Cato, a Tragedy is a play written by Joseph Addison in 1712 and first performed on 14 April 1713. Based on the events of the last days of Marcus Porcius Cato Uticensis (better known as Cato the Younger) (95–46 BC), a Stoic whose deeds, rhetoric and resistance to the tyranny of Julius Caesar made him an icon of republicanism, virtue, and liberty. Addison's play deals with many themes such as individual liberty versus government tyranny, republicanism versus monarchism, logic versus emotion, and Cato's personal struggle to hold to his beliefs in the face of death. The play has a prologue written by Alexander Pope and an epilogue by Samuel Garth.
The play was a success throughout England and its possessions in the New World as well as Ireland. Frederick, Prince of Wales put on a production at Leicester House on 4 January 1749 to promote his own support for English liberty against the supposed tyranny of his father, George II of Great Britain. The cast featured four of Frederick's children, including the future George III, who spoke a specially-written prologue, which included the line "What, tho' a boy? it may with pride be said / A boy in England born, in England bred" to contrast to George II's German birthplace.
The play continued to grow in popularity, especially in the American colonies, for several generations. Indeed, it was almost certainly a literary inspiration for the American Revolution, being well known to many of the Founding Fathers. In fact, George Washington allegedly had it performed for the Continental Army while it was encamped at Valley Forge, but the source is a letter of questionable authenticity.
During the final years of Caesar's Civil War, the remnants of the Roman senate, led by Cato the Younger, have fled from Caesar's legions to Utica, Tunisia. In Cato's court are his twin sons Marcus and Portius, his daughter Marcia, the exiled Numidian prince Juba (an ally of Cato whose father, Scipio, Caesar killed in the battle of Thapsus), Juba's servant Syphax, and the senior senators Sempronius and Lucius.
The play opens as Marcus and Portius praise their father's bravery and reassure one another that he will prevail over Caesar. The senator Sempronius arrives and pretends to agree with them but reveals to the audience that he resents Cato for refusing his requests to marry Marcia and plans to betray him to Caesar in exchange for Marcia's hand. Sempronius persuades Syphax to join his cause and urges him to persuade Juba to marshal the Numidian armies he has brought to Utica and overthrow Cato. Syphax goes to Juba and tries to turn him against Cato, but Juba rebuffs him and says Cato is like a second father to him and that he is in love with Marcia and wants Cato's favor to marry her.
Syphax complains that Juba's idolatry of Cato and Marcia have blinded him to reasonable advice and leaves. Juba finds Marcia cavorting with her friend Lucia and flirts with her, but she scolds him for being distracted by romantic fantasies during a dire crisis. He apologizes and leaves to tend to his Numidian armies, resolving to try to win her over later. Lucia chides Marcia for spurning the advances of the rich and handsome prince and confesses that she is in love with Portius and that they are eloping. Marcia sympathizes with her but warns her that Marcus loves her as well, and his jealousy will drive the brothers apart forever if he finds out. She beseeches Lucia to hold her tongue until the war is won, lest she create more chaos in Cato's house.
In the senate house at Utica, Cato calls a meeting of the few remaining Roman senators and asks for a plan to defeat the rapidly-advancing Caesar. Sempronius calls for war, arguing that it is time for Rome to avenge the deaths of Scipio and others with fire and fury. Lucius pleads for peace and states that enough blood has been needlessly shed and that it is time for Rome to yield to Caesar. Cato states that both are half right but also half wrong and explains that the best course of action is neither too reckless nor too cowardly. He declares that he will continue to fight until Caesar reaches Utica and only then sue for peace. An envoy from Caesar's camp arrives and informs Cato that Caesar has agreed to spare his life if he surrenders Utica immediately. Cato retorts that he will be merciful enough to spare Caesar's life if he surrenders now and stands trial in the senate and then sends the envoy away.
Juba arrives and praises Cato's strong leadership, prompting Cato to express gratitude for Juba's loyalty. Cato promises to give Juba whatever he wants as repayment for his service when the war ends. Juba shyly asks to wed Marcia, but Cato is affronted by the notion of Marcia marrying a Numidian and storms off. Syphax arrives, and Juba laments that Cato will not consent for him to marry Marcia. Syphax once again urges Juba to marshal the Numidian armies and overthrow Cato and suggestes that once Cato is dead he can take Marcia as his prize, but Juba vows that he will remain an honorable man and win Cato's favor fairly to marry Marcia. Syphax worries that Juba will never turn against Cato.
Marcus, still unaware of Portius and Lucia's affair, comes to Portius and begs him to convince Lucia to wed him. Portius informs Lucia how much grief Marcus is in because of his love for her, and, saddened by this news, she decides to end their affair before it brings any more misfortune to Cato's already-suffering family. Portius tells Marcus that Lucia feels compassion for him but has sworn off love and cannot be with him, and a grieving Marcus pledges that if Lucia will not be his, he will die fighting his father's enemies, rather than live without her. In the senate, Sempronius grows tired of waiting for Syphax to turn Juba's allegiances and raises his own mutinous legion to overthrow Cato. He sends them to arrest Cato, but when Cato is confronted, he makes an impassioned speech that moves them to release him.
Sempronius realizes Cato cannot be deposed by troops so loyal to him and resolves to abandon his plot, abscond with Marcia, and leave Utica to join Caesar's legions. He dresses as Juba to gain entry to Marcia's apartments, but Juba himself finds him and kills him. Marcia finds Sempronius' body and, believing it to be Juba's by his dress, confesses tearfully that she truly loved Juba all along and weeps for his death. Juba hears that and reveals that he is still alive, and they embrace. Meanwhile, Syphax succeeds in marshaling the Numidian armies himself, but the reckless and self-destructive Marcus viciously attacks them and slays Syphax before being slain himself. Cato learns of all this and condemns Sempronius and Syphax while praising Marcus' bravery. He declares that instead of mourning his son, everyone ought to mourn the fallen Roman Empire, which he died to protect, before he announces that he intends to surrender Utica to Caesar.
Waiting for Caesar's legions to arrive, Cato privately ponders whether or not to fall on his sword before they do, and he laments lamenting that "the world was made for Caesar," not for virtuous men. He kills himself, and as he dies, he is discovered by a shocked Marcia and Portius. With his dying breaths, he gives Marcia his blessing to marry Juba, who he declares is a Numidian with "a Roman soul," and Portius the same to marry Lucia. Portius curses the "guilty world" that takes Cato's life and leaves Caesar victorious, and he declares that the tragedy of Caesar's conquest will forever be a warning to all nations of the dire cost of civil war.
Influence on American Revolution
Some scholars, including historian David McCullough, the author of 1776, believe that several famous quotations from the American Revolution came from or were inspired by Cato. They include:
- Patrick Henry's famous ultimatum: "Give me Liberty or give me death!"
- (Supposed reference to Act II, Scene 4: "It is not now time to talk of aught/But chains or conquest, liberty or death.").
- Nathan Hale's valediction: "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."
- (Supposed reference to Act IV, Scene 4: "What a pity it is/That we can die but once to serve our country.").
- Washington's praise for Benedict Arnold in a letter to him: "It is not in the power of any man to command success; but you have done more—you have deserved it."
- (Clear reference to Act I, Scene 2: "'Tis not in mortals to command success; but we'll do more, Sempronius, we'll deserve it.").
Not long after the American Revolution, Edmund Burke quotes the play as well in his Letter to Charles-Jean-Francois Depont, expanded the following year into Reflections on the Revolution in France: "The French may be yet to go through more transmigrations. They may pass, as one of our poets says, 'through many varieties of untried being,' before their state obtains its final form." The poet in reference is, of course, Addison and the passage Burke quoted is from Cato (V.i. II): "Through what variety of untried being,/Through what new scenes and changes must we pass!"
Charles Thomson, a Patriot leader from Pennsylvania whom John Adams once described as "the Sam Adams of Philadelphia," paraphrased a passage from Cato in a letter to Benjamin Franklin about Parliament's violations of the freedoms of the colonists. Thomson wrote, “I am ready to ask with the poet [referring to Joseph Addison] 'Are there not some chosen thunders in the stores of heaven armed with uncommon wrath to blast those Men, who by their cursed schemes of policy are dragging friends and brothers into the horrors of civil War and involving their country in ruin?' Even yet the wounds may be healed and peace and love restored; But we are on the very edge of the precipice." Thomson paraphrased Cato Act I: Scene 1 Verses:21 – 24.
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Although the play has fallen considerably from popularity and is now rarely performed or read, it was widely popular and often cited in the 18th century, with Cato as an exemplar of republican virtue and liberty. For example, John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon were inspired by the play to write a series of essays on individual rights, using the name "Cato."
Addison's tragedy also inspired the Portuguese playwright Almeida Garrett (1799–1854) to write Catão, in 1821. The play was premiered on 29. September of the same year, celebrating the anniversary of the 1820 Liberal Revolution, in Portugal, by a group of Portuguese liberal intellectuals. It was staged a few times in Portugal, the following years, always by amateurs. In 1828, it had the British premiere, in Plymouth, by a group of exiled officers and intellectuals, reviewed by British newspapers. Catão had its first edition in 1822. There were four other editions, being one of them in London, in 1828.
In M.T. Anderson's young adult novel The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, the main character also quotes the play, "A day, an hour, of virtuous liberty/Is worth a whole eternity in bondage" (p. 346).
- Addison, Joseph (1713). Cato, a Tragedy – via Wikisource.
- Cato: A Tragedy, in Five Acts at Project Gutenberg [from an edition published in 1823]
- Litto, Fredric .M., Addison's Cato in the Colonies (1966), The William and Mary Quarterly, Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture.
- John J. Miller, On Life, Liberty, and Other Quotable Matters, Wall Street Journal, 2 July 2011.
- America's Founding Drama, by Richard J. Behn