Arcadia in the Romantics Classroom

Romanticism & Contemporary Culture

Arcadia in the Romantics Classroom

Jay Clayton, Vanderbilt University

  1. Tom Stoppard's Arcadia (1993) tells two stories, separated by more than 150 years, each set in the drawing room of an English country house.  The first story, placed in the early years of the nineteenth century, mixes a conventional Regency farce—involving the young poet Byron, adulterous trysts, a jealous husband, and two threatened duels—with poignant glimpses of a young girl, Thomasina Coverly, a mathematically precocious girl of thirteen.  Although the dates of the nineteenth-century events (1809 in several scenes, 1812 in the final scene) correspond to the years when Lady Byron, was entertaining Lord Byron's marriage proposals, Thomasina's personality and her mathematical ideas clearly stem from the life of her daughter, Ada Byron Lovelace. The second story, set in the present, might be called an academic farce; it concerns the descendants of the Coverly family, still in possession of their country house, and two rival scholars who have come to investigate the very events portrayed in the nineteenth-century scenes. The play raises many issues of interest to the Romantic scholar—so many that I will not explore them here but rather will refer readers to a list of student topics that is appended below.

  2. In a Freshman seminar last spring, I taught Arcadia to fifteen first-year students, none of whom entered the class expecting to become English majors.  The class was devoted to exploring hypertext, through readings of cyberpunk fiction; novels, including Frankenstein, that raised questions about the boundary between human and artificial life; movies, such as Blade Runner, that used cyborgs and virtual reality to speculate about the role of technology in society; hypertext fictions, both on the web and on CD-ROM; and critical theory about the future of electronic writing, the definition of cyberspace, and the future of literature in an age of hypertext.  No computer expertise was required.  Although there were frequent assignments on the World Wide Web, the techniques for using the net were explained for students who had little previous experience.  Students constructed their own web pages, and all writing assignments were turned in online. Computer beginners were encouraged to sign on, and several true novices completed the course with great success.

  3. The culmination of the course was the creation of a collaborative website devoted to glossing allusions and historical references in the play.  Students were given a list of potential topics to research and write about, then they presented their topics as short papers to the class at large. At the same time, students worked in four teams to design and implement a collaborative website to house the glosses of Arcadia they had prepared. They all edited and helped revise one another's work, and the evolving site modeled one of the principal themes we had been discussing during the semester: the collaborative, intertextual, or dialogic character of all writing.  This site may be found on the class webpage:

  4. This class was for first year college students, and few of them had much experience either with the Romantic period allusions they were glossing or with computer technology.  All the same, they put together a valuable web resource for the study of Stoppard's play.  A feature story about this class, which included an account of a class session devoted to discussing Patchwork Girl and interviews with several of the students, appeared in the Vanderbilt University publication Cornerstone. Next year, when I teach this class again, the new group of students will continue work on the same project, so that the collaboration will extend across several years as well as among individual students.

  5. Here is the list of allusions in Arcadia.  Each student wrote short papers glossing three of these topics.