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Arcadia | Study Guide

Tom Stoppard

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Arcadia | Themes



The characters repeatedly debate the relative importance of different types of knowledge as they explore the question, "Is one way of knowing more valid than the others?" They discuss the merits and limitations of experiential, intuitive, scientific, historical, and carnal knowledge throughout the play. Bernard Nightingale objects to the empirical bias of Hannah Jarvis and Valentine Coverly in Act 2, Scene 5, and defends the value of intuitive knowledge:

But don't confuse progress with perfectibility. A great poet is always timely. A great philosopher is an urgent need. There's no rush for Isaac Newton. We were quite happy with Aristotle's cosmos. Personally, I preferred it. Fifty-five crystal spheres geared to God's crankshaft is my idea of a satisfying universe.

Hannah and Valentine value expanding scientific knowledge, such as discoveries in thermodynamics, chaos theory, and iterative mathematics, whereas Bernard appreciates the knowledge of human experience learned from poetry and the intuitive understanding of philosophers.

Carnal knowledge intersects and overlaps with experiential knowledge. Bernard is a connoisseur of carnal knowledge as he tries to seduce the women on the estate, similar to the activities of Septimus and his friend Lord Byron. Chloë Coverly and Mrs. Chater focus their attention almost exclusively on gaining carnal knowledge, whereas Hannah ignores or rejects it.

Furthermore, characters of the present are trying to gain historical knowledge of events at Sidley Park from 1809–12. They examine artifacts of the past—letters, journals, drawings, and ruins—to attempt to understand what happened.

Classical versus Romantic Ideas

The classical thinking of the 18th century, marked by order and logic, is giving way to the romantic perspective that relies on intuition and feelings for understanding, another example of the movement from order into disorder. Classical thinking is reflected in Thomasina Coverly's conjecture that if all variables could be known, then an algebraic formula could be written to predict the future. In Act 1, Scene 2, Hannah Jarvis explains this paradigm shift as, ''The decline from thinking to feeling.''

The transformation of the Sidley Park gardens is symbolic of this shift from classical to romantic ideas. Hannah explains that English landscape architecture is really a distillation of European painters' interpretations of classic literature and mythology. Therefore, landscape design can be seen as a bellwether of the intellectual attitudes of the times. Originally, the garden of Sidley Park had the classic structure of manicured box hedges popular from Roman times through the Renaissance. This highly structured style gave way to the bucolic pastures under the guidance of English landscape architect Capability Brown in the 18th century, who drew inspiration from the painter Claude Lorrain. The shift to the romantic vision was complete in Arcadia with the change to the wild, untamed tableaus of landscaper Richard Noakes, inspired by the dramatic paintings of Italian Baroque artist Salvator Rosa.


In Arcadia the theme of time—its meaning, direction, and effects—is woven into the fabric of the play by dual timelines that spiral together. Stoppard explores the concept of time cycles in the repeating patterns of the two timelines. The personalities, the sexual liaisons, the quests for knowledge and fame, the misunderstandings, and the word play echo across time. He also builds in a sense of continuity by using the same sets and props in both time frames. But Stoppard also focuses on the directionality of time. He makes it clear time is not just an endless merry-go-round. Time is always progressive and leads to eventual death, both personally and universally. Therefore, time is a finite experience. As Hannah Jarvis says in Act 1, Scene 4, ''Do you mean that was the only problem? Enough time?''

Order and Disorder

A central theme of the play is the tension between order and disorder. It uses entropy—the gradual decline into disorder or randomness—as it applies to all things. The second law of thermodynamics states that heat in a closed system will always dissipate over time. Therefore, the march of time is leading the universe to an eventual heat death. The loss of heat becomes a symbol for the loss of knowledge—carnal, experiential, historical, and scientific—that happens over time.

This theme overlaps with the theme of classical versus romantic ideas, which also can be seen as a form of disintegration from order to disorder, or as Hannah in Act 1, Scene 2 describes it: ''The whole Romantic sham ... It's what happened to the Enlightenment, isn't it? A century of intellectual rigour turned in on itself.'' The garden's transformation by Richard Noakes represents this shift as well. Stoppard introduces the concept of order changing to disorder with Thomasina's description of stirring jam into rice pudding in Act 1, Scene 1. If the jam is stirred backward, it will not "come together again." Over time, no discernible pattern can be detected. Stoppard applies this theory to the structure of the play as well. He slowly mixes the two timelines through the physical setting and artifacts until the final scene when characters from the timelines and their dialogue intertwine on the stage at the same time.

Questions for Themes

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