Summary of Scene III
Thomasina is translating Latin, Septimus is looking through “The Couch of Eros” and writing, and Jellaby stands nearby. Septimus tells him he has no reply, but has something for the post.
After he leaves, Thomasina tries to guess what she is translating, and says it is his friend Byron, whom her mother is clearly in love with. She tells Septimus that Byron complimented him as witty. When he becomes critical of her work, she calls him out for being churlish since he is jealous of her mother’s attention to Byron.
She then mentions the equations he has her do, and asks, “Do we believe nature is written in numbers?” (41). He says yes, and she says all they seem to have are equations for manufactures. He replies that God “has mastery of equations which lead into infinities where we cannot follow” (41).
Septimus asks her to turn back to Cleopatra, and she laments that she hates Cleopatra because everything turns to love with her. She then bemoans the loss of Egypt, and the library at Alexandria. Septimus responds that we should get over their grief about that, as “we shed as we pick up” (42), and that we will find these things again, or invent them anyway.
He takes her reading and translates for her, vexing her immensely to the point that she flees the room in angry tears.
Brice comes in as Thomasina flies out, asking what Septimus did to her. Chater is with him. Brice says Septimus ought to address anything he wants to say to Chater to him instead, which Septimus takes seriously and carries out to annoy them. He finally says he repents his injury, and Brice asks about the injury done to Mrs. Chater.
Lady Croom enters, and tells Chater that Lord Byron wishes to include a line about him in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. Chater scoffs that that is an insult, but Lady Croom says it is a good one and he ought to want to be in company with Wordsworth and Moore. She picks up Septimus’s copy of “The Couch of Eros,” and tells him that he ought to tell his friend Byron to leave off the pistols, as his head is full of the Napoleonic wars and dreams of glory.
She leaves, and Chater is awed at the mention of Byron’s pistols. Brice pokes at Septimus, asking what he will do about answering Chater. Bored and vexed, Septimus says he will kill him. The men are startled, but Septimus damns Chater and says, “Ovid would have stayed a lawyer and Virgil a farmer if they had known the bathos to which love would descend in your sportive stairs and noodle nymphs!” (46). He says they will duel after five today; following this, Chater and Brice his second will be dead, Byron can tutor Thomasina, Lady Croom will be pleased, and he will leave the country.
After he leaves, Brice tries to comfort Chater by saying Septimus is full of “bluster and bladder” (46).
Summary of Scene IV
Hannah and Valentine are sitting together in the same space. Lightning the tortoise looks the same as Plautus the tortoise. Valentine is looking at Septimus’s portfolio, Hannah at the primer. She reads, “I, Thomasina Coverly, have found a truly wonderful method whereby all the forms of nature must give up their numerical secrets and draw themselves through number alone” (47). Valentine says he does not know anything about it, but at Hannah’s urging, tries to explain the math behind it. He says she is feeding the solution back into the equation and solving it again, and that it is odd since it’s only been around for twenty years or so; he himself is using it for his work with the grouse numbers.
Hannah mentions the interesting connections Bernard has found regarding the tutor. She wonders why the primer was saved. Valentine is irritable, but ruminates that whereas math had been classical for centuries, it then became modern and left the real world behind, but now “the freaky stuff is turning out to be the mathematics of the natural world” (49).
Hannah ventures to comment on Thomasina’s originality but Valentine ignores her and speaks of how he is doing the inverse of what she did - he has the data, and is looking for an equation. He sees natural populations obeying a mathematical rule, it seems. When she asks if it works for grouse he admits he does not know, and there is a lot of noise with them - distortion, messy real data, interference. It is like a piano playing a song with a string broken and a drunk pianist.
She asks why he chose grouse, and he says the game books are his true inheritance. She ponders Thomasina’s role again, and he grumbles that she was just playing with numbers and did not understand anything. He says one can do the algorithm and get an image of a leaf but it would not be an actual leaf; “the unpredictable and the predictable unfold together to make everything the way it is. It’s how nature creates itself, on every scale, the snowflake and the snowstorm. It makes me so happy” (51).
He adds that the theory of everything can only explain the very big and the very small, such as events at the edge of the galaxy or in the nucleus of an atom - not if it will rain in two weeks. He likes being alive now, though, since everything everyone thought was wrong.
They hear piano music, and Hannah comments that Chloe calls him a genius. She asks about him, and Valentine commends her for her tact in never asking about him before. Amused, she comments, “I’ve always been given credit for my unconcern” (53).
Bernard enters, excited about something he found. It is a penciled entry in Byron’s English Bards and Scotch Reviewers in which Chater is mentioned. Hannah asks for proof, but Bernard says that is absurd; he couldn't have that for sure unless he was there.
Hannah wryly tells him to be nice since she has a gift for him. She found a letter in which Lady Croom wrote her husband that her brother, Brice, married Mrs. Chater, a widow. Clearly Chater had died in 1810.
He is agog with excitement and says it is clear that there was a duel, Chater died, Byron fled. There must be more written about this. Hannah counsels patience, that none of this is for sure. He tells her she needs to have guts.
Valentine inserts that Byron was there at the house for sure, since he is in the game books, which are all in the commode. Bernard is speechless; Hannah kisses him on the cheek to rouse him. He leaps up and runs out, calling for Chloe.
Valentine says his mother lent Bernard her bicycle, which means she has a crush on him.
Gus stops playing, and Valentine readies to leave. Hannah muses why Thomasina never carried out the feedback idea, and Valentine scoffs that there are not enough pencils or time to do it. It would also take a real reason to do it, and the person would have to be insane.
Hannah is thoughtful. She leaves the room.
Light changes to early morning and a pistol is heard in the distance.
In these scenes Thomasina’s nascent genius is starting to reveal itself. She is curious if there are any equations that can plot the forms of nature, and decides she will work on a leaf. Two hundred years later, Valentine peruses her work and sees her iterated algorithms, curious at what she was doing since “it’s the technique I’m using on my grouse numbers, and it hasn’t been around for much longer than, well, call it twenty years” (48). He articulates chaos theory and how now “the freaky stuff is turning out to be the mathematics of the natural world” (49). Everything is messy, complicated, unpredictable.
Valentine concludes at this point in the play that Thomasina was only doodling, and did not know what she was doing. There would not have been enough time, enough pencils, enough interest, enough sanity for her to have brought her equations to fruition. Here time intrudes again. Thomasina is ahead of her time - of her time but not quite. Interestingly, this parallels what Valentine says his time is like: "To be at the beginning again, knowing almost nothing… It’s the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew was wrong” (51-2).
Stoppard’s subject of chaos theory is not something that arose out of the blue. In fact, as scholar William W. Demastes writes, “from virtually the beginning of his career, Tom Stoppard was a proto-chaotician.” Even as far back as his first play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1967) he showed interest in how the world hangs together as it seems to be falling apart. He has always been interested in stretching credibility, challenging his audience, and offering multiple realities and resolutions, “while at the same time rejecting subjectivity and randomness.” His plays have strange and unexplainable phenomena at their centers, and straddle the line of order and absurdity. By the 1980s his work typified the paradox and presented tensions between neat logic, awkwardness, and contingency.
In Arcadia, Stoppard comes to a point when he wants to have an orderly, realistic world but one in which there is “wiggle room” for unpredictability. There is a method to the seeming madness of the play; Stoppard is skillful in his “[blend] of science and art confronting matters of order and disorder.” He sows the seeds of this skillful blending in a larger thematic way as well. The Romantics “challenged the intellectual restraints of Newtonian order.” The steam engine brought with it interest in thermodynamics. The Classical landscape gardening became wild and expansive and Gothic. Furthermore, Thomasina exists outside the university system (in which she was not allowed to participate) and thus “had the good fortune not to need to be un-indoctrinated and so had the freedom of curiosity that her famous – and historical – Romantic contemporaries revealed in their art and poetry.”
One of the most stirring moments in the play is the exchange between Thomasina and Septimus regarding the library at Alexandria. New Yorker writer Brad Leithauser summarizes, “A symbol of lost brilliance, Thomasina is herself obsessed with lost brilliance. She laments that it burned down and all the great works are gone, but he counsels moderation in her grief, that 'We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind'” (42). It is a beautiful metaphor, and one that is a crucial part of Stoppard’s theme of the value of the quest for knowledge.