41 pages 1 hour read

Tom Stoppard


Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1993

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Summary and Study Guide


Arcadia by Tom Stoppard was first performed on April 13, 1993, at the Royal National Theatre in London. In 2006, the Royal Institution of Great Britain named it one of the best science-related works ever written.

The play has dual plot lines, one historical and one modern, which share the same physical setting. In the 19th century, the play follows the young Thomasina, a mathematical genius far ahead of her time, and her tutor, Septimus Hodge. In the present, the play follows Hannah Jarvis, a historian writing a book about the hermit and gardens on the estate grounds. In both time periods, the characters seek truth and knowledge in math, history, and sex. The play’s sequential labeling of the scenes, rather than restarting for the second act, reflects the continuity of the two plots.

This study guide refers to the 1993 edition by Faber and Faber.

Plot Summary

The play has two plot lines separated by time, but sharing the same physical location: Coverly Estate in Derbyshire, England. The past storyline begins in April 1809 and focuses on Thomasina Coverly, a 13-year-old student, and her tutor, the 22-year-old Septimus Hodge.

While working on Fermat’s last proof, Thomasina and Septimus discuss household rumors about Mrs. Chater’s sexual affair. Unknown to Thomasina, Mrs. Chater’s lover was Septimus. When Mr. Chater comes to challenge Septimus to a duel, Septimus appeases him by flattering his poetry and implying Mrs. Chater was only trying to get a good review for her husband. Lady Croom, her brother Captain Brice, and the landscaper Richard Noakes enter. Lady Croom criticizes Noakes’s designs for a new garden.

In the same room, but in the present day, academic Hannah Jarvis is visiting the estate to help revitalize the historic gardens. Under a pseudonym, writer Bernard Nightingale comes to meet Hannah and praises her last book. He wants to collaborate. Because of some annotations in a book owned by Lord Byron and three notes inside it, Bernard believes that Mr. Chater must have been killed by Byron in a duel. Hannah reluctantly agrees to pass along anything she finds.

In the past, Septimus reads a letter while Thomasina studies. She describes her ambitious theories about equations being able to describe nature. Mr. Chater and Captain Brice come to duel Septimus, who taunts them. Lady Croom enters, asking for a copy of The Couch of Eros for Lord Byron. Septimus gives her his copy, with his three letters unnoticed inside.

In the present, Valentine looks at Septimus’s portfolio, which includes Thomasina’s math book. Looking at her notes, Valentine explains the math and how recent its conception is to Hannah. Bernard enters and reads a note in the review book published by Lord Byron. Hannah gives him a letter saying that Mrs. Chater remarried. Bernard thinks it proves his argument, but Hannah disagrees. Valentine has found Lord Byron in the game book from 1809, proving that Byron was there. Hannah wonders why no one attempted the math that Thomasina was doing before; Valentine says that was virtually impossible at the time.

At the beginning of the next act, Bernard practices his lecture about the deadly Byron-Chater duel before Valentine, Chloe, and Gus. Hannah and Valentine challenge some of his claims, and Hannah and Bernard fight. Bernard asks Hannah to come with him to London for sex. He makes a crude comment and Hannah slaps him. Bernard leaves. Hannah realizes that the estate’s hermit was likely Septimus Hodge. She is determined to find proof.

The next scene begins with Jellaby letting Septimus back into the house during the early morning. Captain Brice, Mr. and Mrs. Chater, and Lord Byron left at four in the morning and Lady Croom discovered Mrs. Chater leaving Lord Byron’s room. Angrily, Lady Croom enters with two opened letters: Septimus left letters in his room in the event of his death, and Byron left a letter for Septimus when he was leaving. When Lady Croom complains, Septimus burns the letter without reading it. Lady Croom explains that Mr. and Mrs. Chater are sailing with Captain Brice to Malta, with Mr. Chater acting as botanist despite his lack of expertise.

The last scene features both time periods, sometimes at the same time. It begins with Valentine and Chloe in Regency clothes and Gus still picking his party costume. Chloe reads about Bernard’s supposed discovery in the newspaper. Hannah enters and mocks the headline. Valentine has created a computer model to extend Thomasina’s equation, which he calls “the Coverly set.” He praises her work and says she would have been famous, but Hannah reminds him that Thomasina died in a fire the night before her 17th birthday.

Lord Augustus and Thomasina burst onto the stage in the past while Hannah and Valentine remain onstage. Augustus threatens to tell one of Thomasina’s secrets to their mother. Septimus enters and returns Thomasina’s homework. When she points out a feature of her work, Septimus wants to see it again. Simultaneously, Hannah and Valentine discuss the Coverly set’s ability to predict the future while Septimus and Thomasina develop the formula the others are looking at.

Thomasina tells Septimus that she told her brother about their kiss. The kiss was not romantic, but contractual: Septimus will teach her to waltz. Lady Croom enters, describing how Chater was bitten by a monkey and died and Mrs. Chater remarried. Hannah, having read about this exact thing, exits excitedly. Lady Croom asks how old Thomasina is, and she answers that she is 16 years, 11 months, and three weeks old.

Noakes enters, proud to show off a new steam pump. Lady Croom is frustrated with the noise and insults his work. Her ire is focused on the hermitage: She asks where she will find a hermit for it. She also plans to betroth Thomasina soon. Overlapping with the previous moment, Bernard enters, followed by Valentine and Hannah. They have proof of their claims, which contradict Bernard’s. Bernard is angry that his work has been disproven. Septimus enters to mark Thomasina’s homework. Thomasina sneaks in, desperate for him to teach her to waltz before she turns 17 tomorrow. She kisses Septimus to pay him for dancing lessons, but Septimus says he cannot, as the song being played is not a waltz. Thomasina waits silently while Septimus reads her homework.

Hannah enters, dressed for the party. Valentine enters to retrieve the diagram. Across time, Septimus and Thomasina also study the diagram. Valentine praises her genius. A waltz begins, and Septimus and Thomasina dance. They kiss again. Chloe bursts in, enraged at having been caught being intimate with Bernard. She wants to leave with him, but he rejects her. Hannah and Bernard talk about her upcoming book. Before he leaves, Bernard encourages her to publish, even if she cannot prove her hunch about the hermit’s identity.

Time blends again. Thomasina and Septimus waltz happily. Septimus lights a candle for her. Gus enters. Septimus sends Thomasina to bed, warning her to be careful with her candle. Thomasina invites Septimus to her room, but he declines. She decides to stay and dance again. Gus gives Hannah a present, the drawing of Septimus. Gus bows, asking her to dance. Hannah hesitates, but gets up to dance. The two pairs dance.

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