Voltaire in England, 1726-1728
Although his English trip was in many ways as pivotal for Voltaire's intellectual development as Goethe's famous Italian journey was for his almost a century later, many aspects of it are only vaguely documented. The date of Voltaire's arrival in England is not known, nor that of his return to France, and although he certainly interacted with many of the cultural and political leaders in England at that time, many of these encounters remain similarly undocumented. The same is true of Voltaire's theatregoing. In his writings, he mentions seeing only a few specific plays in London, among them: Addison's Cato; Philips' version of Racine Andromaque, The Distrest Mother; and Shakespeare Julius Caesar; but he clearly saw many more. Voltaire used the theatre not only to expand his view of English culture, but to improve his knowledge of the language, at which he worked assiduously throughout his time in the country.
The most concentrated report of his observations of the English nation is his Lettres philosophiques, first published in English in 1733. Two of these letters, concerning comedy and tragedy, consist of observations on the English drama; the second concludes with the intriguing observation: "If you want to know English comedy, there is no other means than to go to London, to remain three years there, to learn English well, and to go to the theatre every night."1 Clearly this conclusion is intended to reflect the experience and authority of the author, but it is equally clearly exaggerated for rhetorical effect. Voltaire arrived in England in the spring or early summer of 1726 and left sometime in the fall of 1728, so his stay was really closer to two years than three, and involved only two theatrical seasons (September to June). Even during this shorter time, it is quite clear he did not attend the theatre