CATO by Joseph Addison

I’m a sucker for these Roman historical dramas and I’d heard a great deal about this play over the years. It was very intriguing and I bet the right kind of production could still be a knockout. However, it doesn’t leap off the page all that much. Addison could craft a scene and handle characters just fine but the words lack any real poetry. As a result, the action comes off as contrived and forced. Really the story is no more contrived than many other plays but Addison is unable to cast the spell needed to make us ignore that. Most of the speeches are pretty forgettable. Cato’s soliloquy near the end about suicide is something of an exception but is too little, too late. Despite all this, Cato’s beleaguered forces holding out to the last, pathetically but nobly upholding the republican traditions of Rome against the tyrant Caesar, makes for some very powerful moments. It is interesting how adherents of different political movements over the years seem to have identified themselves with Cato and his followers. Obviously, none of them ever connect themselves with Caesar! In any event, the play’s theme is strong. Too bad Shakespeare didn’t tackle the story. Addison’s play is almost a prequel to Julius Caesar but couldn’t hold a candle to it.

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