Arcadia alternates between two eras, almost 200 years apart. The Romantic writers, especially Lord Byron, have the important function of linking the eras. Both parts take place at the Sidley Park estate in rural England. In the modern part, a literary scholar is conducting research on Byron, based on his visit to Sidley. The earlier part establishes what happened during Byron’s visit.
The play opens during the first period, the early 19th-century Romantic era. By 1809, the stated date, Romanticism had largely gained sway over the Neoclassical ideals of the late-18th to early-19th centuries; emotion replaced reason in the intellectual fashions of the day. While various characters interact onstage, Lord Byron is presented as a guest at Sidley Park and remains offstage.
In Act I, Scene 1, Byron is said to be hunting on the grounds, which are themselves about to be redesigned in a modern, Gothic, Romantic style. In a later scene, Lord and Lady Croom, the owners, disagree over that redesign, leading into Lady Croom becoming interested in Byron. Some of the dialogue concerns whether and when Byron will leave the estate, perhaps to head to the Continent, which is gripped by the Napoleonic wars. Finally, another character, Mrs. Chater, is revealed to have become involved with Byron and was disgracefully spotted leaving his bedroom. This incident prompts Byron to leave the estate.
The modern portion places Byron at the center of a mystery, as Bernard Nightingale, the literary scholar, is attempting to find out if Byron had killed Mr. Chater in a duel fought over this insult to his wife’s honor. Ultimately, that is revealed not to have been the case. Unraveling the mystery through literary clues, more than the actual solution, provides much of the fun in this comedy.
Why Byron? The answer depends in large measure on how much of Stoppard’s characterization of Byron meshes with the biographical facts. George Gordon, Lord Byron, became a primary figure in the popular imagination, in part through his literary person and in part through his personal behavior. The emotional and intellectual perturbations of the Romantic hero—now often called the Byronic hero—were linked to disappointments at the failures of the French Revolution. Byron did later fight for liberty with Greek patriots and died in Greece at age 36.
Byron’s odyssey of self-discovery, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, earned him fame when published in 1812 and since then has become considered a key work of English Romanticism. Interestingly, given Arcadia’s time frame, Byron’s meanderings after leaving Sidley in 1809, which included a European Grand Tour, would have been those that generated Childe Harold.
The two poems cited were written later. “Darkness,” from 1816, is literally about a volcanic eruption but metaphorically about loss of passion—“men forgot their passions in the dread/ Of this their desolation.” “She Walks in Beauty” was not written until 1813, so again the play’s action prefigures his actual production. That particular poem is thought to be about Byron’s half-sister, Augusta Leigh, with whom he allegedly had an incestuous affair and fathered a daughter. One lover, Lady Caroline Lamb, dubbed him “mad, gad, and dangerous to know.” Given Arcadia’s inclusion of sexual dalliances, as a historical figure, Byron is the perfect person—perhaps the only logical person—around whom to locate those amours.