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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1619

The plays of Nathaniel Lee are, for critic Allardyce Nicoll, “of inestimable importance in any attempt to divine the quality of tragedy of his age.” From this glimpse into Lee’s tragedy it is possible to see at work a serious search for a more comprehensive ethical perspective, despite staginess, special effects, and sensational events.

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The Rival Queens

Lee consistently used historical figures and events as his dramatic subjects. In The Rival Queens, Lee dramatized the fall of Alexander the Great, a larger-than-life figure who succumbs to his own passions and to the plots of others. His fall is truly tragic. When the play opens, Alexander is returning from his most recent exploits and is about to enter Babylon. Having committed some personal and political indiscretions, Alexander may not be warmly received by everyone. He has executed some of his most respected generals, imagining that they were trying to stage a coup. He publicly insulted Polyperchon, commander of the Phalanx, and Cassander, son of the Macedonian governor, Antipater. Breaking a promise to his devoted Babylonian queen, Statira, he has returned to the bed of his hot-blooded first wife, Roxana. Finally, he has sanctioned the match between Parisatis, sister to Statira, and Hephestion, an unctuous courtier. Parisatis, however, is the lover of Lysimachus, a fearless soldier loyal to Alexander. Lysimachus believes that he is more deserving than Hephestion of Alexander’s favor, as does Clytus, the conqueror’s old and faithful adviser, who also served under Philip of Macedonia, Alexander’s father.

Alexander enters Babylon triumphantly, but he is soon embroiled in the conflict between Hephestion and Lysimachus. Alexander tries to settle the issue by having Lysimachus thrown to a lion. The doughty warrior slays the lion with his bare hands, however, and Alexander, who cannot overlook such a marvelous feat, lets Lysimachus compete for the hand of Parisatis, deciding that the woman will go to the soldier who serves most impressively in battle.

At the same time, the rival queens are contending for Alexander’s affections. On hearing that Alexander had bedded Roxana, Statira decides to remove herself from him. By this ploy, however, she risks losing him to Roxana, so she later entertains his impassioned lovemaking and forgives his recent intrigue with Roxana. Roxana witnesses the reunion and seeks revenge. Cassander convinces her to murder Statira as she awaits the conqueror’s return from the banquet. Cassander, however, has arranged for Alexander to be poisoned at the feast.

At the banquet, a drunken Alexander becomes enraged at Clytus for his satiric barbs, and he kills the old man on the spot. Alexander’s maudlin remorse for the impulsive deed is cut short by the news that Roxana and her band of thugs are threatening Statira. Alexander arrives just in time to see Roxana stab the queen. As she dies, Statira begs Alexander not to kill Roxana. He resists taking revenge, but only because his first wife is pregnant. The audience now discovers that Hephestion drank himself to death at the banquet. Alexander then begins to stagger from the poison poured into his drink. After hallucinating about his heroic past, the conqueror dies, leaving Lysimachus to apprehend the assassins and to claim, at last, Parisatis.

This play dramatizes the story and spectacle of a great man brought down by his own failures. If Alexander were merely the victim of an unfortunate series of events, as are many heroes of the Restoration’s serious drama, the audience would not care about his fate, but Lee’s Alexander is a tragic figure because he had the power to save himself. Poor judgment, not inescapable fate, causes him to fall. The play is made even more tragic because the audience can see his fall coming. The audience has more information than Alexander and knows that, by the conventions of tragedy, seemingly small lapses in judgment at the beginning of a play have large and damnable consequences toward the end.

Alexander’s mistakes result from his letting passion overrule reason. Throughout the play, Alexander increasingly becomes the tool of his own passions. One of his first acts is to favor Hephestion by supporting his suit for Parisatis over that of Lysimachus. Like King Lear, Alexander elevates those who flatter him the most, rather than those who display quiet virtue: The glib court favorite is preferred over the silent but dutiful soldier. As the play continues, mistakes become misdeeds: At the banquet, Clytus is not merely ignored, he is slain. In the last scene of the play, Alexander loses his reason entirely and goes mad under the poison’s influence.

The tension between Alexander’s affective and intellectual faculties is dramatized by opposing pairs of characters. Roxana is a lusty, sensuous woman, intent on satisfying her sexual desires; Statira, in contrast, is a model of selfless devotion, ethereal, rather than earthy. On the side of passion is Hephestion, the sot; on the side of reason, Lysimachus, the soldier. Cassander is a scheming, sinister malcontent, willing to say what Alexander wants to hear, while he plots the conqueror’s destruction; Clytus is a blunt, stoical adviser, who risks Alexander’s wrath to criticize his indulgence in Persian luxuries. Lee polarizes the selfish character and the selfless, the scheming and the honest. The spiritual land of the first group is Babylon, the lap of decadent luxury; the spiritual land of the second group is Macedonia, the seat of austerity and other martial virtues. Thus, the characterization and the very structure of the play reflect Alexander’s inner conflict.

The Princess of Cleve

If The Rival Queens is quite clearly a tragedy, The Princess of Cleve defies precise generic description; Lee himself called the play “Farce, Comedy, Tragedy or meer Play.” Set in Paris, the play focuses on the amorous exploits of Duke Nemours, a nobleman with a penchant and talent for seducing the wives of his compatriots. Despite his appetite for sexual sport, Nemours is betrothed to Marguerite, Princess of Jainville. Queen Catherine de Medici, however, wants to end the match so that the princess can marry the Dauphin, soon to be King Francis II.

To achieve her political ends, Catherine, who never appears in the play, persuades one of her ladies, Tournon, to sleep with Nemours and to find him other women to bed as well. Presumably, Marguerite will discover Nemours’s faithlessness and welcome the Dauphin’s attentions. In her campaign, Tournon first suggests to Marguerite that an amorous letter from a whore to her anonymous lover belongs to Nemours. She next attempts to involve Nemours with Celia and Elianor, the lusty wives of two fops, St. Andre and Poltrot. Tournon then spreads the news that the newly married Princess of Cleve is accepting Nemours’s adulterous advances.

The action involving the two fops and their wives soon takes off without Nemours. St. Andre and Poltrot try intensely to be in style—which, by Restoration standards, meant betraying one’s wife in a cavalier, offhand manner. Celia and Elianor, for their part, also engage in flirtations. All receive their proper reward: Celia and Elianor run off with Nemours (under the eye of Marguerite) and are eventually debauched by his cronies, Bellamore and Vidam; the husbands are unsuccessful in their own attempts, in effect receiving no compensation for the privilege of being cuckolded.

When the Prince notes a certain malaise in his wife, he implores her to reveal the origin of her low spirits, suspecting that she has taken a lover. She reluctantly confesses her passion for Nemours—a confession that eventually causes the Prince to die from heartbreak.

Nemours’s association with the wives of the fops and with the Princess of Cleve arouses Marguerite’s suspicion that he has not been faithful. She attends the ball in disguise and tries to arouse Nemours’s passions as another woman. She succeeds, and when she doffs her disguise, Nemours can hardly deny his infidelity. Nemours, then, has presumably lost Marguerite, whose last words are “Monster of a Man,” and he has lost the Princess of Cleve as well, even though she is now technically available: She has given him up forever. No sooner has she left the stage, however, when Nemours predicts that “I Bed her eighteen months three weeks hence, at half an hour past two in the Morning.”

Nemours’s prediction suggests the sleazy atmosphere and ethos of the play. He does not believe that the Princess of Cleve is as good as her word, but he does believe in his own sexual prowess. Indeed, any kind of oath in the universe of this play is meaningless. The Princess, Celia, Elianor, St. Andre, and Poltrot all do their best to violate their marriage vows. Because no character in the play is untainted by sin, the audience tends to judge them not by ethical standards but by sheer performance. Because there are no saints and no sinners, only winners and losers, the most impressive performer is Nemours.

Lee wanted to show his audience sexual libertinism unvarnished by witty rationalizations. When this play was composed, in about 1680, sexual promiscuity was almost a way of life for the English courtiers and their king, Charles II; George Villiers, the second duke of Buckingham and John Wilmot, the earl of Rochester, in particular, were infamous for their sexual adventures. The English court’s rakish ways were reflected in plays such as John Dryden’s Marriage à la Mode (pr. 1672), William Wycherley’s The Country Wife (pr. 1675), and Sir George Etherege’s The Man of Mode: Or, Sir Fopling Flutter (pr., pb. 1676). Lee’s intention in The Princess of Cleve was to provide a corrective to the tacit acceptance of promiscuity often found in such works, whatever their explicit moral.

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Lee, Nathaniel

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