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  • What’s Love Got to Do with Addison’s Cato?
  • Lisa A. Freeman (bio)

On the occasion of the first performances of Joseph Addison’s Cato (1713), Alexander Pope wrote, in a now famous letter, to John Caryll, “The numerous and violent claps of the Whig party on the one side of the theatre, were echoed back by the Tories on the other” as each side tried to lay claim to the patriotic virtue of liberty on display in the drama. 1 Ever since, the political affinities of Addison’s Cato have been the subject of popular as well as critical debate, so much so that John Loftis contended in his influential study of the politics of Augustan drama that the “political meaning of Cato was and is still an enigma.” 2 Yet while so much critical energy has been directed toward solving this “enigma,” little or no attention has been paid to the equally, if not more, intriguing controversy that immediately erupted over the love scenes, which constitute almost half of Addison’s tragedy. This critical omission seems strange especially considering that these love plots provoked some of the most volatile exchanges and virulent attacks on the play in the half-century of critique following its first appearance at Drury Lane. 3 Some readers of Cato have offered rationalizations for the love scenes in the larger context of the play’s heroic themes. 4 Yet no critic to date has considered why so many of Addison’s contemporaries would direct so much energy so persistently not only toward censuring and suppressing the love scenes, but also toward reimagining the very contours of his play. Why, in short, did the love scenes between Portius, Marcus, and Lucia on the one hand and Juba and Marcia on the other provoke such a hostile response?

This essay approaches the attacks on the love scenes not only as specific discussions of Addison’s Cato, but as interpretable commentaries that can illuminate the more general question of what kinds of cultural work [End Page 463] tragedies were expected to perform in early-eighteenth-century England. Addison’s Cato provides us with an unusually rich opportunity to explore these larger generic concerns, for the play gave rise not only to this long and controversial reception history, but also, in 1764, to a wholesale revision of the drama titled Cato. A Tragedy. By Mr. Addison. Without the Love Scenes. By analyzing these documents for their characteristic biases, this essay demonstrates that the resistance to the love scenes in Addison’s tragedy was symptomatic of a broader politics of gender and genre that sought to position male characters as the exclusive agents of tragedy and its ideological projects.

Those playwrights who accepted the call of the tragic muse in the early eighteenth century almost invariably announced their intentions of using their plays to envision the English nation and the heroic individuals who would champion and exemplify that nation. In prefaces, prologues, and sometimes epilogues, they explicitly invoked service to the state as the primary interest of tragedy and identified the representation of a particular virtue as a means to fulfill this obligation. In their selection of tragic subject matter, they often chose fables and themes which had allegorical, analogical, or even direct significance for these ends. 5 Not insignificantly, moreover, service to country and patriotic virtue were practically the only principles of tragedy upon which contemporary critics agreed. Influential commentators such as Addison and John Dennis, who generally opposed each other on issues of dramatic decorum, both insisted, for instance, that tragic narratives generally achieved their most natural expression when they embraced patriotism. 6

Tragedy’s status as the site for the articulation of a national posterity was made all the more intense to the extent that it was also figured as the first line of defense against both foreign attacks and a latent moral degeneracy. Envisioning themselves as besieged on all sides, defenders of the English stage looked to tragedy as the rational form that could subdue and then drive out those irrational and feminine passions aroused by foreign entertainments such as pantomime and Italian opera. Metadramatic representations of tragedy suggested that if tragedy failed to...

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pp. 463-482
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