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.
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...
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