Cato, by Joseph Addison

“To wake the soul by tender strokes of art” – a mistaken idea, of course, misunderstanding art’s purpose, which is, severally: to create something innovative, to maintain a philosophical position agreed by a small coterie of illuminati, to break taboos and to represent forms of consciousness particular to the current state of human evolution (as opposed to the state of human evolution about twenty years ago) – seems unfortunately about the last thing that Addison sets out to achieve in his play, which is a largely dull and forgettable affair (I read it previously twenty years ago and couldn’t remember a thing about it).

Sometimes one feels Addison’s characters may be more aware of the problems of the play than Addison is himself. When Marcia says, for instance,

My father never, at a time like this,
Would lay out his great soul in words, and waste
Such precious moments.

one prefers to suppose she’s making a point about the curious inclination of characters, at all times and under any circumstances, to treat eventualities, often of high drama, merely as opportunities to declaim cliches of learned rhetoric; – and also sadly turns out something of a fallacious statement too, as becomes clear when her father does finally put in an appearance. Rather like Lucan before him (a poet I’m inclined to believe Addison had read thoroughly, to the point where I suspect we should find in Lucan’s poem a number of the same motifs and analogies) – Lucan who, of course, wrote on precisely the same subject – rather like him, as I say, one feels Addison has simply copied his play out of a handbook of oratory.

Addison’s characters don’t exist as people, but are types (Portius is the stoic, though not quite as much as Cato; Marcus the man of passion); they don’t talk to one another, but defend in moralising terms the position of their types, using shrewd and satisfying arguments from the schools. They are happiest, in particular, to get four nouns onto a single line. Here’s Marcus:

Thy steady temper, Portius,
Can look on guilt, rebellion, fraud, and Caesar

Then Portius, in reply:

Greatly unfortunate, he fights the cause
Of honour, virtue, liberty, and Rome.

The character of Caesar (who doesn’t, as it happens, make the slightest appearance in the play) is lifted straight from Lucan – he is the indomitable, irresistable force of nature:

Alas! thou know’st not Caesar’s active soul,
With what a dreadful course he rushes on
From war to war. In vain has nature formed
Mountains and oceans to oppose his passage;
He bounds o’er all, victorious in his march,
The Alps and Pyrennes sink before him

As it happens, the last play of Shakespeare’s I read prior to this was Julius Caesar; and if Caesar doesn’t appear Addison’s play, both plays are nonetheless about the impact Caesar, and his Czarism, had on liberty-loving Roman republicans; but whereas the noble Brutus is in Shakespeare’s play uncertain whether what he is doing is right or wrong, and hesitates – for a time at least – like some Shakespearean Hamlet, struggling against himself; in Cato, Cato is at all times certain where the path of virtue lies, acts always virtuously and impeccably, and is as a consequence as thoroughly dull and insipid a character as can be. (Clearly Addison – in his adherence to classical form – had never read Aristotle, who – I seem to recall – suggests tragic heroes shouldn’t be entirely virtuous, since if there are nobody will be interested in them or find them very likely.) Despite the concentration on the realism and the linear narration of pre-c20th literary works, I feel in truth it is this that c21st man has difficulty with: the use of characters as exemplars, as epitomes of right conduct. Things in Addison are too black and white, too unreal; whereas Shakespeare is murky, sometimes to the point of the unintelligibility of certain of his characters’ conduct. (It’s socialist realism, I tell you: men acting, not as they do, but as they should – which, ironically, we tend to associate with the Caesarian slave-state).

The other main difference, as hinted above, is that Shakespeare’s characters tend to talk to one another in the normal manner of things, addressing themselves in general to the action, and to the emotions of their fellows or themselves; they rarely pause to connect this with philosophical ideas or construct clever arguments; and then rarely declaim such ideas in a thoroughly unrealistic manner. It’s as if, having long since shaken off the style of Seneca, that is where we’ve now returned: the degenerate style of an inbred literary culture (Seneca was, of course, a contemporary of Lucan), which makes me wonder why it isn’t after all so popular nowadays (though, of course, it’s the moralising – we live in that curiosity of an age: one which is both degenerate and immoral).

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2 thoughts on “Cato, by Joseph Addison

  1. I was repeatedly tempted by this one, since it comes up so often in the 18th century, but I guess I am glad I resisted the temptation. I am glad to read about it.

  2. It does get talked about, doesn’t it. It’s the kind of play you’d come up with, if you followed perfectly all the rules of play-writing, and leads me to believe they probably had MAs in Playwriting in c18th England, taught by those who couldn’t make enough money in the theatre.

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