr. Peacock when he asks her not to reveal his real identity to Hannah Jarvis. The name suits him, for the word peacock, when applied to a human male, means someone extremely vain, attention-seeking, and often superficial—someone more interested in appearances than substance. Like a peacock, Bernard is often preening as he proudly shows off his knowledge, superficial as it is. He gives the impression of strutting around, seeking and expecting the intellectual and sexual admiration of females. He is sure of himself, in fact over-confident both personally and academically, as witnessed in his posturing, propositioning, and refusing to listen to reason.

In Act 1, Scene 2 of Arcadia, how does the dialogue between Bernard Nightingale and Valentine Coverly create a comedic effect?

Stoppard uses quick back-and-forth dialogue to set a humorous tone. The conversations of different characters are filled with confusion and misunderstandings. The characters are not so much talking with one another as at one another as each is focused on a personal agenda, sometimes using ambiguous language that allows the listener to misinterpret the message. For example, when Valentine Coverly questions Bernard Nightingale about why the room is empty and Bernard tries to explain its lack of furniture is for the party, Valentine responds he needs the commode. Bernard assumes Valentine means he needs to use a bathroom, but Valentine responds, indicating it is not a bathroom but a piece of furniture, "It's got all the game books in it." This sort of absurd imagery created by different interpretations of what is being said creates a comedic effect. Stoppard uses this technique throughout the play, but it is especially effective when characters first meet, such as in Act 1, Scene 2.

How does Stoppard use forms of irony to develop characterizations of Valentine Coverly and Hannah Jarvis in Act 1, Scene 2 of Arcadia?

Valentine Coverly often uses verbal irony, or the use of words to mean something other than what they say, such as naming his tortoise Lightning and calling Hannah his fiancée. This use of language gives his character a witty personality that sees humor in common situations. It also seems to be a coping mechanism to deal with frustrations and disappointments. Stoppard uses dramatic irony, when the audience is aware of something characters are not, to develop the character of Hannah Jarvis. She is a best-selling author, but unlike her counterpart Bernard Nightingale who is not, Hannah is without pretense and keeps her feet, in suitable shoes, on the ground. Although she is a serious and thorough scholar, she is not an attention-seeker; the purpose of her writing is to expand knowledge rather than to gain personal fame. Her working through layers of information, which the audience already knows, before discovering the identity of the Sidley Park hermit reveals her sound methods and caution.

In what ways do Hannah Jarvis and Bernard Nightingale represent the conflict between rationalism and romanticism in Arcadia?

Hannah Jarvis approaches her research logically and tests her theories against real evidence. Without adequate evidence to support her assumptions, she continues to investigate and revise her hypotheses as necessary on the basis of what she discovers. For example, in Act 2, Scene 7, she thinks she has discovered the identity of the Sidley Park hermit, but she refuses to make a claim until she has sufficient evidence. She accepts only empirical evidence as proof. Hannah is symbolic of the rationalist approach, avoiding the personal, the emotional, and unsubstantiated conclusion. Bernard Nightingale, on the other hand, uses his gut instinct to draw conclusions on the basis of limited information. He does this repeatedly throughout the play, never wavering from his theory in Act 1, Scene 1, that Lord Byron killed Ezra Chater until he is faced with undeniable proof that he is wrong in Act 2, Scene 7. Until then, he is unconcerned by a lack of evidence because he is confident he is right. He views his own certitude as all the proof he needs. Bernard represents the emotional, romantic way of knowing, based on personal and irrational instinct. Hannah and Bernard continually clash as Hannah tries to point out Bernard does not have enough evidence yet for his conclusions.

In Arcadia, what does Hannah Jarvis think the hermit of Sidley Park represents?

Hannah Jarvis sees the hermit of Sidley Park as representative of the deterioration of the Age of Reason. The hermit was known to be a mad genius who wrote prolific mathematical proofs about the end of the world. This knowledge is revealed to imply understanding of the second law of thermodynamics many years before its discovery. Despite such brilliance, the hermit was ignored and lived out his life on the estate as little more than a garden decoration. Upon his death, his proofs were burned. Hannah describes the hermit's transformation from a brilliant thinker to a madman as symbolic of "the decline from thinking to feeling" during the Romantic period.

In Arcadia, how does the role of scholars in the past timeframe compare and contrast with the role of scholars in the present timeframe?

In both the past and present, visiting scholars are welcomed into the household and are central to the plots. In the past, the scholars are forward-looking in addition to studying the past. Septimus Hodge tutors young Thomasina Coverly, providing for her a classical education. However, teaching is by nature a future-focused activity; in fact, Septimus directs Thomasina's attention to the problem of entropy and eventual heat death of the universe more than a century before this theory was propounded. However, it is Thomasina's genius more than Septimus's tutoring that leads her in this direction. The other scholars, such as Lord Byron and Ezra Chater, are poets who create works about the world around them to be enjoyed by future readers. The primary question they seem to ask is, "What will be?" In the present, the focus of the scholars is on the past. Their main concern is "What happened?" Both Hannah Jarvis and Bernard Nightingale are there to investigate and examine evidence of what happened in the past. They are researchers rather than creative individuals. So while the past is looking forward to the future, the present is looking backward to the past.

How is the later sexual relationship of Chloë Coverly and Bernard Nightingale foreshadowed in Act 1, Scene 2 of Arcadia?

Chloë Coverly's remarks to Bernard Nightingale hint at her attraction to him and foreshadow their sexual relationship. She notes that Bernard has a lot of sexual energy and says he is, "bouncy on his feet." When Hannah Jarvis objects to the idea of inviting him to the garden party, Chloë responds, "If you don't want him, I'll have him." She asks if he is married almost as an afterthought, for she already has decided to have him regardless of his marital status. She later confirms her intention to couple with Bernard when she says, "Well, don't say I didn't give you first chance ..."

What is the significance of the apple Gus Coverly gives Hannah Jarvis in Act 1, Scene 2 of Arcadia?

The introduction of the apple is an allusion to the biblical Garden of Eden, which in Arcadia is part of the garden symbol. The apple represents the temptation to give in to desires and the acquisition of knowledge; it is the forbidden fruit the serpent uses to tempt Eve. In Act 1, Scene 2, Chloë Coverly reveals her "genius brother" is in love with Hannah Jarvis. It is not clear at first to which brother she is referring, but then Gus Coverly offers Hannah the apple, thereby revealing his unspoken feelings. As forbidden fruit, the apple he offers Hannah signifies the relationship he would like to have with her.

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