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  • Cato’s Tears
  • Julie Ellison


Addison’s Cato (1713) and Thomson’s Sophinisba (1730) make a spectacle of political cultures absorbed by the emotional dilemmas of empire. They dramatize, for British subjects, complicated Moors in an imaginary North Africa. Set within a politically divided, unstable Roman sphere situated in Mediterranean Africa, Cato and Sophinisba lead one to conclude that strategic uses of post-republican Rome fueled the development of important strands of British sensibility. Long an empire in the sense of being a conqueror of other peoples, but just lately facing government by an emperor, this version of Rome exhibits the untidy connection between tyrants at home and outposts abroad. In the long eighteenth century in Great Britain, this connection is particularly generative of masculine anguish. The conflicts over political succession in which modern political agency develops imply an international arena—the total geography of diplomatic, military, and mercantile action. Race serves late Stuart high culture as a way of signifying crises of identification and many degrees and kinds of power.

In England, the “Age of Sensibility” begins with the adjustments of masculine experience in a parliamentary and expansionist culture during the Restoration. The literature of sensibility, conventionally assigned to the middle of the eighteenth century, is just one episode in the long cultural history of the sensitive man. The specific eighteenth-century upsurge of tender masculinity depends on a cast of characters developed through conflicts over political succession. Succession is a family affair, but England’s family is international in character, enmeshed in the cousinly networks of incipient empires. In Cato and Sophinisba, liberty, love and suffering persistently combine in the figures of erotic aliens whose racial difference is also an emotional difference. Well before 1713, therefore, race is an operative term in the politics of emotion. At first glance, it appears that racial difference operates in these plays to distinguish Great Britain (in the guise of Rome) from uneasily subjugated cultures. In other words, it looks as though race is not yet internal to national [End Page 571] identity and functions to differentiate this nation from others. But the complexities of the dramas I examine in this essay indicate that representations of race slip into representations of sentiment. If racial discourse signifies crises of personal identification and political loyalty, then race is already internalized, already subjective in British culture. Plots centered on the crisis of the Roman republic map out a zone of emotion that absorbs racial differences with astonishing facility. Roman North Africa becomes the terrain of the imaginary republican hero. In this zone, North Africans behave as troubled sons and lovers experiencing crises of authority, and these crises induce remarkably British forms of sensibility. We might speculatively apply Toni Morrison’s analysis of “black surrogacy” in American literature of every period and genre to the British situation. “The thunderous, theatrical presence of black surrogacy,” Morrison argues, is the means by which “black people ignite critical moments of discovery or change or emphasis in literature not written by them.” And this “real or fabricated Africanist presence” is “crucial to [white authors’] sense of Americanness.” 1 If a British masculine political subjectivity is being fostered, in the early eighteenth century, through debates about the value of “Africa” and the figurative vocabularies that link color to cultural temperament, then “black surrogacy” applies to the British case as well as to the North American one.

“Africa” has several meanings in British plays as early as 1600, as recent studies of the Renaissance have shown. Jean Howard’s reading of Heywood’s The Fair Maid of the West, Part 1 (1600–1604) probes the ambiguous status of North Africans in early modern English culture. Howard identifies the “rivalrous antipathy” between European nations in Heywood’s play, then describes the different kind of difference that prevails between the English and the Moors, a difference “seemingly more benign” because North Africans are not “overt enemies.” Early travel writers and ethnographers, like their later counterparts, distinguished Muslim North Africa from sub-Saharan Africa on the basis of both culture and color. They also differentiated between “tawny Moors and black Moors” in North Africa itself. The “vexed but well-established trade” transacted with North...

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