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.