Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

Now, Cato: Addison, Gender, and Cultural Occasion

Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

Now, Cato: Addison, Gender, and Cultural Occasion

Article excerpt

Let me begin with a case that illustrates the diverse causes a literary work may serve in an evolving historical context. An early American poem, "The Maid's Soliloquy" (1751), was included in the Heath Anthology of American Literature as an anonymous poem by a colonial woman. It purports to be a young woman's thoughts on the eve of her marriage, weighing the "loss" (of freedom) against the "gain" (of security, and less importantly, conjugal love). The "maid" finally decides to wed, urged in that direction by Milton, by "Nature" and "Faithful instinct," and by the prospect of being "Renewed immortal in a filial race." However, "The Maid's Soliloquy," supposedly a woman's resolution to marry, is in fact an appropriation of-indeed, all but a plagiarism of-a resolution to commit suicide written by a British man for a male character: Joseph Addison's tragedy Cato (1713) contains the speech from which "The Maid's Soliloquy" is taken.1 The Roman Cato, failed in his attempt to preserve the republic, weighs the loss of his life and immediate political influence against the gain of "immortal youth" in life after death. He resolves on suicide prompted by his reading of Plato and the "divinity" which "intimates eternity to man."2

How is it that Addison's tragedy lent itself so readily to gender transposition? "The Maid's Soliloquy" is not an isolated case: Frederick Litto points out in "Cato in the Colonies" that the play was co-opted as a "guide to decorous conduct" (449), and such guides were often pitched especially to the "ladies." Noah Webster, for instance, promoted female modesty in his Lessons in Reading and Speaking thus:

The author of Cato, who is known to be one of the most modest and most ingenious persons of the age we now live in, has given this virtue a delicate name in the tragedy of Cato, where the character of Marcia, is first opened to us. I would have all ladies who have a mind to be thought well bred, to think seriously on this virtue, which he so beautifully calls the sanctity of manners, (qtd. in Litto, 448)

The suitability of Cato to "feminine" ends (by no means limited to the colonies, as we shall see) is all the more interesting since Cato was presented as a "manly"alternative to the hyper-emotive and wildly popular "pathetic" tragedies of writers like Lee and Otway and "she tragedies" of writers like Rowe and Banks In his prologue to the play, Alexander Pope commends Addison for scorning to arouse pity by "vulgar springs" since "in pitying love we but our weakness show" (11). Moreover, Pope claims that admiring Addison's sterner stuff is tantamount to displaying patriotism in the face of a national crisis. The crisis was the controversy surrounding Marlborough's "imperialist" project in the war of the Spanish Succession, as Britain sought to preempt a possible alliance between France and Spain under a Bourbon successor to the Spanish throne. Pope writes:

Britons attend: be worth like this approved,

And show you have the virtue to be moved;

Dare to have sense yourselves, assert the stage,

Be justly warmed with your own native rage.

Such plays alone should please a British ear,

As Cato's self had not disdained to hear.3

Speaking of the "cultural work tragedies were supposed to perform in early eighteenth century England," Lisa Freeman describes a "politics of gender and genre that sought to position male characters as the exclusive agents of tragedy and its ideological projects," a view of 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" (463-64). Also relevant is Bridget Orr's discussion of the appropriation of Roman history (as in the classic-stoic play) to the formation of British imperialist identity (252).

Relevant to the play, then, and its reception, is a constellation of aesthetic and political questions such as these: Should playwrights and audiences eschew "effeminate" weepiness for "manly" stoicism? …

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