Nathaniel Lee 1645?-1692
English playwright and poet.
Lee was one of the leading English playwrights of the Restoration period. Of his thirteen plays, two of which were written in collaboration with John Dryden, most are classified as tragedies. Set in classical and Renaissance times, Lee's plays contain contemporary political and social allusions that typically express deep hostility for the power of English kings, the Tory party, and Catholicism. Lee's anti-monarchial views caused two of his works to be suppressed. One of these was Lucius Junius Brutus (1680), regarded today by many critics as his masterpiece. Of far greater importance for its popular appeal and literary influence was Lee's The Rival Queens (1677), a play which enjoyed a stage run well into the nineteenth century and which is commonly credited with inspiring Dryden's All for Love. Lee's use of elaborate stage effects and deeply emotional language have divided critics: both during the author's lifetime and in subsequent centuries, there are those who praise the dramatist as a master of passionate lyrics and those who charge that Lee's writing was bombastic and undisciplined. Despite these differences of opinion, most critics agree that Lee deserves credit as one of the earliest English playwrights to use blank verse in serious drama and as a key figure in the movement away from heroic drama and toward affective tragedy.
The exact date of Lee's birth is unknown. He was probably born sometime between 1645 and 1652 in Hatfield, Hertfordshire. His early education was at the Charterhouse School in London, and he received his Bachelor's Degree in 1669 from Cambridge. In 1672, he began work as an actor in London theaters, first with the Duke's Players and later with the King's Company. His earliest dramatic composition, The Tragedy of Nero, was staged in 1674, and the following year he had his first popular success with Sophonisba. Lee's greatest popular triumph, The Rival Queens, a blank verse rendition of the final, violent days of Alexander the Great first performed in 1677, drew praise from Dryden. Lee's subsequent friendship with Dryden resulted in two collaborative works, Oedipus (1678) and The Duke of Guise (1682), and the two regularly supplied prologues to each other's plays. Political censorship relegated two of Lee's works, Lucius Junius Brutus and The Massacre of Paris (written 1681; first staged in 1689) to obscurity. By 1684, Lee's heavy drinking led to his involuntary confinement at Bethlehem “Bedlam” Hospital, where he remained until 1688, possibly due to mental instability. Little is known of Lee’s life following his hospitalization. He was found dead on a London street in 1692.
Of the thirteen plays that Lee published between 1674 and 1689—two of which were written in collaboration with Dryden—nearly all were set in classical times. These include The Tragedy of Nero, Gloriana, or the Court of Augustus Caesar (1676) The Rival Queens, or the Death of Alexander the Great, Mithridates (1678), Oedipus, Caesar Borgia (1679), Theodosius (1680), Lucius Junius Brutus, and Constantine the Great (1683). While ancient history provided the setting for these plays, nearly all have been seen by critics as political commentaries on events from Lee's tumultuous times. In his dramas, Lee questioned the divine right of English kings, the legitimacy of the English constitution in the wake of the Restoration and the Popish Plot, and the political rhetoric of the Tories. Two of Lee's plays, Lucius Junius Brutus and The Massacre of Paris, were deemed so inflammatory that they were banned from the London stage, the former for its message that revolution was justified to overthrow a ruler who had violated constitutional principles. Today Lucius Junius Brutus is most often heralded as Lee's greatest achievement; in his own time, however, The Rival Queens was considered his best work, and it was certainly his most popular. Lee's story of the final days in the life of Alexander the Great shows the once great hero at his worst. Suspicion, lust, and revenge drive Alexander to near madness as he kills his closest friends and allies. Many of the elements in The Rival Queens are also found in one form or another in most of Lee's plays: heroes with tragic flaws, situations that end in violent bloodshed, madness, highly emotional dialogue written in blank verse, and unhappy endings resulting from the unmitigated power of political rulers.
The critical response to Lee's plays has been deeply divided. While few have questioned Lee's contribution to the development of English drama, especially his early use of blank verse rather than heroic couplets and his complex portrayal of tragic heroes as important influences on English tragedy in general and John Dryden in particular, there remains fundamental disagreement about the quality of Lee's writing itself. While some critics see in Lee's language passion and strong imagery, others have described the same emotion-laden language as bombastic and extravagant. Criticism of The Rival Queens provides a good case in point: Dryden praised its passion and lyricism while Alexander Pope and Colley Cibber ridiculed it as “blustering rant.” In spite of its lengthy run on the stage, The Rival Queens was lampooned by numerous parodies and burlesques that satirized Lee's elaborate staging and impassioned language. Even modern critics have not reached a consensus on whether The Rival Queens should finally be condemned for its shallow characters, unrelenting pitch of emotions, and disjointed plot or heralded as a bold experiment in style that seems outmoded today only because of subsequent dramatic developments. Analyses of Lucius Junius Brutus, which have dominated Lee's criticism since the 1940s, have been more unified in their praise, seeing in this work a unity of plot, formal coherence, and thematic subtlety absent in the majority of Lee's plays. Critics are not in agreement, however, about the play's political message, with some viewing it as a Whig polemic against royal tyranny and Tory politics and others arguing that Lee's depiction of Brutus raises doubts concerning his advocacy of Whig political rhetoric. Still others claim that the play is essentially anti-political. These continuing debates, whether concerned with Lee's political affiliations or final place in the pantheon of English Restoration tragedians, ensure that his dramatic efforts will continue to be read and debated in the years to come.
The Tragedy of Nero, Emperour of Rome (play) 1674
Sophonisba; or, Hannibal's Overthrow. A Tragedy (play) 1675
Gloriana; or, the Court of Augustus Caesar (play) 1676
The Rival Queens; or, the Death of Alexander the Great (play) 1677
“To Mr. Dryden, on his Poem of Paradice” (poetry) 1677
Mithridates King of Pontus, A Tragedy (play) 1678
Oedipus: A Tragedy [with John Dryden] (play) 1678
Caesar Borgia; Son of Pope Alexander the Sixth: A Tragedy (play) 1679
Lucius Junius Brutus; Father of his Country. A Tragedy (play) 1680
Theodosius: or, The Force of Love, A Tragedy (play) 1680
The Massacre of Paris: A Tragedy (play) 1681
“To the Unknown Author Of this Excellent Poem, ‘Take it as Earnest’” (poetry) 1681
The Duke of Guise. A Tragedy [with John Dryden] (play) 1682
The Princess of Cleve (play) 1682?
Constantine the Great: A Tragedy (play) 1683
On the Death of Mrs. Behn (nonfiction) 1689
The Works of Nathaniel Lee. (collected works) 2 vols. 1954-55
(The entire section is 144 words.)
SOURCE: Barbour, Frances. “The Unconventional Heroic Plays of Nathaniel Lee.” Studies in English, no. 4026 (July 1940): 109-16.
[In the following essay, Barbour argues that the vast majority of Lee's plays do not fit into the usual mold of Restoration-era heroic drama, since Lee's work was nearly always critical of the divine right of kings.]
It is common knowledge that the heroic drama of the Restoration was a vehicle for propagating the theory of the divine right of kings. William Davenant, who was instrumental in the reopening of the theatres in 1660, continued in the policy of currying favor with the ruling powers by a glorification of the theory of divine right. The great Dryden followed his example, and divine right became a favorite theme of the dramatic poets. That the heroic drama prior to 1679 became also the vehicle for the political doctrine of the opposition, has not been suggested. Nathaniel Lee, however, probably the most popular dramatist of the period next to Dryden, wrote no less than ten heroic plays, five of them before 1679, which pictured kings as tyrants and posed the theory that the acts of kings are open to criticism.
The emphatic monarchism of the drama from 1660 to 1679 was due, no doubt, to a rigid censorship and to the dependence of dramatists upon the good will of the Court. Certainly the Puritans had shown them no hospitality. Then the Popish Plot in...
(The entire section is 2461 words.)
SOURCE: Cooke, A. L., and Thomas B. Stroup. “The Political Implications in Lee's Constantine the Great.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 49, no. 4 (October 1950): 506-15.
[In this essay, Cooke and Stroup argue that Constantine the Great was a political play that made veiled references to contemporary events, including the Popish Plot and the Rye House Plot.]
Several scholars have called attention to a few political echoes in Nathaniel Lee's last play, Constantine the Great (D.L., Nov., 1683). Montague Summers lists Arius as one of the stage characters who satirize Shaftesbury.1 Roswell Ham in his biography of Lee ignores the political implications of the play altogether.2 Ghosh discusses the political references of the prologue and epilogue, but he is not concerned with the political implications in the play itself.3 Häfele in the preface to his edition of Constantine, 1933, deals more fully with the reflections of contemporary politics in the play than any previous critic.4 Yet Häfele, though he refers to the general parallels, actually indicates only three direct references: first, that Arius is a satire on Shaftesbury; second, that the attack of Lycinius on Dalmatius in Act II reflects the attempted murder of James, Duke of York, in the Rye House Plot; third, that the poet himself connects Constantine with Charles...
(The entire section is 3869 words.)
SOURCE: Loftis, John. Introduction to Lucius Junius Brutus, by Nathaniel Lee, edited by John Loftis, pp. xi-xxiv. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1967.
[In the following excerpt, Loftis examines the stage history of Lucius Junius Brutus, focusing on the play's anti-monarchical themes, which caused the work to be banned by royal order.]
The first edition of Lucius Junius Brutus, the only one to appear in Lee's lifetime, is a quarto printed for Richard and Jacob Tonson in 1681: it was recorded in The Term Catalogues for Trinity Term (June) of that year.1 …
Although able critics have praised Lucius Junius Brutus warmly,2 it had a very short original run, and it was never again performed in London (though it was revived briefly in Dublin in 1738, according to The Dublin News-Letter, April 22 to 25). Produced by the Duke's Company acting in the Dorset Garden Theatre early in December, 1680, it was presented only a few days before it was suppressed by the Lord Chamberlain. We know little about the production except what can be inferred from the names of the actors printed with their roles in the dramatis personae of the first edition. Thomas Betterton, then at the height of his powers, played Brutus, and he may be assumed to have given the role an appropriate dignity. His wife played Lucrece, and it is probably significant that...
(The entire section is 5175 words.)
SOURCE: Vernon, P. F. Introduction to The Rival Queens, by Nathaniel Lee, edited by P. F. Vernon, pp. xiii-xxvii. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970.
[In the essay that follows, Vernon explains why The Rival Queens was so popular in its own time as well as why the play opened itself to ridicule by later generations of theatergoers, who found many of Lee's literary conventions outmoded.]
The Rival Queens, or the Death of Alexander the Great, the fourth and most popular of Lee's plays, was published in 1677. …
The stage-history of The Rival Queens is extraordinary and deserves special consideration.1 The first performance took place before royalty on March 17, 1677, at the Theatre Royal in Dury Lane.2 The cast was led by Charles Hart, a celebrated Othello and Brutus, and the creator of leading rôles in many of Dryden's plays. Hart's performances, no doubt based on the author's own accomplished recitation of the text, apparently emphasized the royal bearing and grace of Alexander.3 Statira was played by Elizabeth Boutell, a petite actress with a voice described as “weak, tho' very mellow,” and an air of childlike innocence which had made her a natural choice for the part of Wycherley's country wife two years before.4 The original Roxana was Rebecca Marshall, an actress...
(The entire section is 5454 words.)
SOURCE: Vieth, David M. “Psychological Myth as Tragedy: Nathaniel Lee's Lucius Junius Brutus.” Huntington Library Quarterly 39, no. 1 (1975): 57-76.
[In the following essay, Vieth argues that the key to understanding Lucius Junius Brutus lies in the author's use of fantasy and myth to expound tragic features of generational conflict.]
The brief, brilliant flowering of “affective” tragedy in England between 1677 and 1682 can be ignored by writers on tragedy, and especially on the theory of this genre, only at their peril.1 Coming less than a century after the unquestioned triumphs of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, but already circumscribed by intellectual developments that were pressing toward a more “modern” sensibility, these plays constitute a successful creation of tragedy under marginal conditions: they strain the genre to its limits and carry meaningful implications for our own time. A case in point is Nathaniel Lee's outstanding but neglected play Lucius Junius Brutus.
Typical of the best Restoration tragedies in many respects, Lucius Junius Brutus nevertheless differs from comparable examples—Lee's own The Rival Queens, Dryden's All for Love, and Otway's The Orphan and Venice Preserved—in its unfortunate lack of an extensive stage history. It was suppressed after six (possibly only three)...
(The entire section is 7442 words.)
SOURCE: Hume, R. D. “The Satiric Design of Lee's The Princess of Cleve.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 75, nos. 1-2 (1976): 117-38.
[In the essay below, Hume argues that The Princess of Cleve was an angry satire written during a period when the playwright was undergoing profound changes in his own political opinions.]
Scholars have generally found this play baffling, objectionable, or both. Lee started, of course, with Madame de La Fayette's La Princesse de Clèves, and he follows its action quite closely in his main plot. The Princess confesses her chaste love for Duke Nemours to her husband, who then nobly expires of love and jealousy. In the novel, Nemours is an attractive and honorable man, though not a wholly blameless one. Lee turns him into a brutal and cynical whoremonger, and onto Madame de La Fayette's delicate and aristocratic tale he grafts an apparently disjunct middle-class cuckolding plot. Even the genre of the resulting play has been sharply disputed. Allardyce Nicoll calls the work a straight “tragedy,” as do Harbage and Schoenbaum in the Annals of English Drama. Montague Summers cautiously refrains from specifying a type. Thomas B. Stroup declares the work to be the prototype for “sentimental” comedy, while James Sutherland hails it as a “satiric” comedy. In the terminology of its own time, the play is probably best considered, as...
(The entire section is 9507 words.)
SOURCE: Kastan, David Scott. “Nero and the Politics of Nathaniel Lee.” Papers on Language and Literature 13, no. 2 (1977): 125-35.
[In the following essay, Kastan argues that Nero is one of the earliest dramas to find fault with the political solutions initiated by the English Restoration.]
Many critics of Restoration tragedy have commented on the political dialogue that took place on the London stage following the discovery of the Popish Plot. Surprisingly, however, few have been willing to recognize any significant political content in the drama before 1678. George Whiting summarizes the common opinion when he acknowledges that “the theatres of London were involved in the political activity growing out of the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Bill in the last years of Charles II's reign.”1 But this assumption, which finds a political concern in Restoration tragedy only after 1678, needs to be reconsidered in light of the intense political sensitivity of the age. The Popish Plot was but the culmination of the dissension that followed quickly upon the heels of the Restoration euphoria.
Nathaniel Lee seems to have felt keenly the betrayal of the Restoration promise, yet among his critics only Frances Barbour has noticed a clear political intent in the plays written prior to 1680.2 Even John Loftis, disposed by the very nature of his study to...
(The entire section is 4269 words.)
SOURCE: Armistead, J. M. “Hero as Endangered Species: Structure and Idea in Lee's Sophonisba.” Durham University Journal 71, no. 1 (December 1978): 35-43.
[In this essay, Armistead rebuts long-standing criticisms of Sophonisba, arguing that the play's two plots are masterfully interwoven in order to explore the theme of heroism in the modern world.]
In charting the modulation of high heroic drama into something resembling genuine tragedy, one can hardly afford to overlook Nathaniel Lee's first smash hit, Sophonisba, or Hannibal's Overthrow (1675).1 That it usually is passed over suggests that most commentators have uncritically accepted impressionistic or satiric responses to the play—responses like those of the Earl of Rochester, Henry Fielding, and Sir Adolphus Ward, all of whom felt Lee had unforgivably distorted history into an extravanganza of ranting lovesickness. The most recent historian of Restoration drama, Robert D. Hume, continues this negative trend by reiterating the opinions of Dryden and Langbaine: Lee fails to unify his two plots and sacrifices artistry to please the ladies with emotion-freighted love scenes.2
Such unsympathetic reactions are not really counteracted by the enthusiasm of Lee's biographer, Roswell G. Ham, the sane pronouncements of Allardyce Nicoll, or the historical perspective of Eugene Waith, for their...
(The entire section is 6359 words.)
SOURCE: Armistead, J. M. “Providence and the Fallen Psyche: Caesar Borgia; Son of Pope Alexander the Sixth: A Tragedy (1679),” and “Lee's Artistry.” In Nathaniel Lee, pp. 106-121; 174-78. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979.
[In the first essay below, Armistead argues that while Caesar Borgia is a play with few overt political overtures, it is nevertheless full of psychological and moral undercurrents that show the corruption of the author's world. In the second, Armistead assesses Lee's cumulative dramatic output, noting his lyrical style and the themes of political corruption, social disorder, evil, and madness in his work.]
PROVIDENCE AND THE FALLEN PSYCHE: CAESAR BORGIA; SON OF POPE ALEXANDER THE SIXTH: A TRAGEDY (1679)
To the informed reader, Caesar Borgia is one of Lee's most rewarding compositions, though it is commonly thought little more than a terror-filled, verbose affair hastily thrown together to compensate for the prohibition of The Massacre of Paris. Some critics, indeed, have praised it for occasional passages of powerful verse and for success in making Borgia and Machiavel compelling characters, and William Van Lennep has instructively noted its indebtedness to specific historical sources and to Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists.1 But such observations do little to highlight distinctive qualities of the play or...
(The entire section is 9543 words.)
SOURCE: Brown, Laura. “Affective Tragedy.” In English Dramatic Form, 1660-1760: An Essay in Generic History, pp. 69-101. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1981.
[In this excerpt, Brown argues that The Rival Queens represents one of the era's earliest experiments in moving away from heroic action to affective tragedy, a form Lee mastered in Lucius Junius Brutus.]
Restoration affective tragedy substitutes the unfortunate and undeserved situation of its central character for the aristocratic status of the heroic protagonist. The unique and defining characteristic of this form is its dependence upon the audience's pitying response. The characters and episodes of an affective tragedy are comprehensible not in terms of an internal standard of judgment that directs our assessments and expectations, but rather in terms of the expressed pathos of the situation. In the fictional world posited by such a form, merit is either ignored or assumed, and action and meaning depend upon the affective power of the protagonist's plight. This emphasis on situation at the expense of assessment corresponds to a diminished interest in characterization and a diminished ability to create and sustain consistent characters. Furthermore, it requires a simplification of depiction and an inattention to motive that inevitably exclude character development or complexity and that frequently imply, to augment the...
(The entire section is 6013 words.)
SOURCE: Brown, Richard E. “Heroics Satirized by ‘Mad Nat. Lee’.” Papers on Language and Literature 19, no. 4 (fall 1983): 385-401.
[In the following essay, Brown examines four of Lee's plays—The Massacre of Paris; The Princess of Cleve, Theodosius, and Lucius Junius Brutus—works that the critic says belie Lee's reputation for bombast and mental instability.]
Dryden addressed his young friend, Nathaniel Lee, in the Prologue to Lee's Rival Queens (March, 1676/77):
They only think you animate your Theme With too much Fire, who are themselves all Phle'me: .....Despise those Drones, who praise while they accuse The too much vigor of your youthful Muse.(1)
Dryden's remark is one of the earliest indications that from his first three dramas, Nero, Sophonisba, and Gloriana, Lee had already acquired the reputation for bombast, bloodshed and a lack of artistic control which he was unable to shake later in his career, and which persists in our century.2 Any critic wishing to advance a case for Lee as a sometimes conscious satirist of heroic conventions must contemplate the vigor of the two forces that have long sustained the Lee myth. The first has been an energetic riding of the biographical fallacy. Because Lee was confined to Bedlam toward the end of his life (1684-88)—possibly for alcoholism rather than...
(The entire section is 7185 words.)
SOURCE: Brown, Richard. “The Dryden-Lee Collaboration: Oedipus and The Duke of Guise.” Restoration 9, no. 1 (1985): 12-25.
[In the essay below, Brown focuses on two plays written collaboratively by Lee and John Dryden—Oedipus and The Duke of Guise—maintaining that Lee's contribution to the plays was every bit as great as that of his more famous contemporary.]
The fruits of the John Dryden-Nathaniel Lee dramatic collaboration, Oedipus (1678) and The Duke of Guise (1682), have met disparagement and neglect in our century.1Oedipus is supposed “an incredibly sensational melodrama,” a “travesty” of Sophocles; The Duke is sometimes called an embarrassing Tory propaganda play, in which Lee abandoned his Whig principles either in despair or under Dryden's domination.2 Still, both works attracted wide notice in the Restoration, Oedipus in part for a reason of permanent interest: the place of such lurid emotionalism in the history of tragedy (recommended, in Dryden's Preface, by a comparison of the play with its Greek, Latin, and French sources).3The Duke's parallels with the 1678-81 Exclusion Crisis make it an important document for assessing the controversy (recently renewed) over Lee's political leanings. These dramas are also central to a major untreated subject of the period, the influence of...
(The entire section is 8200 words.)
SOURCE: Knutson, Harold C. “‘La Princesse de Cleves’ on the English Stage: A 1681 Adaptation by Nathaniel Lee.” In Ouverture et Dialogue: Mélanges offerts á Wolfgang Leiner á l'occasion de son soixantième anniversaire, edited by Ulrich Döring, Antiopy Lyroudias, and Rianer Zaiser, pp. 497-504. Tübingen, Germany: Gunter Narr Verlag, 1988.
[In the following essay, Knutson argues that Lee's The Princess of Cleve is an artistically inferior effort to the French novel that served as its source.]
Like many works of the French classical period, La Princesse de Clèves made an almost immediate impact on the English literary scene. It was translated in 1679, only one year after its publication in France, and two years later, a minor Restoration playwright, Nathaniel Lee,1 drew upon this translation for the basis of his play, The Princess of Cleve.2 Admirers of the French narrative would call the work a travesty, so brazenly altered is the content and spirit of the original. Indeed, had Madame de la Fayette found the occasion to see or read the drama (there is no evidence that she did), she would have been horrified beyond measure; for her stately, decorous account of princely woes becomes in Lee's hands a roistering Restoration tragi-comedy, partly in verse, mainly in prose, displaying wildly alternating levels of conduct and diction.
(The entire section is 3603 words.)
SOURCE: Collington, Tara L. and Philip D. Collington. “Adulteration or Adaptation? Nathaniel Lee's Princess of Cleve and Its Sources.” Modern Philology 100, no. 2 (November 2002): 196-226.
[In the following essay, the critics examine Lee's adaptation of Madame de La Fayette's novel La Princesse de Clèves, declaring that Lee's Princess of Cleve is “a pioneering exercise in practical literary criticism of La Fayette's novel.”]
Nathaniel Lee's 1681 theatrical adaptation of Madame de La Fayette's 1678 novel La Princesse de Clèves has met with near-universal condemnation in English and French criticism. Harry Ashton dismisses the play as a vulgar desecration of a delicate French pearl, thrown before the playgoing swine of Restoration England: “On était en pleine licence à cette époque et si Lee a emprunté le sujet pour le mettre au théâtre c'est dans une pièce ignoble qui n'est qu'une indigne caricature de la Princesse et qui montre combien l'original fut au-dessus des esprits grossiers des Anglo-Saxons de l'époque. Depuis, on a pu l'apprécier à sa juste valeur.”1 Even the play's defenders cannot contain their disgust; Robert D. Hume calls its farce plot “joylessly obscene … rancid smut,” and Harold C. Knutson asserts that “had Madame de la Fayette found the occasion to see or read the drama … she would have been horrified beyond...
(The entire section is 13681 words.)
Armistead, J. M. “The Tragicomic Design of Lucius Junius Brutus: Madness as Providential Therapy.” Papers on Language and Literature 15, no. 2 (1979): 38-51.
Argues that Lee's Lucius Junius Brutus was intended to show how republican governance can have tragic consequences.
———. Four Restoration Playwrights: A Reference Guide to Thomas Shadwell, Aprha Behn, Nathaniel Lee, and Thomas Otway. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1979,
Provides an overview of critical assessment of Lee's plays from the seventeenth century to modern times; includes a detailed bibliography of Lee scholarship from 1677 to 1981.
———. Nathaniel Lee. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979, 220 p.
One of the only full-length studies of Lee; includes chapter-long analyses of each of Lee's ten plays.
Brown, Richard E. “Nathaniel Lee's Political Dramas, 1679-1683.” Restoration 10, no. 1 (1986): 41-52.
Explores several of Lee's political plays, concluding that Lee was neither a Tory nor a Whig but was politically independent.
Ham, Roswell Gray. “The Collaboration of Lee and Dryden.” In Otway and Lee: Biography from a Baroque Age, pp. 156-63. New York: Greenwood Press, 1931.
Reviews the generally favorable...
(The entire section is 453 words.)