Little is known about the early life of Nathaniel Lee. The playwright was born to Richard and Elizabeth Lee about 1653. A minister thoroughly engaged in the religious and political issues of the day, Richard Lee tended to the intellectual development of his children, sending five of his six surviving sons to Oxford or Cambridge University. Therefore, Lee was educated at the Charterhouse School in preparation for Trinity College, Cambridge, where he received his bachelor of arts degree in 1668-1669.
At the beginning of the next decade, Lee became an actor, playing the Captain of the Watch in Nevil Payne’s Fatal Jealousie (pr. 1672) and Duncan in a revival of Sir William Davenant’s Macbeth (pr. 1663). Although Lee was handsome and had a powerful voice, he apparently suffered from stage fright, so he retired and began playwriting. Lee’s first play, The Tragedy of Nero, Emperor of Rome, failed, but Sophonisba was a success. Gloriana also failed, but Lee recovered with The Rival Queens, which achieved a popularity that lasted into the eighteenth century. In the next few years, Lee saw plays such as Oedipus, Theodosius, and Mithridates, King of Pontus become successes.
Lee’s last three plays did not match the success of Theodosius, and on November 11, 1684, he was admitted to the Bethlehem Royal Hospital, the insane asylum popularly known as Bedlam. The reasons for Lee’s “distraction,” as it was called, are not clear. He was evidently a heavy drinker and had a rather mercurial temperament. It is possible that, at the time of his confinement, he was suffering from the effects of poverty. Whatever the origins of his illness, Lee spent the next four years in Bedlam. He was discharged from the hospital in 1688, taking up residence on Duke Street. There is no solid evidence that Lee wrote any plays either during or after his stay at Bedlam, although he did compose some poetry. In the spring of 1692, he was found dead in the street and was buried on May 6, 1692, in an unmarked grave.