The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

II. Steele and Addison

§ 22. Cato

The Spectator’s last number appeared on 6 December, 1712. Both writers had cultivated to a surprising degree the art of the flâneur and knew how to turn innumerable and generally unnoticed episodes of city life into charming sketches. Such things as a sensation in a coffee-house, a fencing-match, an argument in a bookshop, an old beggar, or a man who applauds with a stick in a theatre gallery, are among their best studies of character. But, apparently, both editors had written themselves out. Addison, at the instigation of his friends, set to work on Cato, the first four acts of which had been written before the beginning of The Tatler, perhaps as early as 1703. With many misgivings, he allowed the tragedy to be produced at Drury Lane on 14 April, 1713. It was a time of great political excitement; and, when so prominent a public man as Addison produced a drama on Cato’s last stand for liberty, against the usurpation of Caesar, both parties turned the situation against their opponents and applauded furiously. In any event, the play was bound to have been a success. It pictures the last of the Roman republicans, a statuesque outline magnanimous and unmoved, surrounded by a treachery which is baffled by the loyalty of his sons and Juba, accepting death rather than dishonour and, in his last moments, taking thought for those around him. The plot is twofold. Side by side with the study in public virtue and high politics, a drama of the tender passion occupies the stage. When Cato’s son Marcius dies gallantly fighting against the traitor Syphax, his brother wins the hand of Lucia, for which they had both been honourable rivals, and Juba, the once rejected suitor of Marcia, Cato’s daughter, romantically rescues her from the clutches of Sempronius in disguise and finds that she has loved him all the time. Thus, in the consecrated form of a Roman tragedy, the public enjoyed that grandiose, if unsubstantial, projection of character which they admired in Milton, together with the sentimental chivalry of a French romance. To modern taste, the diction is hopelessly declamatory, and the plot full of absurdities. But the ordinary reader of the eighteenth century would almost regard such artificiality as inevitable in a play which has strictly observed the unities, contains a “reversal of intention” and a “recognition” and abounds in crisp and quotable epigrams.