Basically, the play is said to be partly about classicism versus romanticism. But actually, by studying these two aspects with more precision, we end up noticing that one cannot exist without the other, and that there is a relationship between the two. And this is the dichotomy in which Stoppard is interested.
The classical and the romantic are introduced in the third scene of the play, through landscape and architecture. It is while Lady Croom is talking about her garden, designed by Capability Brown, a famous classical landscape gardener, that Hannah states in the next scene that “English landscape was invented by English gardeners imitating foreign painters who were evoking classical authors”. But the Coverly family’s garden is about to be changed into a romantic style (even gothic style: “everything but the vampires”).
It is through the argument taking place between Lady Croom and Mr Noakes about the changes being made to the garden, that the striking difference between the tidiness and the order of the classic style and the strong and gothic appearance of the romantic style is shown. We meet this theme in Hannah’s search for poetic meanings behind the hermit of Sidley Park, what she actually exclaims with passion to Bernard in her famous diatribe. In this speech and shortly after, Hannah establishes herself as the intellectual and emotional centre of Arcadia’s modern story. Talking to Bernard, who doesn’t listen to her, she warns him about reaching conclusions as the ones he made about her book in a review. But he won’t hear that either. In fact, the reason why Hannah decides to write about the hermit of Sidley Park is to study more thoroughly romanticism. Because it is logical and concrete, Hannah prefers the Enlightenment to Romanticism, just as Lady Croom. She considers the Enlightenment as a time of great progress, but still with romanticism taking all the progress away in her mind, as a “decline from thinking to feeling”; she sees in Romanticism excesses and irrationality, both represented by the hermit.
In her speech, Hannah talks about “the whole romantic sham”. Romanticism is the result of classicism which has been mutated into the Enlightenment. The classical order believed the world was ordered and was governed by rules that could be slowly uncovered. Whereas the romantics believed humanity was being imprisoned in these, as well as sought to ruin all rules concerning individual creativity; for them, people make up their own rules as they go along, and every man is an artist; there isn’t any order other than the one you make up. So while Hannah’s speech makes us clearly understand that she would at any time choose to think if she had to choose between thinking or feeling, Bernard on his side, more suspicious of her purposes, replies that she seems “quite sentimental over geometry” (p.40). So while Bernard is more of a romantic, because he follows his gut instinct and intuition: “I’ll tell you your problem. No guts.”, and cumulates sex affairs, his gut feelings are strongly mistrusted by Hannah, who seems to go through an evolution from the classic to the romantic character, because she descends in the last scene into romanticism when she accepts and dances with Gus.
The motif of the garden is actually one of the most apparent motifs used by Stoppard to represent romanticism and classicism throughout Arcadia. Indeed, it lets us explore the differences between the classical and the romantic characters, including especially Hannah, Bernard, Thomasina, Lady Croom, and Septimus. The gradual transformation of the garden becomes more significant when we relate it to the play’s characters and the evolution and development of some of them.
For instance, we can see in Thomasina both romanticism and classicism: at first she’s interested in science –she insists that Newton’s laws of motion can explain life : “If you could stop every alarm atom in its positions and direction, and if your mind could comprehend all the actions thus suspended, then if you were really, really good at algebra you could write the formula for all the future”, which is very classical–, but by the end wants to discover and learn things in which girls of her age are interested in –that is dancing, waltzing, kissing– which is more romantic. Septimus is also a character affected by classicism and romanticism: he teaches mathematics, he is a man of science, and refuses to see Thomasina in her bedroom, but prefers to have affairs with different women.
So through his play, Stoppard ensures that the characters develop, but the entire piece as well. Indeed, the development of science and scientific thinking, one of the main themes of Arcadia, follows a similar transformation: it begins with the belief that Newton’s laws and relativity explain everything (i.e. classicism), and ends up reminding us that while these theories work for the entire universe, everything in between and through this is chaotic and unpredictable, just as romanticism. In Arcadia, it isn’t simply a story about the classical and the romantic, but a story consisting of both of these ideas, and classicism wouldn’t be what it is without romanticism.