Much recent criticism of Joseph Addison's Cato (1713) regards the tragedy as determinedly resistant to its eponymous protagonist's stoic heroism. Cato, it is argued, critiques Cato. But this wasn't how Addison's immediate contemporaries experienced the play. For many commentators, Addison's Cato was a model not only to be applauded but also imitated. In this essay, I take seriously this disconnection between current interpretation and immediate reception. I first attend to the tragedy's fifth act, where we see a concerted attempt both to flag the protagonist's fallibility and also to place a critical frame around the problematic spectacle of stoic suicide. In the second part of the essay, I then consider how it was that an instrumentalist view of the play nonetheless became canon. Here, I trace Richard Steele's appropriation of Cato to his project to reform the stage, a project that staked its claims for the cultural and moral efficacy of the theater on an avowedly emulative (and sentimental) model of drama. And I argue that Addison's belated insistence on his protagonist's all-too-humanness works to sentimentalize the character and so paradoxically opens up the very possibility of imitation that it seemingly seeks to foreclose.
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Research Article| January 01 2022
David Francis Taylor; What Cato Did: Suicide, Sentimentalism, and the Drama of Emulation. Eighteenth-Century Life 1 January 2022; 46 (1): 56–78. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00982601-9467204
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