Nathaniel Lee Lee, Nathaniel - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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

Frances Barbour (essay date July 1940)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

(The entire section is 2461 words.)

A. L. Cooke and Thomas B. Stroup (essay date October 1950)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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John Loftis (essay date 1967)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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P. F. Vernon (essay date 1970)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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David M. Vieth (essay date 1975)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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R. D. Hume (essay date 1976)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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David Scott Kastan (essay date 1977)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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J. M. Armistead (essay date December 1978)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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J. M. Armistead (essay date 1979)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.]


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Laura Brown (essay date 1981)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Richard E. Brown (essay date fall 1983)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Richard Brown (essay date 1985)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Harold C. Knutson (essay date 1988)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Tara L. Collington and Philip D. Collington (essay date November 2002)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


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...

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