What is a mystery in Arcadia and how is it resolved?

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This play by Tom Stoppard toggles between past and present, as two different sets of characters interact in two different plots, but all the action takes place in the same English country house: the Croome family home. Despite the setting, however, the play is not a conventional murder mystery. As the play progresses, the audience learns of significant intersections between these groups people and their time periods.

One of the mysteries is just how they are connected. The author gradually releases clues to indicate that this mystery concerns Lord Byron, the Romantic poet, who has supposedly been a guest at this home in the portion of the play that takes place in the early nineteenth century. In that period as well, Septimus Hodge, a writer and a tutor to the Crooms' daughter, Thomasina, successfully avoids fighting a duel with Ezra Chater, an egotistical writer and the husband of a woman with whom he is having an affair. In the part set in modern times (presumably the early 1990s, when the play was written), a scholar named Bernard Nightingale comes to the house to research his theory that Byron killed Hodge in a duel while during his stay at the house. Another writer, Hannah, is also investigating events from that period, involving a drawing of a “hermit” who ostensibly lived on the grounds; she thinks Hodge was the hermit.

Despite philosophical and aesthetic differences about literature, Bernard and Hannah decide to work together to find out what Byron had been doing. Another line of inquiry having to do with sophisticated mathematical theories also arises as they go through many old papers.

As the interactions among the nineteenth-century characters progress, different pairs of lovers form, dissolve, and re-form—as was common in comedic plays written at that time. The reasons for the modern sleuths’ misunderstandings become apparent through the earlier character’s actions. While Byron did have a tryst with Chater’s wife, he did not, in fact, kill the man, who joined a scientific expedition and was killed by a monkey. Thomasina is revealed to have been a mathematical and scientific genius, whose theories were generations ahead of her time. She predicted the kind of merging of time and space that Stoppard utilizes to bring together all the characters in the play’s conclusion.

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