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Voltaire’s "La Mort de César"

A Play "Entirely in the English Taste"?

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Helena Agarez Medeiros

In the preface to La Mort de César (1736), Voltaire claimed to have written a tragedy inspired by Julius Caesar that, while not resembling Shakespeare’s play, was «entirely in the English taste». Such a claim has so far gone virtually unnoticed in scholarly circles, despite its intriguing nature. Furthermore, La Mort de César is commonly referred to as a cornerstone in the European reception of Shakespeare’s drama even though, according to Voltaire, his play was far removed from the barbaric, tasteless and therefore «untranslatable» Julius Caesar. If, for Voltaire, Shakespeare’s dramatic «taste(lessness)» was not representative of the taste of his nation, what was «English taste» for Voltaire and for his educated French contemporaries, and how did this stereotype take form? Why would Voltaire, a strong advocate of French neoclassical tragedy and a severe critic of English drama, allegedly imitate «English taste» in the first place?
This book examines Voltaire’s tragedy and analyses the extent to which La Mort de César may indeed be labelled as a play «in the English taste» from the point of view of contemporary Frenchmen. But what about contemporary Englishmen? What was England’s reaction to Voltaire’s representation of her taste? Might The Roman Revenge, Aaron Hill’s retaliatory adaptation of La Mort de César, be said to convey «English taste»? The author of this book explores the elusive concept of «national taste» and reveals how it was put to the service of hidden agendas and claims regarding cultural supremacy, on both sides of the Channel.

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