The curtain rises on a stately English room in the manor of Sidley Park, where a lesson is taking place. A tortoise, named Plautus, sits on the stack of papers on the simple, large table. Thomasina, the 13-year-old student, asks Septimus, her tutor, what “carnal embrace” means. Septimus doesn’t give her the real answer (that is, sex), but says instead that “carnal embrace” means hugging meat, and mentions that Mr. Chater has written a bad poem, “The Couch of Eros.” Thomasina comments that she overheard Jellaby, the butler, gossiping that Mrs. Chater had engaged in carnal embrace in the garden’s gazebo. Septimus is immediately curious about the news.
The play’s opening lines introduce some major intersecting themes: education and sex, as well as poetry and fast-paced, pun-filled banter. “Carnal” is indeed related to the Latin word that means “meat,” so Septimus’s response shows that he has to try hard to hide information from Thomasina, who is more than his match intellectually.
Thomasina explains to Septimus the gossip chain—Mr. Noakes, the gardener, witnessed the carnal embrace from afar, then told Chater, Mrs. Chater’s husband. A groom overheard this and told Jellaby, and now many others in the household have overheard as well. After her explanation, Thomasina calls Septimus out on his definition of “carnal embrace,” pointing out that a gazebo “isn’t a meat larder.” She guesses correctly that carnal embrace involves kissing and hugging. At last, Septimus gives her a real definition, describing genitals, and then quickly returns to the lesson on Fermat’s Last Theorum, which relates to exponents.
Thomasina’s explanation quickly sketches out the Sidley Park atmosphere. Audiences are now situated in the upper-class countryside estate, full of servants, frivolity and comedy of the sort typical in 19th-century novels. Thomasina shows her unusual intuitive skills by pointing out that she knows Septimus is hiding something.
Thomasina won’t be dissuaded from the topic of sex. She is disgusted but intrigued. She asks if sex is the same as love, and Septimus responds, “Oh no, it is much nicer than that.”
Septimus comes off as cold-hearted and superficial, rather than Romantic and loving. Here he places the biological pleasures of sex above the emotional joys of love (as do many of the other characters in the play).
Jellaby enters with a letter for Septimus from Chater. Mr. Chater wants to meet with Septimus in the gunroom—a detail which suggests (along with Septimus’s behavior so far) that Septimus was the other person with Mrs. Chater in the gazebo. Septimus says that Noakes, whose job as the gardener is about creating picturesquely beautiful gardens, is more like a snake. Thomasina is otherwise engaged, wondering why you can stir jam into a pudding, but not stir the jam out.
This short moment is loaded with symbols. The comedy gets darker with the addition of the possibility of death, represented by the gunroom. Septimus’s biblical reference shows how Noakes, like the serpent that gave Eve the apple, was like a spy who brought death into the perfection of the gardens.
Thomasina wonders if God is a Newtonian—that is, if God agrees with Newton’s laws of physics. Septimus begins to pose the question he thinks she’s asking—if all of nature moves by the laws of Newton’s physics, is there free will? But Thomasina has other things in mind. She’s wondering if it might be possible to predict the future using very complex algebra. Septimus acknowledges that her question is original. He begins to describe how Fermat actually had a proof for his last theorum, but didn’t write it down before his death, but the lesson is again interrupted.
This passage demonstrates how math and fate are linked in the play. Thomasina doesn’t aim to learn math or science, but to unpack life’s biggest questions. She doesn’t get trapped in the common questions related to determinism and free will that Septimus poses, because she’s more concerned with discovering what will happen.
Chater enters angrily. Septimus sends Thomasina away. She guesses that Fermat’s note about having a proof for his theorem was a joke. Mr. Chater blames Septimus for “insulting” Mrs. Chater in the gazebo. Septimus talks circles around the slow but outraged Chater. Septimus explains that Mrs. Chater asked him to meet her, and that she is known for her sexual appetites. Just as Septimus appears to have totally enraged Chater, who wants to duel, Septimus begins to compliment Chater’s poetry.
Chater is no match for Septimus intellectually, but he could still pose a real danger with a gun. Septimus finally shows his caution and fear by complimenting Chater’s terrible poetry. Stoppard deftly combines comedy and drama. The stakes are high, but the jokes are still funny.
Chater is pleased with the compliment, and forgets momentarily that he’s supposed to be angry at Septimus. Septimus cunningly explains that he’s been tasked with writing a review of “The Couch of Eros,” Chater’s poem, and that the review will take some time to complete. Chater imagines that Mrs. Chater had sex with Septimus in order to ensure a good review, and feels proud of what a devoted wife she is. Chater writes a friendly inscription in Septimus’s copy of “The Couch of Eros.”
This scene introduces some more of the play’s interests, including egos, flattery, and willful blindness. Bernard, though he’s smarter than Chater, is his modern-day counterpart, similarly obsessed with his own work to the point of irrationality.
Noakes enters, distressed to find Septimus and Chater together. Chater reads out his friendly inscription to Septimus, surely the opposite of the scene Noakes expected to find. Lady Croom, Thomasina’s mother and the mistress of Sidley Park, and her brother Brice enter. Brice lists features of the Sidley Park garden—the gazebo, the Chinese bridge—and a moment of comic misunderstanding ensues, with Chater and Septimus thinking Brice might be talking about locations of carnal embrace, and Brice and Lady Croom intending to discuss something else garden-related. Thomasina returns.
Brice’s mentioning of the gazebo, site of carnal embrace, brings back the Garden-of-Eden undercurrent that Septimus introduced. Sex has taken place in the garden, and now (we will shortly see), the garden will be destroyed to make way for a new, wilder, deliberately ruined-looking vision.
Noakes lays out his plans for garden renovations. Brice hates them, but Noakes explains this is what’s in fashion. The drawings apparently show a completely wild, Romantic landscape which as been stripped of the pleasantly decorative elements like the gazebo and the bridge. Lady Croom asks for Septimus’s opinion. As usual, Septimus enjoys himself, hyperbolically criticizing the garden and exposing everyone else’s ridiculousness. He mentions “carnal embrace” again, and Thomasina mentions that she knows what that is now. Just as everyone is getting upset about her lost innocence, Thomasina gives the definition of “carnal embrace” involving embracing meat.
Thomasina shows her loyalty to Septimus by not revealing her new awareness of sex. The idea of fallen innocence again echoes the Eden theme. Noakes’s garden plans demonstrate a fundamental contradiction about the Romantic form of landscape design. Romantic beauty is all about an untamed style, but Noakes is planning every bit of it, and it is no less artificial than the pastoral scene which precedes it.
Lady Croom returns to the garden renovation plans. She describes how the gentle and carefully cultivated countryside look has given way to “gloomy forest and towering crag,” filled with fallen ruins and creepy, wild-looking crannies. She notes in particular the hermitage, a little hut meant to look like an antiquated dwelling for a recluse, designed in an “irregular,” non-symmetrical style, which Noakes asserts is what’s in fashion. Lady Croom praises the garden’s current layout, with pleasant slopes, a few sheep, and a pleasant river and lake. She describes it as “Nature as God intended,” and then says the Latin phrase from which the play derives its name—“Et in Arcadia ego!” She translates this as “Here I am in Arcadia.”
Lady Croom’s Latin connects the Enlightenment-era beauty that she favors to the Classical aesthetics of ancient Rome. Like the Renaissance, the Enlightenment sought to banish religious, emotional, mysterious thinking in favor of a return to Classical thought, interpreted as science, evidence, and order. The Romantic-Enlightenment conflict is just another phase of an age-old cultural/intellectual conflict between reason and emotion.
Lady Croom blames the garden plans on Romantic literature like The Castle of Otranto. She hears shots from the men hunting on the grounds, and mentions that maybe Septimus’s schoolmate has managed to shoot a pigeon. Brice thinks, rather, that it was Thomasina’s brother Augustus who shot the pigeon. She exits with the other men. Thomasina muses about how she’s been hearing gunshots from hunting her whole childhood, and mentions that her father could track his whole life in the game book, a record of what was shot on which day. Septimus quotes the Latin again, saying, “Even in Arcadia, there am I,” referring to death’s presence in the garden. (The death theme, present in the original Latin poem, was missing from Lady Croom’s out-of-context translation.)
Lady Croom’s placing the blame for the garden on literature ties in with Bernard’s later speech about literature’s relevance to everyday life. Literature influences culture and changes lives, imposing its effects on the future like a force of nature. The game books will turn out to be the basis for Valentine’s later research on grouse, and they also show a genteel, cultivated Regency attitude towards death. Septimus’s retranslation of Lady Croom’s Latin phrase—her phrase is a pure delight of being in a beautiful garden; his is a recognition that even in a beautiful garden there is still death.
Thomasina begins to sketch in a little hermit on Noakes’s plans for the hermitage. Thomasina asks if Septimus is in love with Lady Croom, and Septimus accuses her of being too clever for her age. Thomasina hands Septimus a letter from Mrs. Chater, and exits. Septimus reads the letter and slips it into his copy of “The Couch of Eros.”
The scene ends as it begins, with Thomasina demonstrating her uncanny understanding of the workings of adult love. Later, Hannah will use the hermit drawing as a part of her research.