35 pages 1 hour read

Joseph Addison

Cato, a Tragedy

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1713

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Summary and Study Guide


Cato, a Tragedy is a play written by Joseph Addison in 1712. Set in the Roman Republic during the reign of Julius Caesar, the play centers on the final days of the Stoic Marcus Porcius Cato Uticensis, a man of virtue who fiercely opposed Caesar. The play focuses on themes such as the importance of virtue and the battle between liberty and tyranny, and takes place in Utica, Tunisia, in the kingdom of Numidia, where Cato and other members of the Roman senate have fled.


The play begins with Cato’s sons Marcus and Portius discussing how it is an “important day, big with the fate / Of Cato and Rome” and lamenting Caesar’s tyrannical power (5). Marcus confesses his love for the lady Lucia, whom Portius reveals he also loves in an aside. The senator Sempronius enters and makes clear that he does not like Portius, though he praises him to his face and talks of his love for Portius’s sister, Marcia. Once Portius leaves, Sempronius immediately criticizes Cato’s family, saying that Cato has “used me ill” by denying him Marcia’s hand (9). Sempronius is allied with Caesar, who he believes will “raise me / To Rome’s first honours” and let him “claim” Marcia (9). Sempronius’s Numidian ally Syphax enters and they discuss their plan: Syphax is trying to turn the Numidian prince Juba against Cato, while Sempronius will go to the senate and lie about how much he loves Cato and Rome (10).


Juba enters and Syphax tries to get him to turn against Cato, but he refuses. He also reveals that he, too, is in love with Marcia, who soon enters with Lucia. Juba proclaims his love for Marcia, and she says her father would never “waste / Such precious moments” by talking of love (15). After Juba leaves, Lucia scolds Marcia for being so cold to him. Marcia replies that she cannot be overcome by love at a time like this. Lucia reveals that she in love with Portius but worried about Marcus’s temper and the “sad effect” that their love will have on him (17).


Act II begins with Cato’s address to the senate, as he asks how they should respond to Caesar’s approach. Sempronius recommends they attack while Lucius says they should not, as there has already been so much bloodshed. Cato disagrees with both extremes, asserting that the group should prepare for battle and consider yielding to Caesar only when he gets close. He says it is worth drawing Rome’s “term of freedom out” even if it is dangerous (19), declaring, “A day, an hour, of virtuous liberty, / Is worth a whole eternity in bondage” (20). The messenger Decius enters to tell Cato that Caesar will spare Cato if he surrenders. Cato refuses, citing Caesar’s lack of virtue and tyrannical reign. Cato tells Juba that the Romans are planning to keep “the sword unsheathed, and turn its edge on Caesar” (23), but Juba suggests that they instead leave Utica and “court the assistance” of his late father’s “powerful friends,” which Cato rejects (24). He still praises Juba’s virtue, but when Juba mentions his love for Marcia, Cato immediately shuts him down, saying, “I would not hear a word / Should lessen thee in my esteem” (26).


Juba, worried that Cato now “thinks meanly” of him (26), runs into Syphax, who tries to convince him that he should rally his troops and “snatch” Marcia for himself (27). Juba disapproves, calling Syphax a traitor and suggesting he’ll tell Cato, but Syphax gets back into his good graces. Juba promises that, if he becomes king, he’ll make Syphax his second-in-command. Once Juba leaves, though, Syphax scorns him, saying, “Caesar, I’m wholly thine” (30). Sempronius enters, and Syphax convinces him that once they win, Caesar will “ne’er refuse” Marcia to Sempronius (31). Syphax vows to gather troops and convince them to favor Sempronius over Cato, laughing about how Cato will soon “look aghast while unforeseen destruction / Pours in upon him thus from every side” (31).


Act III begins with Marcus trying to convince Portius to tell Lucia of Marcus’s love for her. Portius talks with Lucia, who tells him that they cannot be together because of the effect it would have on Marcus and bids him farewell. Marcus re-enters, and Portius tells him that Marcia feels only compassion and pity for him. As Marcus lashes out, the two men are interrupted by a shout “big with the sounds of war” and express their excitement for going to battle (38).


At the senate hall, Sempronius gathers the leaders of his mutiny, whom he swears to protect. They intend to attack Cato when he arrives, but they instead “stand astonish’d,” and Cato immediately knows that they have been plotting against him (39). Cato orders that they be put to death, and Sempronius volunteers to oversee it. Though the men initially think that Sempronius is still on their side, he has realized that “all is lost” (40) and orders the guards to kill them. Syphax enters and acknowledges that their first plan has “proved abortive,” but he will still rally his troops and attack Marcus’s troops on their way to Caesar’s camp (41). Sempronius is sad that he will be leaving Marcia behind, but Syphax convinces him to disguise himself as Juba and kidnap her.


In Cato’s chambers, Marcia and Lucia are talking about their love lives, and Marcia explains that, while she cannot be with Juba because of her father, she really doesn’t want to be with Sempronius, whom she “likes not” (43). Sempronius then enters in Juba’s clothing, but Juba soon finds him and kills him. Marcia and Lucia find Sempronius’s body and, thinking it is Juba, Marcia mourns him and calls him the “best of men” (45). The real Juba, having overheard these words, then reveals himself, and Marcia tells him she cannot conceal her love for him any longer. She leaves and wishes him well in war, but Juba seems to now prioritize his own fate over fighting Caesar, saying, “Let Caesar have the world, if Marcia’s mine” (47).


Elsewhere, Cato and Lucius are talking when Portius comes in and announces that Syphax is attacking Marcus’s troops. Cato sends him off to war and admits that “the conquer’d world / Is Caesar’s,” and Lucius tries to convince him to surrender so that Cato will stay alive (49). Re-entering, Portius reveals that Marcus killed Syphax but then died himself. Cato celebrates the honor his son showed to Rome, saying, “How beautiful is death, when earn’d by virtue” (51). Cato recommends that his friends protect themselves by surrendering to Caesar and begging for his mercy, though he himself will not. He tells Portius to retire to the family’s “paternal seat” to live a “rural life” on his own, saying “when vice prevails […] the post of honour is a private station” (52). Cato bids his friends farewell and says ships are waiting to let them escape to wherever they choose.


Back in his chambers, Cato is ruminating on his decision to commit suicide when Portius enters. Portius realizes his father’s plan and expresses grief over it, though Cato chastises him for doing so. After Cato tells Portius to leave so that he can take a nap, though, Portius tells Marcia he still has hope that Cato may decide not to die. Juba enters to say Caesar’s troops are approaching, and Portius re-enters with news that the son of the late Roman military leader Pompey is planning to avenge Caesar, and his father should lead their troops in war. Suddenly, they hear a groan from Cato, who has attempted to kill himself. Cato dies shortly after telling Portius and Lucia and Marcia and Juba that the two couples should be together. After Cato’s death, Portius praises him as “the greatest soul that ever warm’d a Roman breast” and says “fierce contending nations” should know of what “dire effects from civil discord flow” (60).