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Arcadia Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Tom Stoppard
Stoppard was born Tomáš Straussler in a small town in Czechoslovakia. In 1939, he, his mother, father and brother escaped the Nazi invasion and traveled to Singapore. Shortly thereafter most of the family traveled to Australia, leaving behind Stoppard’s father, a doctor, who died during Singapore’s conflicts with Japan when Stoppard was only four. Stoppard went to school in India and finally moved to England in 1946. Stoppard never went to college, but became a journalist after high school. He finished his first play in 1960, and has written many more, his most famous being Arcadia and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. He also collaborated on the screenplay of the Oscar-winning “Shakespeare in Love.” Arcadia opened in London in 1993 to rave reviews. To this day, Arcadia is seen as one of the best plays of its era: Brad Leithauser, writing in the New Yorker in 2013, proclaimed it “the finest play written in my lifetime.” Stoppard was knighted in 1997.
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Historical Context of Arcadia
Tom Stoppard’s plays draw from many eclectic sources, from quantum mechanics (Hapgood) to communist-era soccer (Professional Foul). Arcadia doesn’t fit neatly into any particular playwriting movement, and doesn’t synchronize with any modern events. But the play’s fictions intertwine with real-world historical events, from Byron’s “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers” to Isaac Newton’s theories. Most important, Thomasina Coverly, the intuitively genius mathematician, is based on a historical figure named Ada Lovelace (1812-1852), daughter of Lord Byron. Lovelace understood the potential of computers before they’d even been invented, and even wrote an algorithm meant to be completed by machine—the world’s first computer program.
Other Books Related to Arcadia
Stoppard has said that James Gleick’s popular science book Chaos: Making a New Science was a source of information and inspiration. But in style and theme, the play is more closely related to nineteenth century literature. The play directly quotes from several of the Romantic poet Lord Byron’s most famous poems, including “She Walks in Beauty” and “Darkness.” Byron’s influence, and his thematic interests, hang over the poem, as he is a source of obsession for many characters in both the past and present. The characters see his poetry as the exemplar of the greatest achievements of the Romantic era, full of passion and doom. In its high-class setting, its many love stories, and its ferocious battle of wits and intelligence, the play also resembles great comic works of the Regency era, such as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
Key Facts about Arcadia
  • Full Title: Arcadia
  • When Published: First performed on April 13th, 1993, at the Lyttelton Theatre, Royal National Theatre, in London.
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Play
  • Setting: A country estate in England in 1809 and the modern day
  • Climax: When Valentine and Septimus both realize the implications of Thomasina’s theories (Scene 7)
  • Antagonist: Bernard, the overconfident academic
Extra Credit for Arcadia

Like Father, Like Son One of Tom Stoppard’s four children, Ed, is an actor. He played the role of Valentine in a London production of Arcadia in 2009.

Heartless Reviewers have so often criticized Stoppard’s plays for having all brains and no heart that this complaint has become a cliché. But critics widely acknowledge Arcadia to be Stoppard’s first play to found all its intellectual games on real emotion.