Cato, a Tragedy

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Joseph Addison.

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 (95–46 B.C.), 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, among other things, such themes 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. It has a prologue written by Alexander Pope, and an epilogue by Samuel Garth.

The play was a success throughout England and her possessions in the New World, as well as Ireland. It 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 they were encamped at Valley Forge. The letter which proves the performance has questionable authenticity.[citation needed]


The action of the play involves the forces of Cato at Utica, awaiting the arrival of Caesar just after Caesar's victory at Thapsus (46 B.C.). The noble sons of Cato, Portius and Marcus, are in love with Lucia, the daughter of Lucius, a senatorial ally of Cato. Juba, prince of Numidia, another fighting on Cato's side, loves Cato's daughter Marcia. Meanwhile, Sempronius, another senator, and Syphax, general of the Numidians, are conspiring secretly against Cato, hoping to draw off the Numidian army from supporting him.

Influence on the American Revolution[edit]

Some scholars, including historian David McCullough—author of 1776—believe that several famous quotations from the American Revolution came from, or were inspired by, Cato. These 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.").
The actor John Kemble in the role of Cato in Addison's play, which he revived at Covent Garden in 1816, drawn by George Cruikshank.
  • 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!"[1]

Influence today[edit]

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.

Wilkins Micawber, a character in the 1850 novel David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, quotes Cato from the play: "Plato, thou reasonest well."

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).

The play also inspired the name of the Cato Institute, a prominent libertarian think tank based in Washington D.C..


External links[edit]

Ed. Christine Dunn Henderson & Mark E. Yellin. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2004. ISBN 0-86597-443-8.