Arcadia Themes

Themes

Enlightenment vs. Romanticism
By setting much of Arcadia in 1809, Stoppard pits two opposing historical epochs against each other: Enlightenment and Romanticism. The eighteenth century age of Enlightenment stressed orderly, rational thought, and conformity to accepted rules and forms, and looked to the Classical Greeks and Romans as models of simplicity, proportion, and restrained emotion in culture, art, and literature. Romanticism of the early nineteenth century was a deliberate revolt against Enlightenment ideals. Romantic philosophers and artists experimented with literary forms and stressed individuality, freedom, and the wildness of nature in their work.

The characters in Arcadia, in both the past and present scenes, represent both kinds of thought. Lady Croom wants to preserve her classically-inspired gardens where, "The slopes are green and gentle. The trees are companionably grouped at intervals that show them to advantage. The rill is a serpentine ribbon unwound from the lake peaceably contained by meadows on which the right amount of sheep are tastefully arranged.’’ Her adversary in taste is the landscape architect Richard Noakes (hired by the unseen Lord Croom), who is prepared to tear down the neatly manicured shrubbery and carefully groomed hillsides and convert Sidley Park into a Gothic wilderness, complete with a waterfall, gloomy forest, and picturesque hermitage. He defends himself, saying simply, ‘‘It is the modern style.’’

The battle fought between Lady Croom and Noakes over the condition of Sidley Park's gardens is reflected in some of the play's less tangible ideas as well. In the contemporary scenes, Bernard Nightingale and Valentine Coverly line up on each side of the debate between intellect and emotion. Bernard is acting on instinct and emotion, pursuing the unlikely theory that Lord Byron left England in 1809 because he killed a minor poet in a duel. He persists in his notion, even in the face of evidence to the contrary, because of "Gut instinct. The part of you which doesn't reason. The certainty for which there is no back-reference.’’

Valentine, on the other hand, is a graduate student at Oxford, studying chaos theory, and trying to find a pattern in the rise and fall of numbers in his family's centuries-old hunting books. To him, Bernard's interests are trivial. ‘‘The questions you're asking don't...

(The entire section is 990 words.)