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Arcadia | Study Guide

Tom Stoppard

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Arcadia | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Act I

Two timelines, 1809–12 and the present, intertwine throughout the play. Both are set in the same room of a large manor house on the estate of Sidley Park in Derbyshire, England. It is the ancestral home of Lord Croom and the Coverly family. The estate features a large park-like garden, a major focus of both time periods. The scenes alternate between past and present until the final scene in which the time periods and characters converge in the same space at the same time.

In 1809 Septimus Hodge, a brilliant academic, tutors Thomasina Coverly, the equally brilliant daughter of the Coverlys, in mathematics, literature, art, Latin, and life. Though only 13, Thomasina challenges Septimus with her unique perceptions. Septimus also has extracurricular interests in the ladies of the estate, including a married houseguest, Mrs. Chater, and Lady Croom, Thomasina's mother. When Ezra Chater, a poet, learns Septimus has slept with Mrs. Chater, he challenges Septimus to a duel, only to be persuaded by flattery and the promise of a good review of his book to excuse his wife's infidelity.

The scene shifts to the present. The modern Coverlys are preparing to host a party on the estate. The academic Bernard Nightingale has arrived to do research in the estate's papers. Another scholar, Hannah Jarvis, has been using the papers to research the story of the hermit of Sidley Park. Valentine Coverly, heir to the estate and University of Oxford graduate student, has been assisting her research. Bernard hides his identity at first because he wrote a scathing review of Hannah's successful book. Seeking cooperation from Hannah, Bernard explains his theory that Lord Byron killed the poet Ezra Chater in a duel at Sidley Park. Despite discovering his real identity and irritated by his manner, she agrees to cooperate because their research could be mutually beneficial. Chloë Coverly, Valentine's 18-year-old sister, is attracted to Bernard and hopes to invite him to their party.

Returning to the past, Thomasina struggles with a Latin lesson. She expresses her revulsion for Cleopatra, who allowed uncontrolled sexual passion to destroy knowledge. Septimus soothes Thomasina with his theory that all lost knowledge will eventually be found again. Thomasina reveals the information that her mother has been spending time with their houseguest, Lord Byron, which seems to upset Septimus. Captain Brice and Mr. Chater interrupt the lesson. Chater again challenges Septimus to a duel because he has discovered Septimus was the reviewer who trashed his last book. The duel is set for sunrise the next day.

The scene shifts again to the present as Hannah and Valentine examine Thomasina's notebooks. Valentine explains Thomasina has written an iterated algorithm that should have been impossible because the math has existed for no more than 20 years. Always skeptical, Valentine cannot believe a schoolgirl like Thomasina could conceive of chaos theory more than 200 years ago.

Bernard Nightingale returns, excited about a note mentioning Ezra Chater. He believes it was written by Lord Byron, but Hannah Jarvis points out he has no proof. He mocks her skepticism. When she tells him she found a mention of Mrs. Chater's remarrying in 1810, he seizes the information as proof of his theory and will not listen as Hannah reminds him it proves nothing yet.

Act 2

Opening in the present with the Coverlys and Hannah Jarvis as audience, a pompous Bernard Nightingale practices his lecture about Lord Byron killing Ezra Chater. Hannah interrupts to show Valentine some research. Chloë becomes upset because they are disrespectful to Bernard. Hannah and Valentine continue to interrupt Bernard, noting gaps in his analysis. Bernard becomes irate and insults their work. After the others leave, Bernard attempts to seduce Hannah. When she rejects him, he lets her know he has already seduced Chloë. Returning to her research, Hannah realizes the hermit of Sidley Park is actually Septimus Hodge.

When the scene shifts to 1809, it is dawn of the next morning. Septimus Hodge and Ezra Chater are due to duel, but Jellaby informs Septimus that Lady Croom caught Mrs. Chater leaving Lord Byron's room during the night and asked the Chaters to leave the estate, along with Lord Byron and Captain Brice. Lady Croom threatens to make Septimus leave, as well, but he persuades her to let him stay.

The final scene opens with the modern Coverlys in dressed in Regency costumes for the party and discussing Bernard Nightingale in the news. When Hannah Jarvis enters, Valentine shows her Thomasina's iterated algorithm on his computer. They discuss how she could have been famous if she had not died in a fire the night before her 17th birthday. The past starts to bleed into the present, as characters from the past enter the room. It is 1812, the day before Thomasina's 17th birthday; she is now infatuated with Septimus Hodge. The focus of the scene shifts between past and present characters, and conversations from the two time periods start to blend. Hannah talks with Valentine and Thomasina with Septimus, discussing entropy and the inevitable descent into disorder and death as molecules mix and lose heat over time.

Evidence finally surfaces proving Bernard's theory about Lord Byron killing Chater is false. Bernard is angry and humiliated. Septimus and Thomasina dance a waltz to the contemporary music. On the eve of Thomasina's death, they kiss passionately and continue to waltz as Hannah and Gus start to dance.

Arcadia Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 Septimus Hodge tutors Thomasina Coverly.

Rising Action

2 Hannah Jarvis and Bernard Nightingale do research at estate.

3 Ezra Chater challenges Septimus Hodge to a duel.

4 Bernard Nightingale publishes his erroneous theory.

5 Lady Croom banishes the Chaters and Lord Byron.

6 Hannah finds information about Chater, Septimus, and Byron.


7 Hannah disproves Bernard's theory.

Falling Action

8 Septimus and Thomasina kiss.


9 Septimus and Thomasina waltz while Hannah and Gus dance.

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