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Nathaniel Lee 1645?-1692

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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

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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)

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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 right. The great Dryden followed his example, and divine right became a favorite theme of the dramatic poets. That the heroic drama prior to 1679 became also the vehicle for the political doctrine of the opposition, has not been suggested. Nathaniel Lee, however, probably the most popular dramatist of the period next to Dryden, wrote no less than ten heroic plays, five of them before 1679, which pictured kings as tyrants and posed the theory that the acts of kings are open to criticism.

The emphatic monarchism of the drama from 1660 to 1679 was due, no doubt, to a rigid censorship and to the dependence of dramatists upon the good will of the Court. Certainly the Puritans had shown them no hospitality. Then the Popish Plot in 1678 created an issue upon which the Court was divided, and the failure of Charles for almost two years to show his hand in regard to the religious issues made it possible for dramatists to treat freely either side of the question. An era of lively political and religious controversy in the playhouses resulted. Lee's part in this controversy has been adequately treated by Mr. R. G. Ham in his study of Otway and Lee.1 But, that the five plays written by Lee prior to 1679 are of a political complexion consistent with these later plays, and not at all in accord with the political conventions of the heroic play, has not hitherto been shown. The fact is that Lee never subscribed to the doctrine of divine right, and that he was consistently critical of that doctrine.

It would, indeed, be strange if Lee's plays did not lack the modish royalist flavor, for Lee was congenitally of the Commonwealth party. His father had been the Chaplain of General Monk, and, though in 1663 the elder Lee had publicly recanted his Puritan connections, such recantations were both politic and common, and it seems evident that there had been bred into the young poet a belief that kings are accountable for their acts. Ten of his thirteen plays either propound a revolutionary political doctrine or attack Catholicism and its influence on the state. Lack of such doctrines in his remaining three plays is easily accounted for.

The first five2 of his plays, which appeared in the years 1674-8, furnish in no sense the accepted “pattern of love and honour,” but are consistent in their unfavorable portrayal of kinship. Nero (1674), the maiden effort of the young poet, must have seemed brashly unconventional, for he found it necessary to request in the epistle dedicatory to the Earl of Rochester,

Protection in the behalf of a civil tyrant, at least for one whom I have so represented, and for which I have been sufficiently censured, perhaps unjustly enough; since 'tis not impossible for a man to … be brave and bad.

And here we find the character of Lee's ruler—“brave and bad.” True, the hero is a great military figure, but he is turned from his heroic pursuits by a passion unworthy of him; for he loves so intensely as to be unfitted for his heroic function (Hannibal in Sophonisba), or he does not wisely confine his passion to one object (Alexander in Rival Queens), or he is ruled by a passion inappropriate to his advanced years (Augustus, in Gloriana and Mithradates, in the play by that name). This last situation, which was a favorite with Lee, involves the aged hero in an abnormal rivalry with a more admirable son and renders the hero even less appealing. One gets the impression that Lee was half in love with Alexander, the most acceptable hero in this group of plays; yet even Alexander is guilty of unwise favoritism and cruel and passionate action, and is subjected to much criticism by the wisest characters in The Rival Queens.

It is evident, too, that from the beginning certain questions of political theory were teasing Lee. The continual recurrence of criticism of a ruler by wise or admirable characters and the frequent discussion of political questions are far more insistent than is dramatically appropriate. It is possible that Lee accepted hereditary kinship as an institution, but from the unnecessarily emphatic treatment of the question of legitimacy in Gloriana, it would seem that Lee did not consider legitimacy essential and that he preferred a virtuous illegitimate ruler to a legitimate tyrant. It is argued by Augustus that, Caesario being illegitimate, the legitimately-adopted Augustus had rightly inherited the empire. More convincing is the case for Caesario, which is based on Caesario's virtue and natural gifts. Gloriana appeared in January 1675/6, two years before the Popish Plot, out of which grew the movement to exclude from the succession James, the Duke of York, in favor of Monmouth, the illegitimate son of Charles. The emphasis upon this question in Gloriana tempts one to surmise that as early as 1676 Protestant Monmouth may have been in the minds of traditional Commonwealth men as the more desirable heir to the throne. In The Rival Queens is found another treatment of the question of the basis for choosing a ruler. When Lysimachus, the heir of Alexander, asks the dying emperor to whom he bequeaths the “empire of the world,” Alexander replies, “To him who is most worthy.”3 In no play does Lee propose heredity as the just basis for sovereignty.

According to Lee virtue does not necessarily dwell in an anointed king, and kings are accountable for their acts. In all five of these early plays the evil or unwise acts of rulers are subject to criticism by characters with whom the reader sympathizes. In Gloriana Araspes states that,

Though Caesar from Heav'n's partial hand receive
Immediate power, small vertue did she give,(4)

and Caesario wonders at a

Heaven that can see such Vertue in distress
And with exceeding power a Tyrant bless;
.....Heav'n that allows this parracide a name
As great and good as the first sons of Fame.(5)

And there is much of the same sort of criticism of kings in Lee's other plays. Even Alexander is subjected to accusations by his beloved counselor, Clytus:

Forgive yourself for all your blasphemies,
The riot of a most debauched and blotted life.(6)

Obviously Lee did not subscribe to the legal concept that a king can do no wrong; in fact, he believed that a king has a duty to his office. Alexander's dying utterance is a regret that he has not discharged “the duty of a man to empire born.”7 Not only do kings have responsibilities; not only are they subject to criticism; but, as Lee occasionally suggested, people might be justified in ridding themselves of a tyrannical ruler. In Nero Drusillus asserts that

                    Some noble Roman should
Dare to be glorious, dangerously good
And kill this tyrant,(8)

and in Gloriana, Leander makes the same proposal in regard to Augustus—that some one should “the crown'd brute with full stroke destroy.”9

It is true that certain fulsome expressions of loyalty to rulers occur in the plays of Lee. Such expressions, however, are likely to be coupled with a warning to the king to be worthy of such loyalty. Typical of this is the following passage from Nero, in which Britannicus apologizes for defending himself with his sword against his king:

Sir what I did was in my own defence.
When'er I rise against that sacred head
In thought, may loads of thunder strike me dead.
You are my master, and Rome's Emperour;
May you live long, and make right use of power.(10)

The final clause here is significant. On the whole it seems as if Lee liked the sound of lofty expressions of loyalty and the current phrases relative to divine right, but that, confronted with misdemeanors of a ruler, he would hold the ruler accountable, and in extreme cases would counsel measures of deliverance.

Thus, these five early plays of Nathaniel Lee furnish the missing half of the picture presented by the five plays of 1679-80, which Mr. Ham has shown to be political plays written as propaganda against the religious and political policies developed by Charles during the two years following the Popish Plot. Caesar Borgia (1679), The Massacre of Paris (ca. 1679-80), and The Princess of Cleve (1680) are anti-Catholic plays, Caesar Borgia and The Massacre violently so. The Massacre was refused license for production, and it is surprising that Caesar Borgia was not banned. The Princess, according to the epistle dedicatory11 written in 1689 when the play was first printed, was based partly on materials taken from The Massacre and “was a revenge for the Refusal of the other.” Mr. Ham considers that even this play was much diluted before its presentation. The political plays, Theodosius (1680) and Lucius Junius Brutus (1680), show the same daring spirit. Material dramatically fortuitous in Theodosius attacks a king lax in affairs of state because of time spent with a frivolous and licentious court and with women prone to give erroneous counsel. A satisfactory solution to the problem is prescribed in the abdication of the emperor in favor of one of his generals, who is more efficient. Lucius Junius Brutus, banned after the third day, is even more obviously a political homily. It attacks a licentious court, a conniving priesthood, and a “pretty player” of a king who does nothing to medicine the state. The solution presented here is deposition of the king by a republican faction and the reinstatement of a representative senate. The expulsion of the Tarquin rulers “without danger to their persons, though not with reproach,”12 seems prophetic of the events of 1689.

These five plays pose the same theories as the early plays—theories diametrically opposed to divine right. A monarch is responsible for an honest and efficient government, and a people has the right to rid itself of a ruler who does not furnish such an administration. These plays represent not a change with the changing mode but an evolution in Lee's political philosophy: they furnish constructive solutions to problems raised in the earlier plays.

The plays under consideration include ten of the thirteen plays in which Lee had a hand. He wrote one other play, Constantine the Great (ca. 1682-3); he also collaborated with Dryden in two plays, Oedipus (1679) and The Duke of Guise (1682). The fact that these plays do not fit into the philosophical pattern outlined above may be easily explained. In Oedipus, which is in no respect a thesis play, Lee was merely doing certain scenes assigned to him by the elder and greater poet. In such a work the young protégé would hardly obtrude his political ideas. The Duke of Guise represents a similar situation, except that this is a thesis play. It defends a monarch, absolute by divine right, in an attack upon the forces of radical protestantism—a dual thesis naturally uncongenial to Lee. Evidently Lee's contemporaries of his own political complexion appreciated Lee's position as collaborator, for, instead of attacking Lee's apostasy, they charged Dryden with leading Lee astray. Dryden, according to Shadwell and Hunt,13 had turned to Tory ends Lee's previously written Massacre of Paris.

Whether the desertion of the Whig cause by Lee was due to Dryden's influence or to his own realization that a playwright would do well to be prudent in his political utterance, Constantine the Great, written in the same year as The Duke of Guise, glorifies the theory of divine right. It is possible that Lee was conscious that his powers were failing, and was striving frantically to get his plays before the public even at a sacrifice of his political principles. At any rate, Constantine is full of evidence that his powers were declining, and Lee was confined in Bedlam in September, 1684. It is the single play by Nathaniel Lee which follows the political convention of the heroic play. Ten of Lee's eleven plays propound the political theories which have their roots in the Commonwealth and which came to their fruition after the Glorious Revolution.

The final chapter in Lee's career furnishes additional evidence that the Commonwealth-Whig Lee is the real Nathaniel Lee. He wrote no more plays, but he published in 1689 The Princess of Cleve, which had not yet appeared in print, and in 1690 the previously forbidden Massacre of Paris. In the prologue and epilogue of The Massacre he showed the same interest in the freedom of a people from domination by an absolute monarch as he had throughout his career, and his lines here carry the same conviction. It may be argued, of course, that here was simply another turn of the political coat. No one who is thoroughly acquainted with Lee's work, however, will make this charge. The two plays of 1682 merely constitute a negligible interlude, and the ten plays written between 1674 and 1680 present the political philosophy of Nathaniel Lee.

Nathaniel Lee is consistently anti-divine-right and anti-Tory. Even at the time when the heroic play was the accepted vehicle for the glorification and popularization of divine right, he dared to portray the dangers of such a political doctrine. The impulse was, perhaps, instinctive rather than conscious, but at any rate it led to the production of plays which did not entirely conform to the pattern of the heroic play.


  1. Otway and Lee, New Haven, Yale University Press. 1931.

  2. Nero, Gloriana, Sophonisba, The Rival Queens, Mithradates.

  3. The Rival Queens, V, ii, 268.

  4. Gloriana, or The Court of Augustus Caesar. By Nat. Lee. London. Printed for J. Magnes and R. Bentley. MDCLXXVI. III, 1, p. 22. (First edition.)

  5. Ibid., IV, p. 37.

  6. The Rival Queens, IV, ii, 469-470.

  7. Ibid., V, ii, 374.

  8. The Tragedy of Nero Emperor of Rome, II, i, 17-19.

  9. Gloriana, III, i, p. 23.

  10. Nero, I, i, 106-10.

  11. “This play, when it was acted, in the character of the Princess of Jainville, had a resemblance of Marguerite in the Massacre of Paris. … What was borrowed in the Action is left out in the Print and quite obliterated in the minds of Men! … I was I confess through indignation, forced to limb my own Child, which time … has set together again …”

  12. Lucius Junius Brutus. Bell's British Theatre, vol. 31. London. George Cawthorne, British Library, Strand. 1797. II, p. 40.

  13. Some Reflection upon the Pretended Parallel in the Play Called The Duke of Guise (1683).

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

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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 the political implications of the play altogether.2 Ghosh discusses the political references of the prologue and epilogue, but he is not concerned with the political implications in the play itself.3 Häfele in the preface to his edition of Constantine, 1933, deals more fully with the reflections of contemporary politics in the play than any previous critic.4 Yet Häfele, though he refers to the general parallels, actually indicates only three direct references: first, that Arius is a satire on Shaftesbury; second, that the attack of Lycinius on Dalmatius in Act II reflects the attempted murder of James, Duke of York, in the Rye House Plot; third, that the poet himself connects Constantine with Charles II in the closing scene. Actually the political reflections in the play are much more intricate and far reaching than is suggested by these writers.

It is the purpose of this paper to examine more fully these reflections of contemporary politics in Constantine. Of course, one cannot hope to bring to light all the possible suggestions of contemporary events probably recognizable to the Restoration audience; nor does one expect to discover exact and complete analogies between the plot of the play and the events of the times. No dramatic poet could risk such a complete political parallel in 1683. Yet the play actually contains a remarkable number of allusions and analogies to political personages and their intrigues, especially to the Popish Plot and subsequent political scandals.

In the first place, the situation of Constantine at the opening of the play very closely parallels that of Charles II during the years 1678-81, when the Popish Plot was at its height. He is faced with a revolt of his subjects over the question of religion, and he is also faced with an underground plot, which like the Popish Plot was concerned with politics as well as religion. The Roman populace, representing the English people, are stirred to rebellion against the attempt of Constantine and his brother Dalmatius to institute Christianity as the national religion. They cry out, as the Protestants of England did at the thought of the return of Catholicism:

                                                                      … our Liberty's betray'd,
Our Courts of Justice Rob'd; Old Rights Infring'd;
Our Gods must down, our Shrines and Temples burn;

(i, i, 128-130)

Arius, representing Shaftesbury, is not only secretly in sympathy with this revolt but is also the leader of a cabal which is seeking to overthrow Constantine's political power. The following passage, for instance, parallels the demands which one fraction of the Whigs made during the Oxford Parliament, of 1681:

At close of day in Dark Cabals they met,
And in the Morning gave their Final Answer;
Lycinius, who that Night was brought a Captive,
To grace the Triumph of your first appearance,
Was first propos'd, to share th'Imperial Power:
Next they demand a general Persecution
Of all the Christians, and Silvesters head.

(i, i, 146-152)

In similar fashion the Oxford Parliament proposed that upon the death of Charles the Princess of Orange should share the royal power with James, and that the laws against the Catholics should be enforced.5

This first rebellion in the play, however, subsides, with Constantine maintaining his power and popularity, just as Charles did after the Popish Plot. As Dalmatius remarks to his brother, the emperor:

          … the late Tempest which must reach your Ear
By Skilful Pilots, [is] Rockt into a Calm:
Believe me Sir, your presence gains the Cause.

(i, i, 165-167)

Yet the underground plot continues. Arius realizes that he has misplayed his hand, just as Shaftesbury realized the failure of the Whig designs in the Tory reaction of 1681. Speaking to Labienus and Eubolus, two of his fellow conspirators, he exclaims:

We have done our Work by half; follow'd by the Scent,
Trac'd to our Holes! Oh I could play the Mad-man!
Men of our Make so poorly hide a Murder,
That Dogs can rake it up. Spies, Spies by Hell!
The Course of former Councils was too slow,
I am proclaim'd a Traitor, Heretick,
And Poniards must proclaim my Accuser nothing.

(ii, 1-7)

Here we have apparent reference to the failure of the Popish Plot, the murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey, and the trial of Shaftesbury for treason in 1681.6 Faced with this failure of his designs, Arius sets on Lycinius to attempt the murder of Dalmatius, the emperor's brother, just as Shaftesbury was popularly supposed to have set on Russell and Sidney to attempt the murder of Charles and James in the Rye House Plot. Doubtless there are other resemblances between the plot of the play and the politics of the time, but here are parallels enough to indicate that the poet was consciously using current political events in his plot.

The same is true of characters. Already, as we have noted, critics have suggested that Arius reflects the character of Shaftesbury, but they have failed to show in any detail the close resemblance of the character in the play to his historical original. Actually Arius shows far greater resemblance to Shaftesbury than does Antonio in Venice Preserved.7 The description of Arius's personal appearance obviously satirizes the physical characteristics of Shaftesbury:

He has all the marks, we Virgins reckon Ominous,
A pale, down look, red Hair, and leering Eyes.

(v, i, 28-29)

Dalmatius's account of him is a perfect expression of the Tory opinion about the Whig leader:

The Subtlest Snake, the softest Civil Villain
That ever warm'd himself in Princes Bosom;
Diseases, Blasts, Plagues, Death and Hell are in him:
What e're his outside seems: This shameless Traitor
Was the foul Spring of all these poison'd Waters,
That late had like to overflow the Empire;
Yet while his Emissaries Fired the People,
This Judas on my side appear'd an Angell:
For after the first Mutiny was quel'd
Though he had Sworn to Justifie your Cause,
He warn'd the Slaves, I have his hand to show,
Next day to make those Impudent demands.

(i, i, 172-183)

In this passage Arius is accused of being the source of all the late troubles in the kingdom, just as Shaftesbury was accused of responsibility for the Popish Plot; after the failure of “the first Mutiny,” Arius pretends to support the king's cause, just as Shaftesbury agreed to reenter the privy council in 1679 after the first heat of the Popish Plot had subsided; yet he continues to urge his followers to make “Impudent demands,” just as Shaftesbury urged the Whigs to continue their demands for the exclusion bill.8 The character of Shaftesbury is further portrayed in such passages as the following speech of Arius himself to his fellow conspirators:

The Genius of the proud imperial Brothers
And mine, by Nature Mortally oppos'd,
Hate strongly at first sight, which hate improv'd,
By the late flaw I found in their Religion:

(ii, i, 9-12)

Here Arius refers to the “imperial Brothers” and denounces their religion in the same terms Shaftesbury might use to refer to Charles and James and denounce their Catholicism. A little later in the play, Constantine, representing Charles, condemns Arius in words which reflect Shaftesbury's treason, alleged atheism, and supposed part in the Rye House Plot:

Thou knowst the least of thy Enormous Crimes
Deserve a lengthen'd death: Think on thy Treason,
Atheism, Blasphemies against the Highest;
Think on the Purpos'd murther of my Brother,

(iii, i, 167-170)

Finally, at the very end of the play when all his machinations fail, Arius cries out:

Nay then 'tis time to fly—

In which we have what appears to be a satire upon Shaftesbury's flight to the Continent in the fall of 1682, when the Tory reaction had set in.

Constantine, as has already been indicated, represents Charles II in the play. Like Charles, he has a brother, Dalmatius; also he has a son, Crispus, with whom he is in conflict, much as Charles was with Monmouth. All three of these are subject to the machinations of Arius, and the state is faced with a religious revolt. Constantine's attitude toward this revolt closely parallels Charles's determination to assert royal power and the divine right of kings:

No; my Dalmatius, I have made a vow,
The Romans, or their Emperour shall bow.
They're Subjects, and 'tis fit: Nay, bow they shall:
Or Caesar in th'attempt, their Victim fall;
Bow to the Man, whom Heaven Ordain'd for Sway,
And in his great Vicegerent learn their Maker to Obey—

(i, i, 204-209)

The position here taken by Constantine is especially parallel to that of Charles following the Tory reaction, when he came to assert fully his conception of the royal power.

It is obvious, of course, that a complete parallel between the characters of Crispus and Monmouth cannot be found. The conflict between Crispus and Constantine in the play is over a woman, whereas that between Charles and Monmouth was over the crown. Yet even here, the drama may have some analogy to the actual affairs of the court; for at one time, according to the Count of Gramont, Monmouth was recognized as a potential, if not actual, rival of his father with the Duchess of Cleveland;9 and during the troubled years following the outbreak of the Popish Plot both the Duchess of Portsmouth and Nell Gwyn seem to have sympathizied with Monmouth and interceded for him with his father.10

Moreover, although the conflict in the play is supposed to be over a woman, the lines would seem rather to refer to matters of state. Where Constantine might be expected to refer to the rivalry between himself and his son in terms of a lovers' quarrel, he actually refers to this conflict in terms of treason and plotting. For instance, Crispus having just confessed his marriage to Fausta, his father's betrothed, is denounced by Constantine as follows:

That was alas my Crime.
That Crime was Treason:
Purpos'd abuse. A Plot upon thy Father.

Other passages in the play having to do with this rivalry are filled with the same language. In another scene Constantine calls Crispus “Villain! Traitor!” and exclaims: “What, are you Plotters too?” (iv, i, 168). This language of Constantine is not the language of a lover to his rival; it is political talk, the language of a king to his rival, easily understood by a Restoration audience as veiled references to Monmouth's bid for the crown.11 Moreover, in the play Arius is the instrument for maintaining this conflict between father and son, just as Shaftesbury was responsible for Monmouth's various difficulties with his father.

It is particularly noticeable in the play that Lee portrays the character of Crispus in a very favorable light, just as Dryden had treated the character of Absalom two years earlier. He is a handsome man; he is a favorite of the ladies (both Fausta and Serena are in love with him, the latter committing suicide on that account); he is an excellent soldier, having been sent by Constantine to quell a rebellion, as Monmouth was similarly sent by his father to Bothwell Brig. Lee is careful to show Crispus in all respects, save the one, entirely loyal to his father and subject to his father's commands. Moreover, Constantine shows the greatest paternal affection for his son, despite their rivalry. In a soliloquy, representing great personal struggle he exclaims:

Oh Constantine! Yet e're this search,
Whatever comes, Remember he's thy Son;
Son of thy Love, and once was next thy Soul.

(Act iii, i, 257-259)

Here the last line in particular is applicable to Monmouth, Charles's natural son.

Lee, like Dryden before him, is apparently anxious to suggest a reconciliation between father and son, between Charles and Monmouth. Both Fausta and Serena plead with Constantine to forgive his son. Fausta, for instance, calls upon the king:12

And where's his Father; but in all his form?
His every grace; his smiles—All but his frowns:
So exact in Body, Qualities of Mind,
That if you kill your Son, you kill your self.
Oh therefore listen to the call of Nature,
And once more view him with an Eye of Mercy.

(iv, ii, 358-363)

And Serena bursts in upon the King in the last act, begging him to save his son and quell the uprising.13 It is just possible that the Restoration audience saw in these pleadings of Fausta and Serena a parallel to the efforts of the Duchess of Portsmouth and Nell Gwyn to reconcile Charles and Monmouth. The play ends with the accomplishment of this reconciliation, an actual forecast of the temporary reconciliation between Charles and Monmouth which was brought about a few months after the play was produced.

Dalmatius, brother of the emperor, not only holds a position in the play similar to that of the Duke of York in England, but his character also resembles very strikingly that of the Duke. He is far more stern in asserting the royal prerogative than is his brother. After the attempt of Lycinius to murder him, an action which reflects the Rye House Plot, he insists:

                                                                                … But for Lycinius,
I urg'd at first, and still resolve, his Death
Is necessary to the Emperors life,
Nor should a few weak drops, by Women shed,
Stop a Decree so Absolute and Royal.

(ii, i, 310-314)

He also demands the death of Fausta, and the punishment of all those who have dared to oppose the crown. In a tone very like that of the Duke of York during the Tory triumph and revenge of 1683, he exclaims:

The Emperor has decreed to shew his Subjects,
What weary'd Mercy dares resolve to do.

(ii, i, 356-357)

And he orders the public execution of Lycinius.

The identification of Lycinius presents more of a problem. It is possible to draw parallels between his character and that of Lord Russell on the one hand and that of William of Orange on the other.14 But the most plausible parallel for Lycinius in the politics of the day is undoubtedly Algernon Sidney, another accomplice in the Rye House Plot. Sidney had taken an active part on the Puritan side in the Civil Wars, was a staunch supporter of extreme Protestantism, and had been exiled for a time immediately following the Restoration. These activities and characteristics are reflected in the following description which Lycinius gives of himself:

I was my self bred up in Blood and Wars,
Untaught, and Scoft at by these Civil Cowards,
Wherefore I hate Religion, Arts, and Learning;
And if I ever Mount the Caesars Throne,
I'le Raise another General Persecution,
Like Nero; bait these Christian Dogs to Death;
And Build the Temples of the Old Gods again.(15)

(i, ii, 223-229)

Labienus refers to him as “that ambitious, brawny Fool, Lycinius”—words which could not be taken to apply very well to Lord Russell or to William of Orange, but might be applied very well to Sidney, the hot-head of the Rye House Plot. Just as Shaftesbury was supposed to have instigated the Rye House Plot, so Arius stirs Lycinius on to attempt the murder of Dalmatius by appealing to his well known character as a warrior in the past, reflecting no doubt Sidney's well remembered activities in the Puritan war. Lycinius responds favorably to Arius's suggestion, and reflects Sidney's extreme republicanism by swearing to kill the whole royal family and “Quite root up all the Imperial Stock at once.”16

In addition to these political references involving plot and character, there are other allusions to contemporary events very probably recognizable to the Restoration audience. Of these, one is found in the very opening scene. Here two angels appear to Constantine in a vision, carrying banners upon which is written “In hoc signo vince.” The angels prophesy a dangerous “tempest and torment” to come, “govern'd by ill Stars.” Obviously this scene refers to the portents of the summer of 1678 when there were three eclipses of the sun, two of the moon, and the appearance of a blazing comet, all of which were considered ominous signs of impending national disturbances.17

A little later in Act I the Emperor asks:

Is Crispus come,
With those Auxiliar Legions we requir'd;
And Money sent to pay the last Arrears?

These lines apparently refer to the situation prevailing in the fall of 1678. At this time Charles had 20,000 troops under the command of Monmouth in Scotland, as well as a large standing army in England. A point of dispute between king and Parliament was whether this large force was necessary and whether Parliament should appropriate funds to pay their arrears of wages so that they could be disbanded.18

Finally, in Act III there is an allusion, apparently to the notorious Dr. Ezerel Tonge (or Tongue), collaborator with Titus Oates. Dalmatius has just insisted upon Crispus' killing Fausta, and Crispus has replied that he will find another method to put her out of the way; whereupon Dalmatius turns upon him with the words:

Tongue—kill her, go: or swear and be forsworn, …

The use of the word Tongue here as equivalent for “mere words” is strained and obscure, except we recognize it as a pun on the name of Dr. Tonge, whose evidence was responsible for the execution of many in the Popish Plot and who was by this time notorious as a perjurer, having forsworn himself on numerous occasions, and died still swearing all was true.

It seems then, from the evidence here presented, that Constantine must be considered essentially a political play, one reflecting the Popish Plot and its sequels (the triumph of the Tories and the Rye House Plot). It has in it more than casual reference to the political conditions of the time, as indicated by Summers and Häfele. Indeed it would seem to reflect the political conditions, the intrigues and plots and characters especially, more accurately and adequately than such plays as Venice Preserved. It appears to have been written, perhaps hurriedly, in the summer of 1683 in order to make use of the newest developments in the political situation. Lee evidently saw a rough parallel between the political-religious events of a part of Constantine's reign and those of a part of Charles's reign, and he carefully, if cautiously, pointed these out to his audience, shaping his material into a compliment to his King and the Tory party. Dryden, in order to give the play the proper send-off, wrote for it an epilogue full of up-to-date political allusion. Far from being an old play brought out by Dryden and Otway for production after Lee was non compos mentis, as Ham suggests, it seems to have been written in the political heat of the times. It can well be considered as one voice in the paean of triumph raised by the Tories upon the flight of Shaftesbury, the execution of the Rye House Conspirators, and the victorious reassertion of the Royal Power in the fall of 1683.


  1. Montague Summers, The Complete Works of Thomas Otway (London, 1926).

  2. Roswell Gray Ham, Otway and Lee, Biography from a Baroque Age (New Haven, 1931), pp. 206-208. Ham thinks the play derives from Lee's heroic period, and argues that Lee resurrected it from his earlier writings and brought it to the stage largely under the direction of Otway and Dryden at a time when his mind had begun to fail. Such argument seems entirely unwarranted, as Häfele has pointed out. There is no evidence that Lee had begun to lose his mind before November, 1683, the production date of Constantine; and the play is obviously related to the Rye House Plot of the spring of that year. It was very probably written during the summer and autumn of 1683.

  3. I. C. Ghosh, “Prologue and Epilogue to Lee's Constantine,TLS, 1929, p. 207.

  4. Walter Häfele, Nathaniel Lee: Constantine the Great (Heidelberg, 1933), pp. 36-38, 45. All references to the play are to the Häfele edition.

  5. See Leopold von Ranke, A History of England Principally in the Seventeenth Century (Oxford, 1875), iv, 131-132; also David Ogg, England in the Reign of Charles II (Oxford, 1934), ii, 615.

  6. See Ogg, op. cit., ii, 558 ff.; also G. M. Trevelyan, England under the Stuarts (New York and London, 16th ed., 1933), 383 ff.

  7. See Louise Fargo Brown, The First Earl of Shaftesbury (New York and London, 1933), p. 4; cf. Dryden's description of Shaftesbury in Absalom and Achilophel, vv. 156-157:

    A Fiery soul, which working out its way,
    Fretted the pigmy body to decay.

    The Earl of Mulgrave (Duke of Buckingham) gives a similar description in his Essay on Satire, vv. 102-112. Of course Otway emphasized his salacious character and disease-ridden body in the portrait of Antonio in Venice Preserved. His salacious nature is likewise reflected in J. R. Green's anecdote about an exchange of repartee between Shaftesbury and Charles (Short History of the English People, Chapter IX, sec. iv): “‘You are the wickedest dog in England!’ laughed Charles at some unscrupulous jest of his counsellor's. ‘Of a subject, Sir, I believe I am!’ was the unabashed reply.”

  8. Ogg, op. cit., ii, 615-616.

  9. Anthony Hamilton, Memoirs of the Count Gramont, tr. Horace Walpole (London, 1911), pp. 333-334.

  10. Ogg, op. cit., ii, 644-645.

  11. Trevelyan, op. cit., 420-421, 412.

  12. See also, iv, ii, 293-300; v, ii, 95-98.

  13. v, ii, 108-113.

  14. David Hume, History of England (New York, n. d.), vi, 226. In the passage quoted above (ii, i, 310-314), for instance, Lycinius' wife intercedes for him as Lord Russell's did for him; and it is possible to draw two parallels between Lycinius and William of Orange: he is married to Constantine's sister and therefore related to the royal family, as William was by his marriage to James's daughter Mary; and secondly, those who are in revolt against Constantine wish to have him share the royal power, just as many of the Whigs wished to have William declared the Protestant successor to the crown.

  15. In the passage above, Nero seems to represent Cromwell; “Christian Dogs,” the Laudians and the Catholics; and “Temples of the Old Gods,” the Puritan and Independent sects.

  16. ii, i, 59. Häfele mentions this passage as referring to the Rye House Plot. Compare with it Bishop Burnet's description of Sidney's character (History of His Own Time, London, 1724, i, 538): “Algernon Sidney … a man of most extraordinary courage, a steady man, even to obstinacy, sincere, but of a rough and boisterous temper that could not bear contradiction. He seemed to be a Christian, but in a particular form of his own: He thought, it was to be like a Divine Philosophy in the mind: But he was against all publick worship, and everything that looked like a Church. He was stiff to all republican principles. …” It is interesting to note that Sidney's trial was in progress at the very time of the first production of this play, November, 1683.

  17. Ogg, op. cit., ii, 559.

  18. Ibid., ii, 576; Burnet, op. cit., p. 171-172.

John Loftis (essay date 1967)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5175

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 Brutus warmly,2 it had a very short original run, and it was never again performed in London (though it was revived briefly in Dublin in 1738, according to The Dublin News-Letter, April 22 to 25). Produced by the Duke's Company acting in the Dorset Garden Theatre early in December, 1680, it was presented only a few days before it was suppressed by the Lord Chamberlain. We know little about the production except what can be inferred from the names of the actors printed with their roles in the dramatis personae of the first edition. Thomas Betterton, then at the height of his powers, played Brutus, and he may be assumed to have given the role an appropriate dignity. His wife played Lucrece, and it is probably significant that a woman of her reputation for virtue should have had the part. Elizabeth Barry, appropriately enough for the actress who had earlier distinguished herself as Roxana in Lee's The Rival Queens, had the passionate role of Teraminta; and opposite her in the role of Titus was William Smith, one of the company's most accomplished actors. The comedian James Nokes had the part of Vinditius, a circumstance assuring us that the character (who, as will be argued below, is intended to represent Titus Oates) was portrayed in a broad and comic fashion. With actors of such talents performing in it, there is reason enough to believe the assertion made much later in The Poetical Register that the audience received the play “with great Applause.”3

The Lord Chamberlain's order of suppression, dated December 11, 1680, cites the play's political offences: “Whereas I am informed that there is Acted by you a Play called Lucius Junius Brutus … wherein are very Scandalous Expressions & Reflections vpon ye Government these are to require you Not to Act ye said Play again.”4 Testimony as to how many days the play had run is conflicting. Charles Gildon, writing in 1703 in the preface to The Patriot, his adaptation of Lucius Junius Brutus, says that it was acted only three days before it was silenced “as an antimonarchical play, and wrote when the nation was in a ferment of Whig and Tory as a compliment to the former.” Yet the entry for the play in The Term Catalogues says that it ran six days before it was prohibited, a statement supported by a manuscript note of William Oldys asserting that John Boman the actor told him it ran that long.5 The stronger evidence would thus suggest six days.

Although Lucius Junius Brutus was never again acted in London, it provided the basis for an independent play, Gildon's The Patriot of 1703, which, despite the fact that its setting is Renaissance Italy, takes over half its lines from Lee.6 Gildon explains in his preface that he first revised Lucius Junius Brutus by merely removing from it all passages reflecting on monarchy. When the Master of the Revels refused to license it, Gildon substituted Cosmo de Medici for Brutus as protagonist, a change made possible by a parallel between their careers, and this time the play was licensed, though even with its reduced political voltage Gildon took care to provide it with a prologue disclaiming anti-monarchical principles.

When Lucius Junius Brutus is read with knowledge of the political events of 1680, it is easy enough to understand why it was not permitted on the stage once its import was understood. Like other seventeenth-century Englishmen, Lee had looked to Roman history for illustration of his political beliefs, and he had found events he could reinterpret as a commentary on the English constitutional crisis precipitated by the Popish Plot. The play could scarcely have been permitted at any time during Charles II's reign, and least of all in December, 1680, two years after Titus Oates' allegations about a Jesuit plot to murder the king had plunged the nation into turmoil, a time when the fate of the Exclusion Bill had not yet been determined, only three months before the Oxford Parliament with its threat of revolution. Lee cannot have been unaware that he was writing anti-Catholic propaganda. His play is a part of the literature of the Popish Plot, containing, in the episodes of the conjuration against the new Roman republic, a loosely allegorical version of the Plot as it was envisioned by the Whigs.

The play is, by implication, a statement of the Whig constitutional position during the Exclusion controversy, the more significant because of its date, eight years before the Revolution and a decade before the publication of Locke's Two Treatises on Government. Lee's subject, Brutus' expulsion of Tarquin and the establishment of the Roman republic, was a precedent often cited in the seventeenth century by theorists who advocated a form of government with powers divided among a chief of state, an aristocracy, and the people; for many seventeenth-century theorists it provided, as modern scholarship has demonstrated, an example of the superiority of a “mixed” form of government (i.e., government in which there is a division of powers) over a “pure” form of government such as absolute monarchy.7 In dramatizing the career of Brutus, Lee associated himself by implication with such seventeenth-century “classical republicans” as John Milton; and that he did so with knowledge of the relevant issues in political theory is implied by his allusion in his dedicatory epistle to Machiavelli's Discorsi sopra la Prima Deca di Tito Livio. Machiavelli was one of the most influential expositors of the classical theory—expressed by Polybius and Cicero, among others—of the instability of a pure form of government in contrast with the stability of a mixed government.8

A play about a revolution that had as its result the substitution of a republic for a monarchy, Lucius Junius Brutus is a celebration of constitutionalism; the king's violation of constitutional principles provides a justification for the revolution, in Lee as indeed earlier in the historians of Rome. Brutus accuses Tarquin, in his inflammatory speech over the dead body of Lucrece, of

Invading fundamental right and justice,
Breaking the ancient customs, statutes, laws,
With positive power and arbitrary lust;
And those affairs which were before dispatched
In public by the fathers, now are forced
To his own palace, there to be determined
As he and his portentous council please.


Livy had described Tarquin's violation of the senate's constitutional rights:

Hic enim regum primus traditum a prioribus morem de omnibus senatum consulendi solvit, domesticis consiliis rem publicam administravit; bellum, pacem, foedera, societates per se ipse, cum quibus voluit, iniussu populi ac senatus, fecit diremitque. Latinorum sibi maxime gentem conciliabat, ut peregrinis quoque opibus tutior inter cives esset, neque hospitia modo cum primoribus eorum, sed adfinitates quoque iungebat. Octavio Mamilio Tusculano—is longe princeps Latini nominis erat, si famae credimus, ab Ulixe deaque Circa oriundus—ei Mamilio filiam nuptum dat perque eas nuptias multos sibi cognatos amicosque eius conciliat.9

No very lively imagination is required to see the relevance of all this to Stuart policy, to that of Charles I as well as that of Charles II, both of whom circumvented Parliament and cultivated a foreign power, France, by matrimonial alliance as well as by other means. At the time the play was performed, Charles II was receiving large subsidies from Louis XIV, which in limited measure freed him from dependence on Parliament.10 The play repeatedly comments on constitutional issues. Brutus' exposition to the senate of the need for a monarch to limit himself by law has an inescapable application to Restoration politics:

Laws, rules, and bounds, prescribed for raging kings,
Like banks and bulwarks for the mother seas,
Though 'tis impossible they should prevent
A thousand daily wracks and nightly ruins,
Yet help to break those rolling inundations
Which else would overflow and drown the world.


At a time when the Stuart conception of the royal prerogative was in dispute, a resounding declamation of such lines would have sounded like a Whig manifesto. In the absence of contemporary records, we may only guess at the excitement produced by Betterton's dignified and rhetorical delivery of them.

Lee's attack on the Catholics in Lucius Junius Brutus is blunt and direct. The conjuration, led by priests who employ a religious ritual resembling a Catholic mass to intimidate their superstitious followers, conveys some notion of the fears which haunted the Whigs during that troubled era. Tiberius' sadistic account, early in Act IV, of the conspirators' plans for taking over Rome sounds like a rendering of current talk about the Jesuits' plans for taking over London. The conspirators' objective is to overthrow a constitutional government and re-establish an absolute monarchy; their plans, as they are subsequently revealed in captured documents, resemble the alleged program of the Popish Plot:

The sum of the conspiracy to the king.
It shall begin with both the consuls' deaths,
And then the senate; every man must bleed,
But those that have engaged to serve the king.


The plot is frustrated by a crafty and persistent informer, Vinditius (mentioned by both Plutarch and Livy), apparently representing Titus Oates, for the two resemble each other not only in the supposed service to their respective nations but also in their unamiable characteristics of self-importance and ambition. “Why, what, they'll make me a senator at least,” says Vinditius (IV.i.218-219), “And then a consul,” in what sounds like a satirical reference to Titus Oates' expectation of a bishopric. All this is enough to have satisfied that Restoration fondness for crypto-history to which Dryden appealed a few months later in his Tory poem Absalom and Achitophel.

The political theme of Lucius Junius Brutus, which points on the one hand back to the Interregnum, to Cromwell and John Milton, and on the other forward to the Revolution, to William III, Nicholas Rowe, and Joseph Addison, provides an illuminating contrast to that of Dryden's great political poem.11 Dryden's frightened horror at mob violence is not unlike Lee's at royal tyranny. Dryden's emotional veneration for monarchy would soon become obsolete; Lee's conception of constitutionalism in a government of divided powers would soon be generally accepted, though the anti-monarchical and republican implications of the play provided difficulties even after the Revolution. Thus, although we find Lee's play again forbidden in the first years of the eighteenth century, we encounter in the 1730's two more, though much inferior, dramatizations of Brutus' defiance of Tarquin, William Bond's The Tuscan Treaty; Or, Tarquin's Overthrow (Covent Garden, 1733) and William Duncombe's Junius Brutus (Drury Lane, 1734), and both of them point a political moral similar to Lee's. This political moral is all but inevitable in any sympathetic rendering of the story of Brutus, appearing to some extent even in Voltaire's French tragedy on the subject.

Even in Livy the story has political implications. Looking to the remote past, Livy found examples of antique Roman virtue and fortitude—Lucrece's resolution not to outlive the loss of her chastity; Brutus' subordination of paternal affection to the needs of the state—and he described them with a didactic purpose. Like his contemporaries Virgil and Horace he enjoyed the personal friendship of the Emperor Augustus, and like them he gave literary expression to political ideals the Emperor found congenial.12 The veneration for Rome in her history that animates the first Decade of Ab Urbe Condita, it has been noted, resembles the veneration for the Roman past, quasi-religious in character, that permeates the Aeneid.13 And thus the generations of Englishmen who liked to think of themselves as Augustans could find in Livy, especially in his first ten books, examples of idealized conduct that confirmed their conception of ancient Rome. Livy's Romans of the monarchy and early republic, above all, perhaps, Brutus, who bridged the two periods, provided for the English Augustans, as they had for the Romans who were Livy's contemporaries, classic examples of heroic virtue.

Here, in the adaptation and naturalization of a group of Roman heroes, is a major component of English “Augustanism.” Insofar as the term was more than merely an evaluative one of self-congratulation, it implied an admiration for and an emulation of the personal and literary standards and achievements of Virgil and his contemporaries. In Lucius Junius Brutus Lee gives us one of the most satisfactory renderings of a Roman myth turned to English uses. Employing the historians as intermediaries, he takes on the ideological coloration of the Roman Augustan Age—and turns it to the service of the Whigs.

The vehement Whiggism of Lucius Junius Brutus notwithstanding, Lee's two later plays, The Duke of Guise (1682), in which he collaborated with Dryden, and Constantine the Great (about 1683), are Tory in bias. His early plays had been largely free of politics, at most glancing in innuendo at the licentiousness of Charles II. But in Caesar Borgia of 1679 he had taken as subject a notorious despot, using him in an arraignment of Catholicism and tyranny alike, and this during the excitement over the Popish Plot; and probably it was at about the same time that he wrote the dramatization of the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre, The Massacre of Paris, which was not permitted on the stage during Charles' reign. His conversion to the Tory position in 1682 thus represented a complete change in his political allegiance. Perhaps he was influenced by his friend and collaborator Dryden, who also moved in a conservative direction; perhaps both of them merely changed with the nation, which during 1681 experienced a revulsion from Whig extremism. In any event The Duke of Guise resembles Dryden's Absalom and Achitophel in its political theme, with sixteenth-century France rather than ancient Israel providing the vehicle for allegory: the title character, an unprincipled political adventurer, represents the Whig candidate for succession, the Duke of Monmouth, and he is more harshly treated than is the Absalom of the poem. It was in the following year, 1683, so far as we can determine, that Lee wrote Constantine the Great, which includes an idealized rendering of a character representing the Duke of York and a condemnatory one of a character representing the Whig Earl of Shaftesbury.14 All this is testimony to the completeness of the Tory victory.

Lucius Junius Brutus is less systematically allegorical than these two later plays, each of which has characters that resemble historical persons and a plot that parallels historical events. Apart from the conjuration which suggests the Popish Plot and the character Vinditius who resembles Titus Oates, little in Lucius Junius Brutus can be considered specifically allegorical. Its relevance to politics is thematic: the celebration of constitutionalism and the denunciation of royal tyranny; and this is inherent in the choice of subject. Any English play about Lucius Junius Brutus had to be a Whig play. Because allegory was unnecessary to make the political point, the play could have a focus on the career of its historical protagonist; and thus it could be more than merely a party piece to be interpreted with the aid of a key. Both The Duke of Guise and Constantine the Great suffer from the cleverness of their sustained parallels with historical events. By contrast Lucius Junius Brutus retains its integrity as a tragedy, possessing a political theme merely as a complicating and enriching dimension.

However important for the play Livy's Ab Urbe Condita may have been, Lee drew on other accounts of Brutus, fictional as well as historical.15 He apparently consulted The Roman Antiquities of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, as would appear from his use of distinctive words that seem to be translations from that author; and he certainly consulted Plutarch's life of Valerius Publicola. The sacrificial scene early in Act IV, in which the conspirators pledge themselves in human blood to the conjuration while Vinditius (Vindicius) looks on from hiding, derives in some detail from Plutarch—though Livy also includes an account of Vindicius' spying. (We may indeed wonder if the aptness of the episode to current talk about secret meetings of Jesuits might not have attracted Lee to the subject.) And as Lee implies in his dedicatory epistle, he read Machiavelli's comments on Livy's account of Brutus, presumably taking from Machiavelli the conception of Brutus' exemplary judgment on his sons as necessary to the firm establishment of the Roman constitution.16

Still, it was not to the historians or political theorists that he turned for his principal elaborations on Livy's story but to a writer of historical fiction, Madeleine de Scudéry, whose Clelia (to use the English title of the translation he probably read) includes a long, romanticized version of Brutus' life from his boyhood to the execution of his sons. Lee had frequently looked to the French romances, and particularly those of Madeleine de Scudéry, for his subjects; his plays provide impressive testimony to the impact on Restoration drama made by French romances. In several plays he used episodes from the lives of famous people of antiquity—Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Augustus Caesar, among others—and characteristically he used the French romances as supplements to the ancient historians, feeling no more reluctance than the French writers from whom he borrowed to depart from and elaborate on historical record. Thus in Lucius Junius Brutus he follows Madeleine de Scudéry in introducing a love affair to complicate a son's conflict of loyalties, though he departs from the French love plot in important particulars; and he does not follow Mlle. de Scudéry in depicting Brutus as once having been in love with Lucrece. Yet he may have expected his audience to know about the relationship as described in Clelia. The extended and detailed account of Brutus in the romance, which was widely read in London at the time Lee was writing, enabled him to assume a knowledge of events in Brutus' life not explained in the play: the reason, for example, why Brutus had assumed the disguise of stupidity (to protect himself from Tarquin, who had killed his brother and father and confiscated their property). In his frequently elliptical exposition, Lee wrote as though he was dramatizing well-known events, and so indeed he was except that many details are to be traced to Madeleine de Scudéry's historical fiction rather than to the classical historians. The major events and much of the moral and political interpretation of them are present in the historians; the emotional amplification derives in considerable measure from the French romance.

Livy and Madeleine de Scudéry are Lee's principal sources, and from both of them, as Professor Van Lennep demonstrated with precision, he borrowed specific detail. Yet if he followed their versions of the Brutus story, we may be sure that he also had in mind the great examples of Shakespeare's and Jonson's Roman plays Julius Caesar and Catiline, to both of which he refers in his dedication. One of the central set speeches of Lee's play, Brutus' oration over the body of Lucrece, contains in its opening line (II.i.139) an echo of the most famous speech in Shakespeare's play, Mark Antony's funeral oration for Caesar (III.ii.79 ff.). Perhaps too the prodigies that Titus sees (cf. IV.i.144 ff.) after he has pledged himself to the conspiracy derive from the prodigies that foreshadowed Shakespeare's Caesar's death (II, ii, 13 ff.). Lee's version of the conspiracy in favor of Tarquin sounds like accounts of Catiline's conspiracy, the dramatic version in Jonson's play as well as the versions in Cicero and Sallust. Lee may also have drawn suggestions from Otway's very different Roman play, Caius Marius, his reworking in a classical setting of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. In particular, the depiction of the relationship between Brutus and Titus, the father loving the son and yet demanding the sternest obedience from him, resembles the parallel relationship between Caius Marius and his son in Otway's play. Throughout Lucius Junius Brutus there are verbal echoes of earlier drama, especially Shakespeare.17 Tiberius' account of Brutus' courting the crowd (III.i.31-44), for example, would seem to derive from Richard II, from the Duke of York's account of Bolingbroke's passage through London (V.ii.7-21). And probably the impetuosity of Lee's dramatic verse owes something, in an indefinable way, to the stylistic example of Shakespeare.

Lee's dramatic verse is fluent, and it is untainted by the emotional frigidity which was endemic in neoclassical tragedy. Yet Lee's undoubted power to evoke passion is liability as well as asset. His notorious and recurrent fault is bombast: extravagance of emotion, expressed in tirades carried on in superlatives. His characters are often at the top of their voices. In Lucius Junius Brutus the fault is less in evidence, and partly because the ideal of Roman decorum dominates the play. Its success derives finally from the sustained grandeur of the tragic hero, Brutus, in whom a sense of duty enforces a suppression of private emotion. The Roman conception of decorum contributes to the stylistic as well as thematic achievements. Lee could not dramatize Brutus' ability to control his responses in the face of overwhelming calamity without imposing restraint on his dramatic verse. Climactic scenes are notable not for the frenzy that so often appears in Lee's other plays but for a quiet dignity. Brutus' response to the devastating news that his son Titus has compromised himself is impassive and meditative, to the extent that observers are at first misled about his intentions. Only gradually does he reveal his resolution that Titus must die, and this in spite of personal and even official intercessions in the son's behalf.

This example of restraint does not prevent other characters from expressing emotion luxuriantly. Titus is in this regard a conspicuous offender. He and his father divide between themselves some of the traditional qualities of the tragic hero. The role properly belongs to Brutus, the title character, whose legendary virtue provides the principal theme of the play; he dominates the action, and he is the center of interest. Yet it is Titus who has a tragic flaw—his uncontrollable love for Teraminta—that leads him to crime and finally to death; he rather than his father undergoes the tragic agony: sin, repentance, expiation. He would seem to be the good but imperfect man described by Aristotle as the most appropriate protagonist for tragedy. Brutus' exemplary nature precludes the human weaknesses that precipitate tragic events. Yet because he is the father of Titus he must suffer for Titus' faults, and in fact attention is focused in the catastrophe on Brutus rather than on his son, who becomes little more than the agent by which the father's devotion to duty can be demonstrated.

There are difficulties in the interpretation of the character of Titus. We are asked by implication to extend him our sympathy and to consider him as in a qualified sense admirable. Yet he shows remarkably little fortitude or perception. He violates a most solemn oath to his father in rejoining Teraminta after promising not to do so; and he promptly, it would appear half inadvertently, enters into a conspiratorial relationship with the deposed tyrant. These are grave crimes: understandable perhaps as the acts of an inexperienced and passionate youth, driven to the more serious crime of treason by fear for the safety of his wife, but still grave crimes. It was not unreasonable that the death penalty should have been imposed for the act of treason. The extenuating circumstances are less apparent to the reader than they seem to be to the Romans who plead with Brutus to spare his son. Brutus indeed shows fortitude in performing his duty and sentencing his son to death; but still—and this fact is obscured in Titus' self-congratulation and in the general amazement at Brutus' inflexibility—he was merely exacting a normal and expected punishment for high treason. The execution of Titus may represent an act of exemplary justice, but it is no judicial murder. In Livy the punishment is considered exemplary, severe but not unjust; and it is the exemplary (i.e., worthy of providing an example) nature of the punishment that Machiavelli emphasizes in his commentary on Livy. The sons of Brutus are guilty, and their father presides at their deserved execution. There is no ambiguity in Livy's implied evaluation of either son, and there is no sentimentality in the treatment of the episode. We find it difficult to respond as Lee demands to the plight of Titus; and we are intermittently repelled by the luxuriance of his passionate language. Lee lacked the discrimination to expunge occasional mawkish passages, with the result that some very bad lines remain.

Yet if the action involving Titus leads to emotional excess, it does not lead to a divergent line of action. Unlike the love plot in Addison's Cato (a play with important thematic similarities to Lucius Junius Brutus), this one is neither structurally nor thematically irrelevant. Titus' love for Teraminta provides an indispensable motive for the treasonous act that brings in its wake the exemplary punishment, the climactic event of the play. His divided allegiance, to his father and to his wife, parallels the divided allegiance of his father, to Rome and to his sons. The failure of Titus to make the right choice accentuates the nobility of his father's choice.

If structurally sound in this respect, the play has nevertheless been criticized for a breach in the unity of action. When Charles Gildon early in the eighteenth century prepared his adaptation of the play, he not only removed the passages that were dangerous politically and changed the locale to Renaissance Italy, but he also eliminated the scenes devoted to the rape of Lucrece, beginning his dramatic action after the expulsion of Tarquin.18 He considered Lee's play to be faulty, as he explains in his preface, in its double focus: “First, the old play has plainly two distinct actions, one ending with the death of Lucretia, the other with the confirmation of the liberty of Rome by the death of the sons of Brutus and the other conspirators.” The judgment is understandable, but it is one that would have more force to a neoclassical formalist critic than to a modern one. There are indeed two separate climactic events in the play, both famous events in early Roman history, but movement from the one to the other is rapid (though not rapid enough for the unity of time to be observed), and the later is causally related to the earlier. The rape of Lucrece leads to a revolt against Tarquin and the establishment of the Roman republic; a conspiracy against the republic is crushed and the conspirators punished in an act of justice which emphasizes the establishment of a rule of law. Lucrece and Brutus provide parallel examples of Roman inflexibility. If the dramatic action has a considerable complexity and magnitude, it is coherent enough, and it consistently serves the needs of the historical and political themes.

The emotional range of the play is broad, encompassing patriotism and family affection as well as sexual love; and the intellectual range, encompassing a theory of constitutional government, is even broader. Lee's themes hold a certain permanent interest, not limited by their relevance to the excitement created by the Popish Plot. We may understand more fully why Englishmen of his generation and the next liked to think of themselves as Augustans as we read this rendering of the moral and political ideals of Augustan Rome.


  1. Edward Arber, ed., The Term Catalogues (London, 1903), I, 451: “Trinity Term, 1681. [June] Lucius Junius Brutus, Father of his Country. A Tragedy, acted at the Duke's Theatre for six days; but then prohibited. Written by N. Lee. Quarto. Price 1s.”

  2. Cf. Roswell Gray Ham, Otway and Lee (New Haven, 1931), pp. 151-154; G. Wilson Knight, The Golden Labyrinth (New York, 1962), pp. 165-167.

  3. Giles Jacob, The Poetical Register (1719), I, 162 (cited in William Van Lennep, “The Life and Works of Nathaniel Lee; A Study of the Sources” [unpublished dissertation, Harvard University, 1933], p. 452).

  4. P.R.O., L.C. 5/144, p. 28 (quoted from Allardyce Nicoll, A History of Restoration Drama, 1660-1700, 4th ed. [Cambridge, 1952], p. 10 n.).

  5. MS. note in a copy of Gerard Langbaine, An Account of the English Dramatick Poets (1691), in the British Museum (cited in Van Lennep, p. 452).

  6. Thomas B. Stroup and Arthur L. Cooke, eds., The Works of Nathaniel Lee (New Brunswick, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, 1954, 1955), II, 317.

  7. Zera S. Fink, The Classical Republicans: An Essay in the Recovery of a Pattern of Thought in Seventeenth Century England (Evanston, Ill., 1945), pp. 6-7.

  8. Ibid., pp. 10-11; Leslie J. Walker, ed. and trans., The Discourses of Niccolò Machiavelli (New Haven, 1950), Introduction, I, 136-137.

  9. Ab Urbe Condita I.xlix.7-9, trans. B. O. Foster (Loeb Library), I, 172-173: “For this king was the first to break with the custom handed down by his predecessors, of consulting the senate on all occasions, and governed the nation without other advice than that of his own household. War, peace, treaties, and alliances were entered upon or broken off by the monarch himself, with whatever states he wished, and without the decree of people or senate. The Latin race he strove particularly to make his friends, that his strength abroad might contribute to his security at home. He contracted with their nobles not only relations of hospitality but also matrimonial connections. To Octavius Mamilius of Tusculum, a man by long odds the most important of the Latin name, and descended, if we may believe report, from Ulysses and the goddess Circe, he gave his daughter in marriage, and in this way attached to himself the numerous kinsmen and friends of the man.”

  10. Cf. David Ogg, England in the Reign of Charles II (Oxford, 1963), II, 598-602.

  11. Cf. John Loftis, The Politics of Drama in Augustan England (Oxford, 1963). For discussion of the political theme of Absalom and Achitophel, see Bernard N. Schilling, Dryden and the Conservative Myth (New Haven, 1961).

  12. Ronald Syme, The Roman Revolution (Oxford, 1960), pp. 317-318.

  13. P. G. Walsh, Livy: His Historical Aims and Methods (Cambridge, 1961), pp. 10-11.

  14. Arthur L. Cooke and Thomas B. Stroup, “The Political Implications in Lee's Constantine the Great,Journal of English and Germanic Philology, XLIX (1950), 506-515.

  15. My discussion of the sources of Lucius Junius Brutus is heavily indebted to William Van Lennep's review of the subject (see note 3, above), pp. 452-523.

  16. Cf. Machiavelli, Discorsi sopra la Prima Deca di Tito Livio, in Opere, ed. Mario Bonfantini (Riccardo Ricciardi Editore, Milano and Napoli), pp. 134-137, 316-317 (Book I, Chap. xvi; Book III, Chap. iii).

  17. The Shakespearian influence in Lee is examined at length by Anton Wülker, Shakespeares Einfluss auf die dramatische Kunst von Nathaniel Lee (Emsdetten, 1933).

  18. Voltaire's Brutus, which is independent of Lee's and Gildon's plays, also begins after the expulsion of Tarquin.

P. F. Vernon (essay date 1970)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5454

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 consideration.1 The first performance took place before royalty on March 17, 1677, at the Theatre Royal in Dury Lane.2 The cast was led by Charles Hart, a celebrated Othello and Brutus, and the creator of leading rôles in many of Dryden's plays. Hart's performances, no doubt based on the author's own accomplished recitation of the text, apparently emphasized the royal bearing and grace of Alexander.3 Statira was played by Elizabeth Boutell, a petite actress with a voice described as “weak, tho' very mellow,” and an air of childlike innocence which had made her a natural choice for the part of Wycherley's country wife two years before.4 The original Roxana was Rebecca Marshall, an actress well practiced in the interpretation of imperious and fiery characters. Records of only nine further performances in the seventeenth century have survived, but the play was evidently outstandingly successful; Colley Cibber, who thought little of it, noted, with some irritation, that “there was no one Tragedy, for many Years, more in favour with the Town.”5 When Hart died, only six years after the first performance, the part of Alexander was taken over by Cardell Goodman, a notorious gamester and adventurer, and by William Mountfort, who seems to have offered an attractively tender and passionate interpretation.6 The play was given a new lease of life when, late in his career, Thomas Betterton, the greatest actor of the age, undertook the rôle, probably along lines close to Hart's original performances.7 Mrs. Marshall was succeeded in the part of Roxana by Elizabeth Barry, whose expressive range has been vividly recorded by a contemporary observer. He was especially impressed by her handling of Roxana's second speech (III.45-57):

I have heard this Speech spoken in a Rage that run the Actor out of Breath; but Mrs. Barry when she talked of her hot bleeding Heart, seemed to feel a Fever within, which by Debate and Reason she would quench. This was not done in a ranting Air, but as if she were strugling with her Passions, and trying to get the Mastery of them; a peculiar Smile she had, which made her look the most genteely malicious Person that can be imagined.8

The partnership of Mrs. Barry and Anne Bracegirdle, who assumed the rôle of Statira, contributed indirectly to the dramatic influence of The Rival Queens. Lee's pattern of contrasted female characters had soon become part of the stock-in-trade of tragic dramatists, and the two actresses were repeatedly called upon to represent the spectacle of innocent virtue persecuted by raging vice. Their popularity in such parts encouraged still more dramatists to adopt the convention.9

For the first seventy-five years of the eighteenth century the astonishing total of almost two hundred performances spread over fifty different seasons is recorded.10 At first the musical elements were expanded: Italian singers were employed and elaborate dances introduced. Then, in 1756, a revised version was adopted. Billed as Alexander the Great, the title which had long replaced the original in common usage, this omits the ghost and singing spirits, shortens a number of other passages, turns what remains of the encounter between the rival queens into blank verse, simplifies and rearranges Lee's language throughout, and offers “The Triumphal Entry of Alexander into Babylon” as a grand, spectacular attraction. The actor J. P. Kemble introduced more alterations in 1795, giving further opportunity for scenic display, including “Bucephalus, Amazons, elephants, cars, bridges, battles, banquets, and processions.”11 The play remained on the stock-lists of the English and American theaters until well into the second half of the nineteenth century.12

The enthusiastic response of the original audiences is reflected in three other plays which were given their first performances during the same year.13 John Banks based much of The Rival Kings on identical sections of the French romance that Lee had drawn on for his plot. The list of characters attached to Samuel Pordage's The Siege of Babylon corresponds closely to that of The Rival Queens. Dryden, who later, in Alexander's Feast (1697), chose the conqueror's varying moods to illustrate the expressive powers of music, openly acknowledged his admiration for Lee's tragedy by providing commendatory verses for the first edition, and the powerful effect it had on him is evident in All for Love. The rivalry of Octavia and Cleopatra, their bitter meeting in the third act, and the characterization of the blunt, but loyal, general Ventidius, must have reminded the first audience strongly of the earlier play, since the parts of Antony, Ventidius, and Cleopatra were taken by the very same players who had created Alexander, Clytus, and Statira. Although Dryden had previously announced his dissatisfaction with rhymed dialogue, Lee's successful example probably confirmed him in his decision to experiment with blank verse.

Within a short period The Rival Queens attained the status of a popular, but somewhat antiquated, classic. Arousing a curious blend of reluctant admiration, affection, condescension, and amusement, it became part of the familiar language of the theater. The first allusions to it are respectful enough. William Mountfort, for example, the actor previously mentioned, brought into his farcical adaptation of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus (1688) the spirits of “the Famous Alexander fighting with his great Rival Darius in their true Shapes, and State Majestical.”14 But by the 1690's most references are humorous. Thus the impudent hero of Farquhar's The Constant Couple, mocking a woman who rejects his advances, insists that she must have “just come flush from reading the Rival Queen,” and launches into Alexander's part.15 In Natural Magic (1697), a brief farce by Peter Motteux, one character jumps on another's back, shouting, in imitation of the mad Alexander, “See, see how fast the brave Dutch Squadrons gallop. Bear me, Bucephalus, among the Billows!”16 Comic dramatists even quote isolated lines from the play without indicating the source. When Cynthia, in Congreve's The Double-Dealer, tells her father of her vow never to marry any man other than Mellefont, the audience must have instantly recognized the familiar reply: “But did you swear, did that sweet Creature swear!”17 Thomas D'Urfey uses Alexander's “Spite, by the gods, proud spite, and burning envy!” (IV.ii.143) in a similar context.18 Statira's “Then he will talk, good gods, how he will talk” (I.ii.48), twisted and absurdly applied, became part of the intimate banter of well-educated men throughout the eighteenth century.19 “When Greeks joined Greeks” (IV.ii.138) became, with frequent misquotation, the proverbial phrase “when Greek meets Greek.”

The tragedy was also burlesqued on more than one occasion. In The Rival Queans, by Colley Cibber, first performed over thirty years after the original, the women's parts were taken by men, and Lee's poetic technique ridiculed line by line. A burlesque opera, The Court of Alexander, by George Alexander Stevens, which makes many comic allusions to The Rival Queens, was performed in 1770. During the second half of the eighteenth century there were at least four more burlesques;20 another, by Thomas Dibdin, was performed as late as 1837.21

Early critical comments on the play display a similar ambivalence. On the credit side one comes across repeated references to the fire and vigor which Dryden praises in his introductory verses, and to the moving qualities of the tragedy. But Lee's ability to control the intense passion he brings to his theme was frequently questioned; his subsequent madness seemed to confirm the image of a writer who allowed a lively imagination to range beyond the bounds of reason and judgment. His use of hyperbole and grandiose imagery gave particular offense and was commonly condemned as rant, fustian, or bombast.

To account for the mixed feelings evoked by the play, it is necessary to consider The Rival Queens in the light of changes which were taking place in the form of serious drama at the time when it was written.22 The Restoration heroic play, despite the masterly theoretical support provided by its leading practitioner, Dryden, had encountered resistance from the start, and proved to be little more than a short-lived novelty on the stage. The aim of this type of drama was to arouse admiration for its noble heroes and heroines: the leading characters, placed in difficult military and romantic situations, made impeccable decisions which might stand as a pattern for the audience. It followed naturally from this didactic purpose that the model heroes and heroines should be seen to succeed. A highly ornamented verse form was considered appropriate, since the actions were performed by men and women of superior mold, and the heroic couplet was found to be particularly well adapted to the generalized level of moral argument from which the characters arrived at their decisions. The attractions of heroic drama soon palled, however, and by the mid-1670's a number of dramatists, including Lee, were beginning to introduce features which would quickly undermine the heroic form from within and oust it from the stage. The aim of the pathetic tragedy, which replaced it, was to enlarge the humane feelings of the audience by engaging its sympathy for the leading characters in their sufferings. Although the perfect and successful hero may merit admiration, he invites little sympathy or pity; so the characterization of the hero and the fortunate ending had to be altered. An audience is likely to sympathize most with characters in familiar situations; tragic dramatists, therefore, tended to shift from public to private issues, even though they continued to write about figures of national importance. As women were particularly vulnerable, and liable to suffer extreme personal distress, they occupied a more central position in pathetic tragedy. The heroic couplet became redundant, since a verse form was needed which could represent passion and suffering with some immediacy.

The Rival Queens was among those plays which contributed to the change in serious drama. Belonging wholly to neither form, it is more varied and less predictable than most late seventeenth-century tragedies. Yet its links with a dying genre rapidly became a liability; original when it first appeared, it soon grew outmoded. The heroic strain is discernible in the conception of the main character. A great conqueror and a passionate lover, he tries to live at a superhuman level; and the courtier who is reported to have said of Hart's Alexander that he “might Teach any King on Earth how to Comport himself” evidently felt that the character was meant to embody a heroic lesson.23 Those passages which concern the love of Lysimachus for Parisatis are typical of heroic drama: the audience is invited to admire the faithfulness and courage of Lysimachus and to rejoice in the just union of the lovers. Lee even reverts to heroic couplets in the debate between the rival queens, and he outdoes Dryden in the language of high-flown boasts and threats. What really disturbed the eighteenth-century critics was Lee's retention of these once fashionable features, which had since become ridiculous. Precisely the same objections would have been leveled at the heroic plays of Dryden and Boyle, had they survived. As it happened, apart from Lee's own Theodosius, The Rival Queens was the only example of the genre regularly available to later audiences. Its survival was due in part to Lee's anticipation of later tragic patterns. The central figure is at best a hero in decline, and his glorious reputation only serves to intensify our pity as we watch his disintegration and the misery he unwittingly inflicts on a totally innocent woman. Lee's use of blank verse is only one of a number of steps in the evolution of a poetic style capable of representing the quickly changing emotions of all three leading characters.

In The Rival Queens, however, pathos is not, as it is in so many of the tragedies that followed it, an end in itself. Emotional participation is made to serve a theme of far-reaching contemporary significance: the limits of authority. Lee's thoughtful and coherent interpretation of Alexander's career stresses not, as might be expected, the conqueror's great military victories, but the king's failure to recognize the independent rights of his subjects. It is not difficult to see why this aspect of Alexander's rule should have attracted the dramatist's attention. By insisting upon an equally inflexible view of monarchy, the last English king had reduced the country to a state of civil war, and both his sons were soon to discover that the problem of determining the limits of the royal prerogative had not yet been settled. This is not necessarily to imply that, when Lee wrote the play, he was consciously thinking in terms of the English political situation. The Popish Plot scandal, which provided a convenient rallying-point for the various opposition forces, and drove men to take up clearly defined positions, was still more than a year off, and it is quite possible that Lee had not yet come to any firm political conclusions. The play contains relatively few generalizations, which suggests that Lee may simply have responded favorably to the passages criticizing Alexander's despotism in his classical sources, Plutarch's Life and the History of Alexander by Quintus Curtius, without realizing their full implications. On the other hand, his first play, Nero, had revealed an early interest in the subject of arbitrary rule;24 and only three and a half years later Lucius Junius Brutus was to be banned from the stage for its transparent use of a classical theme to expound a theory of government which favored limitations on the monarchy.25 It could even be argued that the meeting of Alexander's rival queens was intended to recall the occasion when Charles II introduced his mistress, Lady Castlemaine, to Queen Catherine. The scene in which Alexander tries to force Clytus to wear Persian dress could hardly have failed to remind a Restoration audience of the stir created by their own king when, earlier in his reign, he had introduced into his court the new fashion of the Persian “vest.”26 These specific parallels may be no more than accidental, and Lee himself may not have regarded The Rival Queens as a political play, but his interpretation of the classical story is certainly strongly colored by controversial ideas arising out of the most grave political issue of the century.

His selection and arrangement of the historical material draws attention to the worst features of Alexander's rule. By postponing the murder of Clytus, which in fact took place long before Alexander's death, he was able to represent the intense resentment felt by the Macedonian veterans when their leader began to adopt the customs of a nation they had conquered, and to emulate the luxury and arbitrary power of the Persian despots. Since Clytus is introduced as a man of tact and patience, concerned to prevent the outbreak of disorder, the dramatization of his outspoken protest leads to the conclusion that, although the assassination plot may be the work of ambitious malcontents, Alexander's behavior has driven even well-disposed loyalists to breaking-point. Allusions scattered throughout the play add up to a fearsome charge-sheet, which includes almost all the cruel and wanton attempts to crush resistance, real or imaginary, which marred Alexander's expedition. Lee seldom allows the audience to forget one historical fact, to which he obviously attached the greatest significance: Alexander's claim to be of divine descent.

At first sight, the fictional material, which Lee found in La Calprenède's prose romance, Cassandre, appears to have little bearing on the subject of Alexander's qualities as a ruler.27 But on closer examination Lee's treatment of the romantic incidents can be seen to have raised social issues which may well have seemed relevant at the time. Alexander's two marriages are mentioned in both the historical sources and in Cassandre, but the events of the French story take place after the king's death, and there the two women compete for the hand of a quite different, unmarried lover. By making Alexander the object of their rivalry, Lee has created the curious situation of a love story which concerns bigamy. Instead of dealing with it as such, however, he has translated the alien custom into terms with which a Restoration audience would have been familiar. For, although Roxana is referred to as Alexander's first wife, little mention is made of her marriage rights; it is only Alexander's infidelity towards Statira that is considered a serious breach of solemn vows. Statira, in fact, is presented as a true, virtuous wife; Roxana, lustful, ambitious, and spiteful, is given all the characteristics conventionally associated with the cast-off mistress. Alexander himself speaks of his return to Statira after the fashion of a monogamous husband repenting a relapse into his former libertinism. His behavior towards her is thus closely related to a type of arrogance criticized in other Restoration plays, deriving from a male-orientated view of marriage, which assumes that a wife should dutifully forgive her husband's sexual lapses as soon as he has offered a suitable show of remorse. Statira, on the other hand, treats marriage as a contract: when her husband breaks his side of the bargain, the contract becomes void, and she is entitled to a separation. Lysimachus, by disobeying Alexander, is asserting the right of the individual members of a family to choose their own partners in marriage regardless of the wishes of its head. In arranging the marriage of his sister-in-law to a man she does not want, Alexander insists upon an authoritarian view of family relationships which was being openly questioned at this time, in literature, if not in real life. A parallel between the authority of kings, of husbands, and of family heads may now appear far-fetched, but it was a fundamental premise in the political thought of the late seventeenth century. Theoretical controversy over the divine right of kings hinged on the rights of a husband and father over his wife and family. The very title of Sir Robert Filmer's famous exposition of divine right, Patriarcha,28 indicates its central assumption; while, conversely, Locke, the leading advocate of constitutional monarchy, was concerned to establish the natural independence of the mature child and the contractual nature of marriage. In contemporary terms Lee's interpretation of Alexander's practice in political and domestic government was all of a piece.

The dramatist's own position is expressed indirectly through various forms of irony. The most striking examples concern the king's boasted divinity. The flattering words which greet him on his first entrance, “O son of Jupiter, live forever” (II.96), follow hard on preparations for his assassination, and contrast pathetically with the contemptuous realism of Cassander's comments on “this mortal god that soon must bleed” (II.72). The arrogant toast, “Live all, you must: 'tis a god gives you life” (IV.ii.71) is spoken at the very moment when Alexander raises the poisoned cup which is to put an end to his own life. One of the most tense moments in the play occurs when Clytus, who has already exasperated the king by continual talk of his earthly father, Philip, turns on the story of the oracle with devastating sarcasm:

Why should I fear to speak a truth more noble
Than e'er your father Jupiter Ammon told you:
Philip fought men, but Alexander women.


The king's obsessive concern to assert his authority is treated with similar irony. “My word,” he declares, “Like destiny, admits not a reverse” (II.387-388); yet in the course of the action his word is seldom obeyed. His first command of any importance is instantly refused by Lysimachus; his hopes of a happy reunion with Statira are quickly shattered by the announcement of her independent decision; and even Clytus, the soldier, is eventually driven to disobey orders. Roxana never takes the slightest notice of his instructions, unless they happen to suit her convenience, and simply ignores his impotent outbursts in their last scene together. Lee was certainly a little careless about his stage-directions, but it can surely be no accident that when, towards the end of the play, Alexander issues frantic orders for the crucifixion of an innocent man, the tearing of clothes, and the destruction of buildings, there are no indications that the actors were expected to make the least movement.

As G. Wilson Knight has pointed out in a perceptive discussion of the play, Lee demonstrates with some subtlety the effects of tyranny on the tyrant himself.29 Alexander's lack of self-awareness and his self-imposed blindness to truths which are obvious to those around him would be almost comic, were it not for his noble stature and his intense personal suffering. “Contain yourself, dread sir” (II.266)—Clytus's words come at the very moment when Alexander is congratulating himself on his tolerance and self-control. Again and again Lee draws attention to the king's pathological need to hear his greatness confirmed by others, and his refusal to allow anyone else to voice an independent opinion. His frantic cry of victory at a time of total defeat is not merely the arbitrary effect of poison; alcohol and poison seem only to hasten a steady process of withdrawal into a world remote from reality. Those who knew Lee's tragedy could hardly have been shocked by Swift's choice of Alexander, in A Tale of a Tub, to represent the self-absorbed insanity which underlies political ambition.

In Lee's hands the stage picture is often given an almost symbolic function: the birds of prey fighting before the conspirators assemble; the conspirators dispersing as the triumphal march enters; Roxana, knife in hand, bursting into the bower of beauty, where the innocent Statira lies dreaming.30 But the use of visual metaphor in the Act IV banquet scene to reinforce the ironies inherent in the dramatic situation is exceptionally imaginative. Cassander, standing alone on the stage, has just concluded his satanic soliloquy when the shutters open to reveal the grand, group tableau of Alexander on his throne, surrounded by his generals, caught at the height of his triumphant celebrations. Almost at once the splendor of the luxurious costumes is tarnished with the appearance of Lysimachus in his blood-stained shirt. Contrasted with the plain military dress and bearing of Clytus, the exotic dances seem to represent mere dissipation. His courageous independence is vividly impressed upon the audience in visual terms when he alone remains standing, while all the rest on stage fall down before Alexander. The king's attempt to win the affection of his men is turned into a pathetic charade by his ostentatious descent from the throne to sit upon the floor.

William Archer, in a damaging attack on the structure of The Rival Queens, complained that the play falls apart because Lee failed to provide any causal connection between the various episodes.31 But once it is accepted that the main action is the fall of Alexander, and not, as Archer thought, the contest between the rival queens, his objection loses force. The first act establishes the four parallel forms of discontent which threaten to disturb Alexander's position of authority; each has arisen from, or has been aggravated by, the king's own actions. The way in which these various “broils” develop into direct rebellion, and their impact on the king, occupy the remaining acts. As one difficulty is settled, either permanently or temporarily, another rises in its place, with increasingly disastrous consequences. The delayed appearance of the main character is a device repeated on a smaller scale throughout the play, and calculated to produce both tension and dramatic irony. The audience, forewarned, is kept in a constant state of anxious anticipation; the hero, isolated in his ignorance, remains vulnerable to ever more disturbing emotional shocks. It is true that the conspiracy, being secret, can have no effect on Alexander until the end of the play, but Lee introduces it in the first scene and keeps it alive to provide suspense, so that the dénouement does not appear arbitrary. On the other hand, the conflict between Statira and Roxana, both because their meeting is centrally placed, and because the extreme emotions of the two characters are portrayed in vivid detail, does make a greater dramatic impact than is strictly justified by its contribution to the plot. Its structural function is simply to divert the consequences of Alexander's faithlessness, to give him the illusion that the problem has been solved, when, in reality, Statira's voluntary separation from him has merely been exchanged for her death. The clash between the masculine and feminine personalities of the two women certainly creates tension, while Lee's presentation of Roxana's sadistic imagination shows insight, and even wit; but the confrontation tends to distract our attention from the main issues of the play. It does, however, help to make Alexander a more attractive protagonist; and this is important. The audience is meant to pity the king in his distress, and, were it not for the passionate expressions of both women, there would be little in the text, as distinct from the person and bearing of the actor, to make him at all sympathetic. The weakness of the Lysimachus-Parisatis episodes is not that they are irrelevant, but that they are banal. The conventional reunion of the lovers, in particular, works against the logic of the play, which demands the death of Lysimachus along with that of Clytus, Statira, and the many others who have challenged Alexander's authority in the past.

Lee's style in this play raises more awkward problems. Dryden identified the main characteristic of its rant when he wrote that all “was tempestuous and blustering; heaven and earth were coming together at every word.”32 Much of the imagery in The Rival Queens is, indeed, confined to the cosmic (world, sun, moon, stars), the elemental (fire, lightning, whirlwind), and the superhuman (fortune, destiny, heaven). In justice to Lee, it should be pointed out that he generally employed rant when he wished to imply criticism of the speaker. Dryden himself had put bombast to ironic use in the presentation of his tyrannic villains, and in the mouth of Alexander such images sound appropriate enough. He is, after all, meant to appear vainglorious; he does, absurdly, claim to be a god; and other characters remind us on more than one occasion that he is a splendid talker, whose actions by no means correspond to his words. Cassander and Roxana, who indulge in similar verbal extravagances, are, likewise, excessively ambitious characters. But Lee does also seem to have imagined that his use of grand images would create awe and raise the particular situation to a more universal level. If he reckoned that a fashionable convention, which had already come under heavy fire, would continue to impress audiences in future generations, he made a sad miscalculation. Fortunately, for more passionate effects, he adopted a different style, which remained acceptable over a far longer period. This depends less on imagery than on rhetorical devices, such as breaking up the metrical line, and introducing oaths, exclamations, sighs, and other direct expressions of feeling. One convention he particularly favored was the repetition of a single word in a context that would allow the actor to vary the emotional intensity of each utterance, as in “O, turn thee, turn! Thou barb'rous brightness, turn!” (III.390). A rhetorical style of this kind relies heavily both on the audience's acceptance of relatively unstable conventions and on the availability of actors capable of using them expressively. Lee's methods lasted well; but by the middle of the eighteenth century the tragedy had to be wholly rewritten in a style which then seemed more effective. A hundred years later even the introduction of visual substitutes for the now dead rhetoric of both the original and the revised versions failed to arouse sufficient response.

Acting conventions have since changed so radically that the range of gestures and of vocal inflexions, for which Lee's text provides, now lies quite outside the compass to which modern actors and audiences are accustomed, though good performances of opera can still offer some idea of the kind of effect intended. Fortunately, a few theater-goers in the past tried to preserve something of their experience, and their accounts help us to imagine Mrs. Barry, as Roxana, following Alexander on her knees, and pleading “in so Pathetic a Manner, as drew Tears from the greatest Part of the Audience,”33 or Spranger Barry, the leading interpreter of the revised version, whose

address to his favourite queen was soft and elegant, and his love ardently passionate; in the scene with Clytus, in his rage, he was terrible; and, in his penitence and remorse, excessive. In his last distracting agony, his delirious laugh was wild and frantic, and his dying groan affecting.34

To dismiss such testimony as mere theatrical history, irrelevant to dramatic criticism, is to misunderstand the nature not only of The Rival Queens but of at least two centuries of English drama.


  1. For a number of references concerning the stage-history of the play I am indebted to Nancy Eloise Lewis, “Nathaniel Lee's The Rival Queens: A Study of Dramatic Taste and Technique in the Restoration” (Ph.D. dissertation, Ohio State University, 1957). Details of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century performances are given in The London Stage, ed. William Van Lennep and others (Carbondale, Illinois, 1960-).

  2. Warrant for payment of £10 for performance before royalty on March 17, dated June 1, 1677, P.R.O., L.C. 5/141, p. 359 (quoted in A. Nicoll, A History of English Drama 1660-1900 [Cambridge, 1952], I, 345-346). This is confirmed as the first performance by a letter from the Marquis of Worcester dated March 17, 1676/7, H.M.C. 12th Report, Appendix, Beaufort MSS, ix, 66 (quoted in The London Stage, I, 255).

  3. John Downes, Roscius Anglicanus, ed. Montague Summers (London, [1928]), p. 16. Mohun's praise of Lee's impassioned reading of his own work at rehearsal is recorded by Colley Cibber, An Apology for the Life of Mr. Colley Cibber (London, 1740), p. 68.

  4. The History of the English Stage, “By Mr. Thomas Betterton,” generally attributed to E. Curll (London, 1741), p. 21.

  5. Cibber, Apology, p. 64.

  6. Ibid., p. 76.

  7. See Thomas Davies, Dramatic Miscellanies (London, 1784), III, 271-272.

  8. History of the English Stage, pp. 19-20.

  9. On the dramatic importance of these two actresses, see Eric Rothstein, Restoration Tragedy: Form and the Process of Change (Madison, Wisconsin, 1967), pp. 141-144.

  10. See The London Stage.

  11. D. E. Baker, Biographia Dramatica (London, 1812), III, 211.

  12. For a summary of American performances, see Thomas B. Stroup and Arthur L. Cooke, eds., The Works of Nathaniel Lee (New Brunswick, N.J., 1954, 1955), I, 213, 467.

  13. My discussion of the play's influence and of Lee's treatment of his sources is considerably indebted to William Van Lennep, “The Life and Works of Nathaniel Lee … A Study of Sources” (Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 1933), pp. 138-191.

  14. The Life and Death of Doctor Faustus (London, 1697), p. 20.

  15. The Complete Works of George Farquhar, ed. Charles Stonehill (London, 1930), I, 141.

  16. The Novelty: Every Act a Play (London, 1697), p. 49. Cf. The Rival Queens, V.ii.15.

  17. The Complete Plays of William Congreve, ed. Herbert Davis (Chicago, 1967), p. 171. Cf. The Rival Queens, II.350.

  18. The Intrigues at Versailles (London, 1697), p. 11.

  19. Before Addison singled out this line in Spectator 39 (April 14, 1711), John Dennis had already quoted it in A Plot and No Plot (London, 1697), p. 33.

  20. See Nicoll, History of English Drama, III, 271, 318; Baker, Biographia Dramatica, II, 14.

  21. See Van Lennep, “Nathaniel Lee,” p. 669.

  22. My remarks on the changing form of serious drama are heavily indebted to the excellent discussion in Rothstein, Restoration Tragedy.

  23. Downes, Roscius Anglicanus, p. 16.

  24. The political overtones of Lee's early plays are discussed in F. Barbour, “The Unconventional Heroic Plays of Nathaniel Lee,” Studies in English, University of Texas (1940), 109-116.

  25. See introduction to Lucius Junius Brutus, ed. John Loftis (Lincoln, Nebr., 1967), pp. xii-xix.

  26. These possible topical allusions were suggested to me by Mr. C. P. Vernier, who is currently preparing a dissertation on “Politics and the London Stage in the Reign of Charles II” at University College, London.

  27. Lee used the translation by Sir Charles Cotterell, first published, as Cassandra, in 1652.

  28. Published posthumously in 1680, though written before 1642.

  29. The Golden Labyrinth (London, 1962), pp. 160-163.

  30. The staging of Statira's murder owes much to Act V, scene iii, of Otway's Alcibiades (1675). The portents, the arrival of Alexander, and the interruption of the soothsayer show the influence of Julius Caesar, which had been performed by the King's Company only three months before.

  31. The Old Drama and the New (London, 1923), pp. 153-157.

  32. “A Parallel betwixt Poetry and Painting” (1695), in Of Dramatic Poesy and Other Critical Essays, ed. George Watson (London, 1962), II, 198.

  33. History of the English Stage, p. 22.

  34. Davies, Dramatic Miscellanies, p. 277.

David M. Vieth (essay date 1975)

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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 circumscribed by intellectual developments that were pressing toward a more “modern” sensibility, these plays constitute a successful creation of tragedy under marginal conditions: they strain the genre to its limits and carry meaningful implications for our own time. A case in point is Nathaniel Lee's outstanding but neglected play Lucius Junius Brutus.

Typical of the best Restoration tragedies in many respects, Lucius Junius Brutus nevertheless differs from comparable examples—Lee's own The Rival Queens, Dryden's All for Love, and Otway's The Orphan and Venice Preserved—in its unfortunate lack of an extensive stage history. It was suppressed after six (possibly only three) performances early in December of 1680 and was evidently never revived in London in its original form.2 Thus we lack data which might assist in evaluating the play through audience responses under varying conditions of actual performance over a period of time.

In the virtual absence of such evidence, a significant feature of Lucius Junius Brutus, although comments are not uniformly favorable, is its apparent capacity to elicit from a small group of readers a degree of enthusiasm and intensity out of all proportion to any explanation they can give for their response. The brief initial run of Lee's play in 1680 is said to have met “with great Applause.”3 Charles Gildon concluded: “That he has shewn a Master-piece in Lucius Junius Brutus, which scarce one of his Contemporaries have equal'd, and none excel'd, can never be doubted.”4 Theophilus Cibber called it “certainly the finest of Lee's, and perhaps one of the most moving plays in our language,” consisting of “as affecting scenes as ever melted the hearts of an audience”—“inexpressibly moving.”5 Similar enthusiastic appraisals have come in the twentieth century. Malcolm Elwin calls Lucius Junius Brutus “a neglected masterpiece of tragic drama, … one of the few tragedies of the Restoration, or of any other age, in the least comparable to the greater works of Shakespeare. … Lee attained the pinnacle of his powers as a playwright in this piece, which deserves to rank among the best romantic tragedies in the language.”6 G. Wilson Knight remarks concerning the play, “The range, complexity and understanding brought by Lee to the gravest social, political, and religious issues of his or our time, will be apparent.”7

Beyond its overt “story” of the rape of Lucrece followed by Brutus' overthrow of Tarquin and execution of his own two sons (reinforced for many readers by memories of Lee's sources in Livy, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Plutarch, and Madeleine de Scudéry's Clélie), Lucius Junius Brutus has been approached by recent commentators from three directions: (1) as political propaganda for the Whigs, (2) as a tragedy partially fulfilling Aristotelian criteria, and (3) in relation to the development of “affective” tragedy, including plays by Thomas Otway. Each approach takes us part way into the play; yet each falls far short of a fully satisfactory reading.

(1) The status of Lucius Junius Brutus as Whig political propaganda, produced as it was in the midst of the Popish Plot terror and the Exclusion controversy, is attested by the official order of December 11, 1680, prohibiting further performances because of its “very Scandalous Expressions & Reflections upon ye Government.”8 While Tarquin's followers in the play echo the “divine right” inclinations of the Stuart monarchs in England, Brutus articulates the program of Shaftesbury and his adherents for a limited monarchy, constitutionalism, the rule of law, and some measure of representative government.

Laws, Rules, and Bounds, prescrib'd for raging Kings,
Like Banks and Bulwarks for the Mother Seas,
Tho 'tis impossible they should prevent
A thousand dayly wracks and nightly ruins,
Yet help to break those rowling inundations
Which else would overflow and drown the World.(9)

The character of Vinditius is a transparent, surprisingly positive counterpart to Titus Oates.10 Frequent favorable references are made to the “commonwealth” or “commonwealth's men.” The conjuration by the Fecialian priests in Act IV is a parody of the Catholic mass and a projection of fearsome popular notions of the Popish Plot. The king, Tarquin or Charles II, and his son(s) have been “known” “to love another man's Wife.”11 Like Charles's courtiers, the young “whoring Lords” who support Tarquin indulge in drinking, breaking windows, beating the watch, seducing the wives of “citizens,” and neglecting to pay their bills to tradesmen.12

Closer scrutiny, however, discloses in the Whig propaganda of Lucius Junius Brutus an array of self-contradictions which may point to more complex, profound meanings. Most strikingly, Brutus, the rebel against tyranny and the self-proclaimed champion of liberty for Rome, behaves like a tyrant to his own sons Titus and Tiberius and will tolerate no rebellion against himself. Titus is arbitrarily commanded to “obey thy Father” and “Implicitly believe him.”13 This inconsistency must have been conscious and deliberate on Lee's part, for Titus' bride Teraminta calls Brutus “inhuman Tyrant,” Tiberius denounces him as “Tyrant,” “more Tyrannical than any Tarquin,” and Titus must “muster all the Tyrant-man about me” to satisfy the “fierce, austeer, and greatly cruel” wishes of his father.14 Act V begins with a crescendo of protests against Brutus' severity from Valerius and other male patricians, from Sempronia and Teraminta, and even from the common people.15 In contrast, the “tyrant” Tarquin is extraordinarily permissive toward his sons and other free-wheeling Roman youth—who, interestingly, prefer the existing “power-structure” to the allegedly libertarian revolution of Brutus. Brutus uses the rape of Collatine's wife Lucrece to spark his movement for representative government, but he then banishes Collatine when the latter is “chosen Consul by whole Rome.” He explains that although

                                                                                          'tis very rarely seen,
That a free people should desire the hurt
Of Common Liberty,

in such instances “worthy men” like Brutus himself will “rectify their Errors.”16 For Brutus' supporter Vinditius, who cannot have appeared very dignified as portrayed by the farceur James Nokes, “Law, Right and Justice” consist of a kangaroo court and a quick lynching.17 Whig political theory in the play is counterweighted by some plausible arguments for monarchy and against the built-in impersonality and inefficiency of representative government:

                                                                                                                        A King is one
To whom you may complain when you are wrong'd;
The Throne lies open in your way for Justice.

Kings can confer “favor” and “pardon,” whereas “Laws … are cruel, deaf, inexorable.”18

(2) A reading of Lucius Junius Brutus as conventional Aristotelian tragedy proves only partially satisfying. Lee himself calls the play a “Tragedy,”19 with Brutus ostensibly the protagonist because he is the title character. But though Brutus exhibits the necessary personal stature, occupies a sufficiently central position in the play's structure, and is a figure of great public importance, he does not reveal any comprehensible tragic flaw. Nor does he suffer the tragic agony, despite passages insisting that he does so vicariously.20 The tragic agony and death are actually undergone by Titus, who possesses, if anything, too much hamartia. Titus vacillates so confusedly and indecisively that in quick succession he violates oaths to his wife Teraminta, to his father Brutus, and to the monarchist conspiracy. His weakness is inadequately offset by passages crediting him with the heroic virtues of a protagonist.21 John Loftis, who more than anyone else has tested the play by Aristotelian criteria, admits that Titus and Brutus “divide between themselves some of the traditional qualities of the tragic hero” (p. xxi). Such a conclusion, however, implies a diffuseness quite opposite to the intense, sharply focused experience the play actually seems to convey.

(3) The contribution of Lucius Junius Brutus to the history of “affective” tragedy has been discussed in general by Eric Rothstein.22 “Affective” or emotive tragedy, to be distinguished from the abstract, generalizing techniques of earlier heroic drama, developed primarily through a complicated interaction among three major playwrights, Dryden, Lee, and Otway.23 Emerging in reaction against, but also guided by, Dryden's Aureng-Zebe (November 1675), it found its first major expression in Lee's The Rival Queens (March 17, 1676/7). Its highest achievements were Otway's The Orphan (late February 1679/80) and Venice Preserved (early February 1681/2). From it descend the “sentimental,” “pathetic,” or “she-tragedies” of such later dramatists as Nicholas Rowe, which, though not truly tragic, are nevertheless highly skillful and worth study in their own right.

More specifically, Lee in Lucius Junius Brutus probably drew upon Otway's The History and Fall of Caius Marius (ca. October 1679) for his mob scenes and for his Romeo-and-Juliet situation of two lovers who belong to feuding families, with the young man's father opposing the match. Not only do Brutus, Titus, and Teraminta correspond to Caius Marius, young Marius, and Lavinia, but Lavinia and Teraminta were both acted by Elizabeth Barry, who in the interval between these two plays created her famous role as Monimia in Otway's The Orphan. In its turn, perhaps because it could not be publicly performed, Lucius Junius Brutus was quarried extensively by Otway for the greatest of “affective” tragedies, Venice Preserved. The most obvious debt is the spectacular conclusion, in which a male character escapes ignominious execution, and preserves his honor, by having a friend stab him. Both characters, Lee's Titus and Otway's Pierre (who in other respects do not exactly correspond), were created by the actor William Smith. In both plays, a young couple—Titus and Teraminta, Jaffeir and Belvidera—provides an example of sexual normality, not to say overblown sensuality. Each play emphasizes this normative function by introducing the young couple early in Act I with a disapproving father, Brutus or Priuli, in close proximity. Belvidera, like Lavinia, Monimia, and Teraminta, was created by Elizabeth Barry. Lee's rape of Lucrece foreshadows the similar attempt on Belvidera by Renault.24 In each play there is a conspiracy against a “senate,” Roman or Venetian, with much sadistic talk among the conspirators. The young man in each case, Titus or Jaffeir, vacillates between conflicting loyalties because of his sensual nature, finally deserting the conspiracy to which he has sworn allegiance when he finds the situation too repellent.

A specially puzzling aspect of Lucius Junius Brutus as “affective” tragedy, calling for fuller interpretation, is its many arbitrary, irrational, or seemingly unmotivated actions by major characters. The mutual hatred between Brutus and Tiberius arrests attention because it is so intense yet so lacking in visible cause; Brutus lamely accuses his son of “Vanity, and blind Ambition.”25 Like his rigid insistence upon the beheading of his two sons, which no one else desires, Brutus earlier demands arbitrarily that Titus not “touch” his bride Teraminta. Remarking (with inappropriate casualness), “And by the way, my Titus, / Renounce your Teraminta,”26 Brutus nevertheless concedes later on that he finds “the Virgin beautiful,” “chastly good,” and “most sweetly fram'd.” Nor does the argument that she is Tarquin's daughter assume much relevance, for she is illegitimate and, by Brutus' own admission, “Without the smallest Tincture of her Father.”27 For no apparent reason, Brutus abhors the thought of sexuality in his son's marriage:

Who would be there at such polluted Rites
But Goats, Baboons, some chatt'ring old Silenus;
Or Satyrs, grinning at your slimy joys?(28)

Titus is unrealistically overwhelmed by his sensual response to Teraminta—so much that at the end of Act II he is ready to violate his vow not to “touch” her, and at the end of Act III joins the conspiracy, even though Teraminta herself vehemently opposes both of these actions. Despite his exaggerated sensual response, however, at the end of Act IV Titus' interview with his father inflicts upon him an almost incredible lapse of memory: “I had forgot: be good to Teraminta / When I am ashes.”29

These considerations—the inability of conventional Aristotelian tragic theory to explain the play's concentrated “affective” impact, the self-canceling aspects of its overt Whig propaganda, and above all its many examples of exaggerated, oversimplified, or unspecified motivation—suggest that in Lucius Junius Brutus we are confronted, not with fully rounded, rationally motivated, discrete characters, but with semi-symbolic projections of components in a unitary psychological situation. Lee's technique could be called “psychological myth,” although a psychoanalytic critic might prefer the term “fantasy.”30

Clearly the basic myth is the son-father relationship, especially under the strain of rapid and (the play implies)31 inevitable social change. The relationship is interpersonal and symbiotic, more than one person being involved, but any single character in Lucius Junius Brutus may embody qualities that would be found in several people in analogous real-life situations. Like some nightmarish regression to earliest childhood or prehistory, Lee's “psychological myth” cuts across popular conceptions of the integrity of personal identity and the distinction between “inner” and “outer” life. The “point of view” in Lee's play is essentially that of the son, with Titus as a kind of Jamesian “center of consciousness”—or, since this is a tragedy, a “center of experience.” The father-figure, Brutus, is so central because he looms so large in the son's consciousness. Tiberius and Titus incorporate opposite aspects of what is popularly termed the “generation gap,” Tiberius representing the unavoidable discontinuity and friction between generations, Titus the elements of identification between them that are necessary for fruitful continuity. Teraminta, or rather Titus' sensual response to her, represents the potential for continuing the generational cycle through healthy sexual processes. (In the background it is almost impossible not to see the pathetic real-life Nathaniel Lee, unmarried, emotionally unstable, dipsomaniac, and incipiently insane, reacting to his domineering, worldly successful, hypocritical clergyman-father Richard Lee.)

Intensifying the unitary force of Lee's “psychological myth,” as well as counteracting the diffuseness that might result from splitting the qualities of a conventional tragic protagonist among several characters, is the pervasive imagery in Lucius Junius Brutus of parts of the body and physical mutilation, including dismemberment and evisceration. The implication of this “visceral” imagery, as it may be called, is that ideally—in the individual, the family, the community, and the cosmos—parts should not be separated from the whole. Learning that his two sons have been detected by Valerius among the conspirators, Brutus asks,

Hast thou, O Gods, this night embowel'd me?
Ransack'd thy Brutus Veins, thy Fellow Consul,
And found two Villains lurking in my blood?

Using similar “visceral” imagery he decrees the circumstances of their execution:

Nay, I will stand unbowel'd by the Altar,
See something dearer to me than my entrails
Display'd before the Gods and Roman People.

His “Vengeance rains from his own bowels”; the death of Tiberius is “cutting off one limb from your own Body.”32 Similarly Lucrece, gathering her family together in Rome after her rape, “summons all her blood,” like the “heart” in a “Body” that “calls from the discolour'd face, / From every part the life and spirits down.”33 In “the Body Politic” of Rome, as Vinditius employs this metaphorical cliché, the people “are but the Guts of Government; therefore we may rumble and grumble, and Croke our hearts out, if we have never a Head: why, how shall we be nourish'd?”34 The same image is used by Titus:

The Body of the World is out of frame,
The vast distorted limbs are on the Rack
And all the Cable Sinews stretch'd to bursting,
The Blood ferments …

Now that Brutus “comes boldly to the Cure,” Titus continues, Rome “Must purge and cast, purge all th'infected humors … and vastly, vastly bleed.”35 The apparition of Tarquin seen by Brutus and the plebeians has a “monstrous” body;36 to Tarquin's followers the people are “a strange blunder-headed Monster,” a “Hydra.”37

Far too numerous to cite exhaustively, the “visceral” metaphors in Lucius Junius Brutus are reinforced, not only by many direct references to slaughter and physical violation generally, but by a series of specific incidents: the rape of Lucrece and her public suicide by stabbing; the retrospective account of Tullia driving her chariot over her father's corpse; the lynching of Fabritius and other “whoring Lords”; the conjuration in Act IV, a blatantly “oral” fantasy in which Tiberius and other conspirators “Eat one man, and drink another”;38 the whipping and beheading of the conspirators in Act V, prefigured by the play's many references, literal or figurative, to “heads” (including the “capitol”); the mistreatment and suicide of Teraminta; and, finally, the death of Titus. Possibly Titus and Lucrece are in some distantly Christian sense “Crucify'd,” the term applied in a stage direction to one victim of the conjuration ceremony.39 Lucrece's death is turned into a “Sacrament,” the conjuration ceremony is a “Sacrifice” and a “Sacrament,” and the deaths of Tiberius and Titus are a “Sacrifice.”40

“Visceral” imagery helps to convey the generational hostility between Brutus and Tiberius—negative, irrational, and not clearly motivated. Brutus works his way into such an image:

That Boy, observ'st thou? O, I fear, my Friend,
He is a Weed, but rooted in my heart,
And grafted to my Stock; if he prove rank,
By Mars, no more but thus, away with him:
I'll tear him from me, though the blood should follow.(41)

Tiberius in turn compares Brutus to Saturn and Thyestes, who ate their children, calling his father a “Cormorant” that “preyes upon his [own] entrails, tears his bowels / With thirst of blood, and hungar fetch'd from Hell.”42 Tiberius' sadism, displayed most prominently in his speeches near the beginning of Act IV, contrasts with the characteristic masochism of Titus. (Possibly influenced by Lee, Otway introduced a similar contrast into Venice Preserved between the sadistic Renault and the masochistic Antonio, the two characters who satirize the earl of Shaftesbury.)43

Titus embodies a fundamental conflict between his fervent wish to establish generational continuity with his father and his desperate fear that Brutus' overwhelming virtues interpose an unbridgeable gap between them. He formulates the enigma (italics mine):

Yes, yes, my Lord, I have a thousand frailties;
The mould you cast me in, the breath, the blood,
And Spirit which you gave me are unlike
The God-like Author; yet you gave 'em, Sir.(44)

In her final state of despair and withdrawal, Teraminta tells Titus that “A wretch so barbarous never could produce thee” (rather, it must have been “some God”);45 yet she earlier assures Brutus that his son is

                                                            the Image of you,
The very Picture of your excellence,
The Portraiture of all your manly Virtues,
Your visage stampt upon him; just those eyes,
The moving Greatness of 'em, all the mercy,
The shedding goodness; not so quite severe,
Yet still most like.(46)

Brutus himself acknowledges the continuity:

O Titus, Oh thou absolute young man!
Thou flatt'ring Mirror of thy Father's Image,
Where I behold my self at such advantage!
Thou perfect Glory of the Junian Race!(47)

So all-absorbing is Titus' endeavor to win his father's recognition and approval that he temporarily forgets Teraminta and is quite willing to forgo life itself.48 “I shall perhaps in death procure his pity,” Titus hopes, or even Brutus' “blessing.” His dying speech affirms his success:

What happiness has Life to equal this?
By all the Gods I would not live again;
For what can Jove, or all the Gods give more:
To fall thus Crown'd with Virtu's fullest Charms,
And dye thus blest, in such a Father's arms?(49)

Before this final triumph, however, Titus finds his father disconcertingly “aw-ful, God-like, and Commanding”;

Thou would'st have thought, such was his Majesty,
That the Gods Lightned from his awful eyes,
And Thunder'd from his tongue.(50)

In comparison with Brutus, his son feels abjectly unworthy, “Black … with all my guilt upon me,” tormented by “the stings of my own Conscience”:

Ah, Sir! Oh whither shall I run to hide me?
Where shall I lower fall? how shall I lye
More groveling in your View, and howl for mercy?
                                                  Alas, my Lord!
Why are you mov'd thus? why am I worth your sorrow?
Scourg'd like a Bondman! ha! a beaten Slave!
But I deserve it all.(51)

Titus' masochism takes “visceral” forms:

Here, bind, Valerius, bind this Villan's hands,
Tear off my Robes put me upon the Forks,
And lash me like a Slave, till I shall howl
My Soul away; or hang me on a Cross
Rack me a year within some horrid Dungeon …
Come, strip me bare, unrobe me in his sight,
And lash me till I bleed; whip me like Furies;
And when you have scourg'd me till I foam and fall,
For want of Spirits groveling in the dust,
Then take my head, and give it his Revenge:
By all the Gods I greedily resign it.(52)

In Act III, Scene 3, in the Fecialian garden, Titus' self-hatred nearly destroys his sense of meaningful contexts for his individual existence:

I'll fly my Father, Brother, Friends for ever,
Forsake the haunts of Men; converse no more
With ought that's Human; dwell with endless darkness.
                                                                      Yes, yes, you cruel Gods,
Let the eternal Bolts that bind this Frame
Start from their Order.(53)

Prophetically apprehensive earlier that Brutus would “Dissolve at once the being that you gave me,”54 Titus, as he impulsively joins the conspiracy, feels a loss of identity and even an annihilation of being, conveyed expressively in water imagery. Poised on “the Margin of this wide despair,” he prepares to “plunge”

Where there is neither Shore, nor hope of Haven,
No Floating mark through all the dismal Vast;
'Tis Rockless too, no Cliff to clamber up
To gaze about and pause upon the ruin.(55)

Describing his later revulsion from this action, he combines water and “visceral” imagery:

                                                                                                    my heart rebell'd
Against it self; my thoughts were up in arms
All in a roar, like Seamen in a Storm,
My Reason and my Faculties were wrack'd
The Mast, the Rudder, and the Tackling gone;
My Body, like the Hull of some lost Vessel,
Beaten, and tumbled with my Rowling fears …(56)

For Titus and Teraminta, water imagery is associated with passion and the loss of control.57 Elsewhere in the play, images of the sea and navigation imply the need for control, as in the commonplace figure of steering the ship of state.58

Teraminta, to the extent that she symbolizes potential continuation of the generational cycle in the Junius family through Titus, is almost completely frustrated. Temperamentally melancholy, she is repeatedly visualized by Titus in conventional images of pastoral retreat which render her unreal.59 Indeed, as part of Lee's psychological myth, she is primarily a projection of Titus' superheated sexual imagination.60 Titus' fit of impotence when attempting to consummate his marriage amounts to psychological castration by his father,61 a castration also represented prominently in Lucius Junius Brutus by the familiar symbol of beheading. Teraminta's final failure, in terms of the play's light-darkness imagery, comes out in her dying speech in images of darkness:

                                                            Oh, make hast, my Titus,
I'm got already in the Grove of Death;
The Heav'n is all benighted, not one Star
To light us through the dark and pathless Maze:
I have lost thy Spirit; Oh, I grope about
But cannot find thee: now I sink in shaddows.(62)

Conversely, the relative success of Titus and Brutus produces imagery of light. For Brutus, the rape of Lucrece (at night) becomes “the midnight Lantorn” that “lights” the way for his planned revolution.63 Titus uses light images to envision the spiritual triumph of his prospective suicide:

And now away, the Taper's almost out,
Never, Valerius, to be kindled more:
Or, if it be my friend, it shall continue,
Burn through all winds against the puff of Fortune,
To dazle still, and Shine like the fix'd Stars,
With beams of glory that shall last for ever.(64)

Brutus, overpowering like the hero of a Gothic novel, functions as father-figure in no fewer than three important ways. First, not only is he literally the father of Tiberius and Titus, but his image is the internal monitor that reduces Titus to sexual impotence. Paradoxically, he forbids his son the very sexual activity without which the son himself could not have been conceived. Second, as the subtitle of Lee's play insists, Brutus is “Father of his Country.” Here, too, paradox and self-contradiction intrude, since in order to establish his new social and political order, Brutus must subvert the existing order of the Tarquins. Third, as Brutus asserts and numerous other characters agree, he expresses the divine order of the gods—for example, in his final speech prophesying the future pax Romana (or Britannica).65 Even here, though less distinctly, Brutus' claim to absoluteness comes into conflict with other claims to absoluteness in the play. On his part he requires his sons to be executed because “There must be patterns drawn of fiercest Virtue,”66 and he approves Lucrece as a “pattern for all Wives.”67 In opposition to him, however, Teraminta is declared a “true pattern of perfection,”68 Titus' relationship with her is as absolute as the Great Chain of Being, without which “The World to me is Chaos,”69 and even Brutus is constrained to salute Titus as “thou absolute young man.”70 Statements of the absolute or ultimate often include imagery of stars, as do the speeches of Titus and Teraminta quoted in the preceding paragraph.71

Oddly, the psychological myth in Lucius Junius Brutus is expressed primarily in male terms rather than female, as a relationship between son and father rather than between son and mother, daughter and father, or daughter and mother. Sempronia, the mother of Titus and Tiberius, makes her first appearance in Act V among the “Mothers,” “Sisters,” and “Daughters” of Rome to plead unsuccessfully for her sons' lives. Teraminta by then is already defeated and incapable of understanding the meaning of events. Still, the female element obviously cannot be excluded from a generational relationship, and accordingly it figures in Lee's psychological myth as one end of a polarity. If the male component stands for unyielding “virtue,” “truth,” “justice,” and “obedience,” the female component is “passion,” “tenderness,” “tears,” “sorrow,” “pity,” “compassion,” and “mercy.” When Collatine, after Lucrece's suicide, claims a special right to “tears” and a “propriety of Sorrow,” Brutus harshly reproves these “laments,” “puling Sighs,” and “Womans drops”:

There's not a common Harlot in the Shambles
But for a Drachma shall out-weep you all.(72)

Similarly, Brutus exhorts his weeping, diffident son Titus to

Shake from thy Lids that dew that hangs upon 'em,
And answer to th'austerity of my Vertue.(73)

Separated from Teraminta at the end of Act II, Titus grieves like a “soft Mother” who clings irrationally to her dead baby.74 The male-female polarization poses a dilemma for Brutus when, learning that his two sons joined the conspiracy, he is torn between the conflicting claims of justice and mercy, not unlike Milton's God judging the sin of Adam and Eve.75 That Brutus' attitude remains somewhat distorted is suggested by the words and actions of Valerius, a normative, choric figure throughout the play, who is known to Roman history under the honorific “Publicola.”76 (His exemplary life was written by Plutarch.) Although Valerius acquiesces in Brutus' decision to execute Titus and Tiberius, he also encourages Teraminta and Sempronia to plead for the boys' lives.77

The rape and suicide of Lucrece, which was criticized by Charles Gildon as an action distinct from “the Confirmation of the Liberty of Rome, by the Death of the Sons of Brutus, and the other Conspirators,”78 in reality illuminates the Titus-Teraminta relationship through parallels and contrasts. The comparison, which shows Lucrece less favorably than she appears in her legendary image and in Brutus' descriptions of her, is nevertheless hinted by Brutus himself. He declares to Titus:

                                                                                                                        nay, on this,
This spotted blade, bath'd in the blood of Lucrece,
I'll make thee swear on this thy Wedding night
Thou wilt not touch thy Wife.
Swear too, and by the Soul of Ravish'd Lucrece,
Tho on thy Bridal night, thou wilt not touch her.(79)

Lucrece has been raped by Tarquin's son; Titus eagerly marries Tarquin's daughter. More to the point, Lucrece represents a repression of the healthy sensuality which, however exaggerated, is the most positive feature of Titus' response to Teraminta, even while it repels Brutus. Titus is ordered not to “touch” Teraminta; likewise, Lucrece tells her husband Collatine, “Away, and do not touch me: / Stand near, but touch me not.”80 Insisting the rape was no pleasure to her, Lucrece disjoints physical experience from mental and spiritual:

Oh think me not consenting once in thought,
Tho he in act possess'd his furious pleasure.(81)

Her subsequent suicide, in light of the obvious phallic significance of the dagger, paradoxically reenacts the physical violation of the rape except that it is voluntary, honorable, and sterile; in these respects it anticipates the killing of Titus by Valerius. For Brutus, in contrast to the “Lustful” rapist Sextus, Lucrece is

This perfect mould of Roman Chastity,
This Star of spotless and immortal Fame,
This pattern for all Wives …(82)

Her chaste coldness, its absoluteness emphasized by imagery of stars, implicitly opposes the sensual warmth of Titus and Teraminta:

Lucrece is fair; but chast, as the fann'd Snow
Twice bolted o're by the bleak Northern blasts:
So lies this Starry cold and frozen Beauty,
Still watch'd and guarded by her waking Virtue,
A pattern, tho I fear inimitable,
For all succeeding Wives.(83)

In what sense, then, is Lucius Junius Brutus a tragedy? Certainly it is marginal because of the way Lee splits the qualities of the traditional tragic protagonist among several characters, somewhat as Shakespeare does in Romeo and Juliet. In Shakespeare's play, which is a major source of Otway's Caius Marius and thus, at second hand, of Lee's play, the entire community must be considered the protagonist, no single figure such as Romeo possessing all the necessary qualities. Shakespeare's main characters, however, unlike Lee's, unmistakably represent separate persons. Perhaps a more instructive analogy is Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, itself often considered marginal to the genre, which Lee knew well and which he echoes startlingly in Lucius Junius Brutus.84 In Antony and Cleopatra, the tragic concern is that the fullest possible experience of life, symbolized by a combination of love and honor, Egyptian and Roman values, can paradoxically be encompassed only by going out of life. More generally in tragedy, since life is ongoing and dynamic, any affirmation of static, permanent values is inseparably bound up with an experience of fearful loss, frequently loss of the individual human life that is rendered meaningful by these values.

Lucius Junius Brutus dramatizes this tragic intertwining of gain and loss in the special context of the generational cycle. The quantity of loss is staggering: the beheading of Tiberius and other young Romans, the death of Titus, and the frustration of possible generational succession in the relationship between Titus and Teraminta. The disproportionate amount of innocent suffering usually unleashed in a tragedy is partially symbolized in Act V by the beating and death of Teraminta, as it is in Shakespeare by the sufferings of Desdemona, Ophelia, and Cordelia. On the side of gain, a minimal promise of generational continuity, biologically at least, is provided by the brief appearance in Act V of Brutus' young son Junius.85 As an affirmation of generational continuity at a more spiritual level, there is Titus' ecstatic conclusion that in his death he has bridged the “generation gap” by earning the recognition and approval of his father. Simultaneously, however, the manner of his death implies that the relationship of each generation to its predecessor must involve differences as well as identification. In dying, Titus conforms generally to his father's judgment, but in requesting that he die by Valerius' sword, a request approved by Valerius, he asserts his separate identity.86 For the symbolic castration of beheading is substituted the phallic self-assertion of the sword.

Valerius pronounces a valediction which is itself essentially a theory of tragedy:

Come then, I'll lead thee, O thou glorious Victim,
Thus to the Altar of untimely death,
Thus in thy trim, with all thy bloom of youth,
These Virtues on thee, whose eternal Spring
Shall blossom on thy Monumental Marble
With never fading glory.(87)

Through tragic ritual, the sacrifice of the human individual striving to achieve intangible and timeless goals is blended miraculously with the ever-changing cycles of nature—of the seasons, of individual lives, and of generations.


  1. All too typical is the comment by Dorothea Krook that in English drama, “there is in effect no tragedy worth speaking of since the Elizabethan-Jacobean period. The Restoration yields no serious tragedy”; see her Elements of Tragedy (New Haven and London, 1969), p. 117. For valuable criticisms that helped shape the final version of my paper, I am grateful to Professor Peter Verdurmen of the University of Cincinnati.

  2. The Works of Nathaniel Lee, ed. Thomas B. Stroup and Arthur L. Cooke (New Brunswick, N.J., 1954-55), II, 317; Nathaniel Lee, Lucius Junius Brutus, ed. John Loftis (Lincoln, 1967), Introduction, pp. xii-xiii. All quotations from Lee's play are taken from the Stroup-Cooke edition, designated hereafter as S-C.

  3. Giles Jacob, The Poetical Register (London, 1719), I, 162.

  4. The Lives and Characters of the English Dramatick Poets … First Begun by Mr. Lang bain, Improv'd and Continued down to This Time, by a Careful Hand (London, 1699), p. 85.

  5. The Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland (London, 1753), II, 230-231.

  6. Handbook to Restoration Drama (London, 1928), pp. 130-131.

  7. The Golden Labyrinth: A Study of British Drama (London, 1962), pp. 166-167. In the mid-eighteenth century, “Lucius Junius Brutus evidently was a significant factor in Lessing's development as a dramatist,” leading toward the “famous declaration of independence from French neo-classicism” which Lessing “issued in behalf of German drama,” according to Paul P. Kies, “Lessing and Lee,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology, XXVIII (1929), 402-409. In the nineteenth century, on the other side of the Atlantic, William Gilmore Simms, a contemporary of James Fenimore Cooper, transformed the climax of Lee's play into an incident in a novel of Indian life, The Yemassee (1835); see Frances M. Barbour, “William Gilmore Simms and the Brutus Legend,” Midwest Folklore, VII (1957), 159-162.

  8. The London Stage, Part 1: 1660-1700, ed. William Van Lennep (Carbondale, 1965), p. 293. Lee's consistent opposition to “divine right” doctrine in most of his plays is discussed by Frances Barbour, “The Unconventional Heroic Plays of Nathaniel Lee,” University of Texas Studies in English, XX (1940), 109-116.

  9. S-C, II, 353; Loftis, p. 50 (III.ii.11-16). See also S-C, II, 339-340, 354, 380, 383-384 (II.i.182-188; III.ii.59-67; V.ii.42-59, 193-210); Loftis, pp. 32, 51-52, 88-89, 93-94 (II.i.179-185; III.ii.59-67; V.ii.42-59, 193-210). Citations of Lee's text are provided for the relatively accessible Loftis edition as well as for S-C, with act, scene, and line numbers given separately for each edition if the line numbers differ.

  10. Convincingly argued by Loftis, p. xvi.

  11. S-C, II, 327; Loftis, pp. 11-12 (I.i.81-82).

  12. S-C, II, 337-338; Loftis, pp. 27-29. The prologue and epilogue to Lucius Junius Brutus make facetious use of the idea of “tyranny.”

  13. S-C, II, 344 (II.i.385, 388); Loftis, p. 38 (II.i.382, 385).

  14. S-C, II, 383, 378, 377, 344 (V.ii.156; V.i.125, 116; II.i.366-367); Loftis, pp. 92, 85, 5 (V.ii.156; V.i.125, 116; II.i.363-364).

  15. G. Wilson Knight observes, “What then is our conclusion? Simply this: that commonwealths no less than kingdoms may be built on appalling horrors and that there are opportunities for tyranny in both” (The Golden Labyrinth, p. 166).

  16. S-C, II, 348, 353; Loftis, pp. 43, 51 (III.i.15; III.ii.40-49).

  17. S-C, II, 338 (II.i.123); Loftis, p. 30 (II.i.120).

  18. Quoted from S-C, II, 336; Loftis, p. 26 (II.i.9-25). See also S-C, II, 355-356; Loftis, p. 5 (III.ii.139-146).

  19. S-C, II, 321; Loftis, p. 3.

  20. S-C, II, 368, 373; Loftis, pp. 71, 79 (IV.i.291-302, 548-560).

  21. E.g., S-C, II, 342 (II.i.280-287, 295-306); Loftis, pp. 35-36 (II.i.277-284, 292-303).

  22. Restoration Tragedy: Form and the Process of Change (Madison, 1967), pp. 91-96. The term “affective tragedy” was popularized by Rothstein's study.

  23. A contributing circumstance may have been the involvement of all three dramatists in contemporary politics.

  24. Lee's Lucrece recounts,

    When strait I wak'd, and found young Tarquin by me,
    His Robe unbutton'd, red and sparkling eyes,
    The flushing blood that mounted in his face …

    (S-C, II, 333 [I.i.369-371]; Loftis, p. 22 [I.i.366-368]). Cf. Venice Preserved, III.ii.181-183. Belvidera refers conspicuously to the rape of Lucrece (III.ii.7-9). The indebtedness of Venice Preserved to Lucius Junius Brutus is discussed by Roswell Gray Ham, Otway and Lee: Biography from a Baroque Age (New Haven, 1931), pp. 195-198.

  25. S-C, II, 351 (III.i.144); Loftis, p. 47 (III.i.145).

  26. S-C, II, 329 (I.i.202-203); Loftis, p. 16 (I.i.200-201).

  27. S-C, II, 343 (II.i.321-325); Loftis, p. 36 (II.i.318-322). Titus similarly declares that Teraminta is “No seed of Tarquin; … / A God thy Father was, a Goddess was his Wife” (S-C, II, 326; Loftis, p. 10 [I.i.43-44]).

  28. S-C, II, 330 (I.i.214-216); Loftis, p. 16 (I.i.212-214).

  29. S-C, II, 374; Loftis, p. 80 (IV.i.577-578).

  30. My discussion has been somewhat influenced by Norman N. Holland, The Dynamics of Literary Response (New York, 1968), and also by works by or about Erik H. Erikson, notably Erikson's own Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History (New York, 1958), which analyzes a son-father relationship.

  31. The implication is unmistakable in Brutus' concluding vision of the pax Romana, V.ii.193-210 (S-C, II, 383-384; Loftis, pp. 93-94). See also S-C, II, 327, 333, 339, 365, 372 (I.i.108-117, 341-343; II.i.143-146; IV.i.156-162, 507-514); Loftis, pp. 12-13, 21, 31, 66, 77-78 (I.i.108-117, 338-340; II.i.140-143; IV.i.156-162, 507-514).

  32. S-C, II, 366, 368, 377, 382; Loftis, pp. 69, 71, 84, 91 (IV.i.224-226, 312-314; V.i.92; V.ii.119) Lee's many references to “bowels” are emphasized by C. P. Vernier, “Footnotes to ‘Lucius Junius Brutus’ and ‘City Politiques,’” Notes and Queries, 215 (1970), 219-222; see also pp. 451-453. Relevant to Lee's play are the obsolete meaning of “bowels” as “children” and the notion that the bowels are the seat of compassion. Apparently there is no allusion to the ancient Roman practice of augury by examining the entrails of sacrificial animals.

    Northrop Frye describes his “sixth phase” of tragedy as “a world of shock and horror in which the central images are images of sparagmos, that is, cannibalism, mutilation, and torture.” Sparagmos is a “tearing to pieces,” “the tearing apart of the sacrificial body, an image found in the myths of Osiris, Orpheus, and Pentheus” as well as the story of Thyestes See Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, 1957), pp. 148, 192, 222.

  33. S-C, II, 327; Loftis, p. 12 (I.i.99-102).

  34. S-C, II, 332 (I.i.298-300); Loftis, p. 19 (I.i.295-297).

  35. S-C, II, 345 (II.i.439-450); Loftis, p. 40 (II.i.436-447). Tiberius, in IV.i.63-68, calls the popular leaders “the mutinous Heads o'th' People” and the “Commonwealth's men” the “limbs” (S-C, II, 362; Loftis, p. 63).

  36. S-C, II, 332 (I.i.302-338); Loftis, pp. 19-20 (I.i.299-335).

  37. S-C, II, 336; Loftis, p. 27 (II.i.31-34).

  38. S-C, II, 364; Loftis, p. 65 (IV.i.121).

  39. S-C, II, 363 (IV.i.102.2); Loftis, p. 64 (IV.i.102.1). Pierre, whose death-scene at the conclusion of Venice Preserved imitates that of Lee's Titus, undergoes a near-crucifixion; see Bessie Proffitt, “Religious Symbolism in Otway's Venice Preserv'd,” Papers on Language and Literature, VII (1971), 26-37, and Derek W. Hughes, “A New Look at Venice Preserv'd,” Studies in English Literature, XI (1971), 437-457.

  40. S-C, II, 335, 361, 362, 363, 366, 369, 368, 380 (I.i.455; IV.i.26, 32, 62, 102, 102.1, 233, 378, 315, 316; V.ii.38); Loftis, pp. 24, 62, 63, 64, 69, 73, 71, 88 (I.i.452; IV.i.26, 32, 62, 102, 102.1, 233, 378, 315, 316; V.ii.38). “These three big scenes of blood sacrifice” in Lee's play receive special comment from Philip Parsons, “Restoration Tragedy as Total Theatre,” in Restoration Literature: Critical Approaches, ed. Harold Love (London, 1972), pp. 60-63.

  41. S-C, II, 350-351; Loftis, p. 47 (III.i.133-137).

  42. S-C, II, 377-378; Loftis, p. 85 (V.i.118-121).

  43. “Antonio's masochism balances the sadistic blood-lust with which Renault's rapist inclinations are allied”; quoted from Gordon Williams, “The Sex-Death Motive in Otway's Venice Preserv'd,” Trivium, II (1967), 64.

  44. S-C, II, 331 (I.i.256-259); Loftis, pp. 17-18 (I.i.254-257).

  45. S-C, II, 376; Loftis, p. 83 (V.i.70, 71).

  46. S-C, II, 369; Loftis, p. 72 (IV.i.330-336).

  47. S-C, II, 372; Loftis, p. 77 (IV.i.487-490). See also S-C, II, 342 (II.i.295-309); Loftis, pp. 35-36 (II.i.292-306).

  48. S-C, II, 374, 342, 371-372 (IV.i.577-578; II.i.313; IV.i.453-486); Loftis, pp. 80, 36, 76-77 IV.i.577-578; II.i.310; IV.i.453-486).

  49. S-C, II, 378, 383; Loftis, pp. 86, 92, 93 (V.i.162; V.ii.153, 182-186).

  50. S-C, II, 330, 346 (I.i.247; II.i.490-492); Loftis, pp. 17, 41 (I.i.245; II.i.487-489).

  51. S-C, II, 370, 371, 372, 373; Loftis, pp. 74, 76, 77, 78 (IV.i.397-404, 466, 501-502, 534-535).

  52. S-C, II, 365-366, 374; Loftis, pp. 67-68, 79 (IV.i.194-198, 567-572).

  53. S-C, II, 358, 359; Loftis, pp. 57, 58 (III.iii.96-98, 127-129). See also S-C, II, 359; Loftis, p. 59 (III.iii.139-141).

  54. S-C, II, 342 (II.i.290); Loftis, p. 35 (II.i.287).

  55. S-C, II, 359; Loftis, p. 58 (III.iii.130-135). See also S-C, II, 357; Loftis, pp. 55-56 (III.iii.32-39).

  56. S-C, II, 364; Loftis, p. 65 (IV.i.135-141).

  57. S-C, II, 325, 343, 356, 357, 369 (I.i.6-7; II.i.328-330; III.iii.14, 59; IV.i.361); Loftis, pp. 9, 36, 55, 56, 73 (I.i.6-7; II.i.325-327; III.iii.14, 59; IV.i.361).

  58. S-C, II, 315, 322 (the motto from the Aeneid), 328, 350, 353, 354, 383; Loftis, pp. 2, 5 (the motto), 13, 46, 50, 52, 93 (I.i.144; III.i.104-105; III.ii.12-22, 84; V.ii.188-190).

  59. S-C, II, 325, 326, 356-357, 360; Loftis, pp. 9, 10, 55-56, 60 (I.i.1-10, 44-50; III.iii.22-48, 171-179).

  60. S-C, II, 325-326, 347, 360 (I.i.1-69; II.i.513-528; III.iii.168-179); Loftis, pp. 9-11, 42, 60 (I.i.1-69; II.i.510-525; III.iii.168-179). According to Loftis, “we are … repelled by the luxuriance” of Titus' “passionate language” (pp. xxii-xxiii; also p. xxi).

  61. S-C, II, 365, 369; Loftis, pp. 66-67, 73 (IV.i.167-173, 353-362).

  62. S-C, II, 383; Loftis, p. 92 (V.ii.159-164).

  63. S-C, II, 331 (I.i.270-280); Loftis, p. 18 (I.i.268-278).

  64. S-C, II, 379; Loftis, p. 87 (V.i.176-181).

  65. S-C, II, 383-384; Loftis, pp. 93-94 (V.ii.193-210). Other details constantly stress the theme of “fatherhood”: the “Conscript Fathers” of the Senate, the “Pater Patratus” who heads the Fecialian priests, Lee's dedication of the play to his “patron,” the earl of Dorset, and his statement that “I was troubled for my dumb Play, like a Father for his dead Child” (S-C, II, 380, 354, 321, 322; Loftis, pp. 88, 89, 52, 3, 5 [V.ii.23, 60; III.ii.88]).

  66. S-C, II, 368; Loftis, p. 71 (IV.i.301).

  67. S-C, II, 339 (II.i.165); Loftis, p. 31 (II.i.162). See also S-C, II, 327; Loftis, p. 12 (I.i.107-108)

  68. S-C, II, 370; Loftis, p. 73 (IV.i.386). See also Teraminta's “matchless Virtue,” V.ii.165 (S-C, II, 383; Loftis, p. 92).

  69. S-C, II, 325; Loftis, p. 10 (I.i.26-27).

  70. S-C, II, 372; Loftis, p. 77 (IV.i.487).

  71. See also S-C, II, 326, 327, 331, 339, 357, 375, 380, 384 (I.i.42, 105, 271; II.i.164; III.iii.39, 62; V.i.15; V.ii.61, 198); Loftis, pp. 10, 12, 18, 31, 56, 81, 89, 93 (I.i.42, 105, 269; II.i.161; III.iii.39, 62; V.i.15; V.ii.61, 198).

  72. S-C, II, 334-335 (I.i.423-432); Loftis, pp. 23-24 (I.i.420-429).

  73. S-C, II, 342 (II.i.311-312); Loftis, p. 36 (II.i.308-309).

  74. S-C, II, 347 (II.i.523-528); Loftis, p. 42 (II.i.520-525).

  75. Brutus' confusion is anticipated in the imagery he uses in I.i.130-133 (S-C, II, 328; Loftis, p. 13), where he soliloquizes concerning his actions of the preceding twenty years

    O Rome, O Mother, be thou th'impartial Judge
    If this be Virtue, which yet wants a name.
    Which never any Age could parallel,
    And worthy of the foremost of thy Sons.

    Later, faced with his sons' defection, he momentarily doubts his ability to interpret divine justice:

    The Councils of the Gods are fathomless;
    Nay, 'tis the hardest task perhaps of life
    To be assur'd of what is Vice or Virtue.

    (S-C, II, 367-368; Loftis, p. 70 [IV.i.275-277])

  76. A circumstance of which Lee reminds us at III.ii.83 (S-C, II, 354; Loftis, p. 52).

  77. As early as his second speech of the play, Valerius, mindful of Brutus' human limitations, warns him to “remember, tho his vertue / Soar to the Gods, he is a Roman still (S-C, II, 341 [II.i.247-248]; Loftis, p. 34 [II.i.245-246]).

  78. The Patriot; or, The Italian Conspiracy (London, 1703), Preface, sig. A3r-A3v.

  79. S-C, II, 343, 344 (II.i.345-348, 399-400); Loftis, pp. 37, 38 (II.i.342-345, 396-397).

  80. S-C, II, 333 (I.i.348-349); Loftis, p. 21 (I.i.345-346).

  81. S-C, II, 334 (I.i.397-398); Loftis, p. 22 (I.i.394-395).

  82. S-C, II, 339 (II.i.163-165); Loftis, p. 31 (II.i.160-162).

  83. S-C, II, 327; Loftis, p. 12 (I.i.103-108). May one suspect in this passage a source for Keats's “Bright Star” sonnet?

  84. In III.iii.60-62 (S-C, II, 357; Loftis, p. 56):

    Nay, as thou art, thus with thy trappings, come,
    Leap to my heart, and ride upon the pants,
    Triumphing thus.

    Cf. Antony and Cleopatra, IV.viii.14-16. This obvious borrowing is not noted in the discussion of Lucius Junius Brutus by Anton Wülker, Shakespeares Einfluss auf die dramatische Kunst von Nathaniel Lee (Emsdetten, 1933), pp. 45-50.

  85. S-C, II, 381; Loftis, p. 90 (V.ii.96-113).

  86. Significantly, in Venice Preserved Otway turns this final gesture into an existential defiance of society and the universe through the affirmation of an arbitrarily chosen code of honor, closely resembling the death of the hero in a typical story by Ernest Hemingway. In Lee's play, however, because of the strongly normative function of Valerius, Titus' death signifies a healing and a reintegration into the ongoing processes of society.

  87. S-C, II, 379; Loftis, p. 86 (V.i.169-174).

R. D. Hume (essay date 1976)

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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 jealousy. In the novel, Nemours is an attractive and honorable man, though not a wholly blameless one. Lee turns him into a brutal and cynical whoremonger, and onto Madame de La Fayette's delicate and aristocratic tale he grafts an apparently disjunct middle-class cuckolding plot. Even the genre of the resulting play has been sharply disputed. Allardyce Nicoll calls the work a straight “tragedy,” as do Harbage and Schoenbaum in the Annals of English Drama. Montague Summers cautiously refrains from specifying a type. Thomas B. Stroup declares the work to be the prototype for “sentimental” comedy, while James Sutherland hails it as a “satiric” comedy. In the terminology of its own time, the play is probably best considered, as Langbaine describes it, a “Tragi-comedy,” since it does comprise a radically split plot.1 Lee himself sardonically dubs the piece a “Farce, Comedy, Tragedy or meer Play” (II, 153).2

As might be expected, critical evaluations of the play are wildly varied. For the most part they are extremely derogatory. Nicoll characterizes it as “ineffectual and worthless,” considering the plot “chaotic” and the atmosphere “corrupt.” He finds “not the slightest hint even of poetic and true dramatic sentiment,” and concludes a summary dismissal by likening the play “to a rotting dung-heap” (I, 147). R. G. Ham offers a similar appraisal: offended by “bawdry” he finds “nothing” in the play to recommend it.3 Genest says that the serious part is “somewhat dull,” but that “the comic part is very good,” and adds somewhat cryptically: “Nemours is a spirited character.”4 Evidently he enjoyed the “cynical and irreligious” part of the work which so offends Nicoll and Ham. John Harrington Smith says more neutrally that the play “furnishes some of the most brutal free gallantry in the period.”5 To what end it does so Smith does not even hazard a guess, but evidently he considers it a “cynical” comedy. Lee's editors argue both that “this coarseness was an intentional satire upon the immorality of the day,” and that in the characters of the Prince and Princess of Cleve and in Nemours' “reform” we have the basis of sentimental comedy. Simultaneously to categorize a play with The Country-Wife and The Plain-Dealer and to praise its “sentimentalism” strikes me, at least, as something of a paradox. The one intelligently favorable critical appraisal comes in a regrettably brief comment in Sutherland's Ohel volume, where the suggestion is offered that Lee was deliberately debunking a rake hero. This seems to me absolutely correct. I think, however, that we can go considerably further in the play's defense.

Clearly The Princess of Cleve presents a number of knotty problems. Most broadly, we need to ask what the point of it is. Why does Lee combine smut and sentiment? Why does he travesty his source? We need to know how seriously to take Nemours' reform, whether the two plots are genuinely disjunct, and just what part the recently deceased Earl of Rochester has in the play. This last point adds an extrinsic complication to an already formidable tangle of literary problems. I think I can show beyond reasonable doubt that (a) the play is—as Montague Summers claims—a fierce though partially disguised satiric attack on Rochester; (b) Lee makes skilful and purposeful use of his source; and (c) the apparently peculiar double plot is a brilliantly designed satiric debunking of both the libertine ethos of Carolean sex comedy and the heroic and précieuse conventions of contemporary tragedy.


Before we launch into a consideration of the play itself, some historical problems and circumstances demand attention. The date of the play's composition and production have never been determined; it is textually entangled with two other plays by Lee; and in view of Lee's rather drastic change in political outlook sometime after 1680, its sequential place in his canon is of some importance to the interpreter.

We possess no performance records for The Princess of Cleve: the evidence that it was in fact performed is (a) Dryden's prologue and epilogue, printed in his Miscellany Poems of 1684; (b) the title page of the first edition (1689), which specifies “As it was Acted at the Queens Theatre in Dorset-Garden”; (c) the partial cast printed with that quarto—which unhappily gives no help with the date;6 and (d) John Downes' comment in Roscius Anglicanus (1708) that the play succeeded less well than Lee's others. Nicoll's date, “c. September 1681,” is nothing more than a blind guess. The editors of the Annals are more cautious, saying “1680-1681.” The London Stage lists the play under September 1680 with the explanation that “a reference to the death of the Earl of Rochester (26 July 1680) suggests that the play probably followed that event rather closely.”7 This reference to the demise of “Count Rosidore,” however, is merely a passing insertion and red-herring: the play's principal reference to Rochester is in the character of Nemours, and if one accepts the highly plausible notion that the whole play is a posthumous comment upon Rochester, then one must allow several months, at least, for composition and production. A date in the middle of the 1680-81 season seems the earliest possible. Actually, a markedly later date is extremely probable. Thomas Farmer's music for the play is dated December 1682,8 and the first of several songs published from it appeared in the “Fourth Book” of Choice Ayres and Songs (1683). In all likelihood then the play was being prepared for production in December 1682 and was staged a little later that season.

The peculiar relationship of The Princess of Cleve to Lee's The Massacre of Paris makes a relatively late date all the more likely. Consider the sequence of Lee's plays. Mithridates appeared in February 1678; Oedipus—a collaboration with Dryden—in September 1678; Caesar Borgia in the spring or summer of 1679; Theodosius probably in early summer 1680. Lucius Junius Brutus, ideologically a fiercely Whig play, was banned after three to six nights (authorities differ) in December 1680. In view of these dates, I doubt that Lee was producing yet another play in the spring, summer, or autumn of 1680. His next documented play is The Duke of Guise, a militantly Tory play written in collaboration with Dryden, banned in July 1682 but allowed on the stage the following November. Lee's last play, Constantine the Great, another Tory manifesto, was staged in November 1683. By the next year he was at least intermittently confined to Bedlam. This leaves 1681 a blank; it also leaves us wondering where to fit in The Princess of Cleve and The Massacre of Paris, which must precede it.

Lee's Dedication of The Princess of Cleve (published in May 1689) is a plea to Dorset, then Lord Chamberlain, to license The Massacre of Paris for production the following autumn—which in fact Dorset promptly did. (Why The Princess of Cleve waited so long before publication, at a time when a lapse of no more than a year between performance and print was normal,9 is a problem to be considered in due course.) This Dedication gives us two decidedly helpful pieces of information. First, though Lee was indignant, he was “forc'd” by the “Refusal” of The Massacre “to limb my own Child”—that is, to re-use bits of it in other plays. Second, “what was borrowed in the Action is left out in the Print”—which accounts for some rough patches in the published form of The Princess.

Looking back to the chronology of Lee's works, we are confronted with two possibilities, without having any hard evidence to determine which is correct. First, Lee wrote The Massacre in the spring of 1679 at the height of the anti-Catholic hysteria of the Popish Plot (ipso facto likely enough), and then sat on it for two or three years before cannibalizing it. Second, in the spring or summer of 1681, following the banning of Lucius Junius Brutus, Lee decided to write a propaganda piece whose “loyalty” could not be called in question, but found to his mortification that the French ambassador had enough influence to get the piece stopped. Despairing of ever getting it staged, Lee then used bits of it when he set to work on The Princess of Cleve and The Duke of Guise in late 1681 or early 1682.10 Certainly he seems to link the composition of The Princess directly to The Massacre when he says in the Dedication that the former “was a Revenge for the Refusal of the other.”

Obviously I incline to the second theory, though from the subject matter one might expect The Massacre to be written at the earlier date. Several pieces of evidence make the later date plausible, however. First, there is the apparent linking with the composition of The Princess. Second, I doubt that the perpetually indigent Lee would have held a play unperformed for two years. Third, had The Massacre already been banned, Lee would hardly have gone on to write the far more obviously objectionable Lucius Junius Brutus, especially when he badly needed money and would not have wanted to risk another banning. Fourth, as violently anti-Catholic a play as Settle's The Female Prelate was allowed on stage as late as June 1680: why should The Massacre have been singled out, among several such plays? Fifth, a related point: until Lucius Junius Brutus in December 1680 (stopped during its first run), there is no recorded instance of major censorship or refusal of license during the Popish Plot period. After that, excisions and bannings are numerous, as in the cases of Tate's Richard the Second, Shadwell's The Lancashire Witches, Crowne's Henry the Sixth and City Politiques, and the Dryden-Lee Duke of Guise within the next eighteen months.11

Questions of date and sequence are of special import because at some time between Lucius Junius Brutus and The Duke of Guise Lee performed a remarkable political turnabout. A radical who had consistently written against the divine right of kings,12 Lee abruptly joined Dryden in a play which fiercely defends Charles II and the Tory view of the succession question. Worse yet, from the Whig point of view, Lee proceeded to utilize mob scenes from The Massacre of Paris, inverting their meaning so that what had been defended was now besmirched. Curiously enough, Lee's erstwhile Whig friends, as Frances Barbour observes, “instead of attacking Lee's apostasy … charged Dryden with leading Lee astray.” In his Vindication of the Duke of Guise (1683), Dryden refutes “the Accusation, that this Play was once written by another, and then 'twas call'd the Parisian Massacre: Such a Play, I have heard indeed was written; but I never saw it. Whether this be any of it or no, I can say no more, than for my own part of it. … I have enquired, why it was not Acted, and heard it was stopt, by the interposition of an Ambassador. … But that I tempted my Friend to alter it, is a notorious Whiggism to save the broader Word [lie].”13 What caused Lee's change of side we cannot say. The exclusion crisis reached its peak during 1681, and perhaps Lee, like many others, came to fear the chaos and potential civil war which a forcible change in the succession threatened. He had been friendly with and greatly influenced by Dryden as early as 1677. By late 1681 Lee had written a poem in praise of Absalom and Achitophel—though he was initially ignorant of the authorship.

We need not assume that The Massacre is wholly the product of Whig partisanship, and hence antithetical to the principles of The Duke of Guise. Dryden's The Spanish Fryar (November 1680) is, after all, a fiercely anti-Catholic play. The Whigs had no monopoly there. I would hypothesize that Lee wrote the play during early 1681 while his political views were shifting, had it banned, and lifted a pair of key emotional scenes for a new play, The Princess of Cleve. Finally despairing of ever getting The Massacre performed, he then borrowed more fully from it while working on his parts of The Duke of Guise in the first months of 1682. Why The Princess was not performed more quickly is easy to explain: the Duke's Company already had a rather full schedule of new productions. January brought The Royalist and Mr. Turbulent to the stage; February saw Venice Preserv'd, March Vertue Betray'd and Like Father like Son, April The City Heiress. The King's Company collapsed in March and merger negotiations occupied the actors' attention. The highly topical Duke of Guise was planned for July; otherwise only one new play was tried between April and the full union of the two companies in November—the anonymous Romulus and Hersilia. Plays from major writers were not usually premiered during the summer.

Whatever the date of The Massacre of Paris—and we shall probably never be certain—we may feel reasonably sure that The Princess of Cleve was conceived and written in late 1681 or early 1682, at a time when Lee's whole sense of values and ideology had just undergone a violent reversal. I think we can usefully hypothesize that the moral flux in the play, its violence and bitterness, represent not a freakish outburst on Lee's part, but rather reflect the spiritual turmoil and unsettling self-questioning through which Lee must have been suffering. Any man capable of writing as powerfully anti-monarchical a play as Lucius Junius Brutus, plainly a work of passionate conviction, cannot blithely bow to political expedience and produce a Tory manifesto like The Duke of Guise. The process of transition, I believe, brought forth the peculiar and disconcerting Princess of Cleve.


Madame de La Fayette's novel was published in Paris in 1678 and appeared in an English translation the following year. That Lee worked from the translation is demonstrated by his following its error “Cleve” for “Clèves” in the running title. The original is a delicate but impassioned account of extramarital love, concentrating on the intense psychological agony generated. The noble prince and his virtuous wife, torn by her conflicting ethical and sexual impulses, are dissected with a cool but sympathetic exactness which leaves them stature while rendering them human. Nemours is equally well analyzed, an attractive and honorable man who fails to control a passion which overcomes will and reason. Despite his prominence in the story, Nemours is more an agent brought to bear on the others than a principal. Motives are the real subject of the tale—especially as the characters misunderstand and deceive themselves. Should the Princess have confessed her feelings to her husband? A nice problem! Obviously this love-and-ethics-ridden triangle offers straightforward tragic potentialities, and the story was indeed employed by Boursault in a tragedy (lost) staged in 1679. To imagine the passions and conflicts of the novel straightforwardly translated into dramatic form simply makes clearer how radically Lee chose to depart from the original.

In Lee's play the Prince and Princess are essentially unchanged, but they fade into secondary characters as Nemours becomes the focal point of the work. Madame de La Fayette's original title was Le Prince de Clèves; her final title indicates a recognition of the passivity of the Prince as tragic hero, and the importance of his wife's psychology as the key to the story. Lee's play could accurately be entitled: The Slimy Amours of the Wicked Duke Nemours. If this strikes the reader as a shocking, flippant, and degrading suggestion—good. That is, I think, exactly the reaction Lee wants. Leaving the Prince and Princess good, noble, and heroic, Lee shunts them to one side and focuses on a much-changed Nemours. In his Dedication he gloats over the shock this picture gave the audience: “when they expected the most polish'd Hero in Nemours, I gave 'em a Ruffian reeking from Whetstone's-Park [a whores' hangout]” (II, 153). To any reader of Madame de La Fayette's lovely novel, the shock is indeed considerable.

We are introduced to Nemours on the first page of the play. He is philosophizing to Bellamore, a young man he addresses as “My bosom Dear” and “my sweet-fac'd Pimp.” His solemn advice to his young paramour is blunt and to the point: “Sirrah, stick to clean Pleasures, deep Sleep, moderate Wine, sincere Whores, and thou art happy” (II, 157). Nemours' bisexuality is underlined several times in the play, as when he addresses Bellamore: “Thou Dear Soft Rogue, my Spouse, my Hephestion, my Ganymed, nay, if I dye to night my Dukedom's thine” (II, 177), and when he makes explicit his desire to “make a Mistress” of the Prince of Cleve (II, 204).14

In the first two scenes of the play we learn that Nemours is pursuing the Princess of Cleve, who has just married his dearest friend; he is contracted to marry the noble and beautiful Marguerite; he has seduced and abandoned the unhappy Tournon; and Tournon is now pimping for him, and has in prospect Elianor and Celia, wives of two foolish cits. Through the play we follow the complex process of his pursuit of this bevy of females. Nemours is a goatishly insatiable whoremonger. “No new Game[?]” he enquires of Tournon; “thou knowest I dye directly without variety” (II, 160). Friendship, one of the strongest bonds of obligation in Restoration codes, exerts no restraining influence on him.15 Even Bellamore repines at Nemours' designs on the Princess: “methinks 'tis hard, because the Prince of Cleve loves you as his Life.” Nemours coolly replies: “I sav'd his Life, Sweet-heart, when he was assaulted by a mistake in the dark, and shall he grudge me a little Fooling with his Wife, for so serious an Obligation?” (II, 178).

Nemours' ugly lies to Marguerite throughout the play (e.g., II, 186) culminate in the scene in which, disguised, she allows him to seduce her, gains his solemn oath never to touch any woman but her, unmasks and reproaches him. To her bitter observation, “Oaths with you Libertines of Honour are to little purpose,” Nemours rejoins “Take you your Ramble Madam, and I'll take mine” (II, 201-202). Nemours gloats over the Princess' love for him (II, 183), sends Bellamore off to an assignation in his stead (having accidentally scheduled two for the same time—II, 203), and tearfully assures the Prince of Cleve of his undying love and friendship (II, 206). Nemours is, in short, a monster, though a glamorous and successful one. Nemours has wit, gaiety, brains, and exuberant energy—qualities which in an ordinary comedy would make him very appealing indeed. The original casting would have helped bring out his appeal, since the part was acted by Thomas Betterton, a performer whose heroic overtones must have made an effective contribution to the shocking disparity between Nemours' superficially attractive appearance and his degraded moral reality. Betterton was a great Hamlet, Brutus, Macbeth, Lear (in Tate's version), and Jaffeir (in Venice Preserv'd). To send him prancing through Nemours' squalid antics must have produced an effect akin to Twain's “Royal Nonesuch.”

Nemours' view of the world is ruthlessly hedonistic: any pretense to another standard he considers hypocritical. The Vidam of Chartres (whose “sowre Morals” Nemours complains of) reproaches him as “the Whores Ingrosser. … Believe me Sir, in a little time you'll be nick'd the Town-Bull.” To this criticism of his “Obscenity” Nemours replies:

Why 'tis the way of ye all, only you sneak with it [a loaded pronoun] under your Cloaks like Taylors and Barbers; and I, as a Gentleman shou'd do, walk with it in my hand. For prithee observe, does not your Priest the same thing? did not I see Father Patrick declaiming against Flesh in Lent, strip up to the Elbow; and telling the Congregation he had eat nothing but Fish these twenty years, yet protest to the Ladies, that Fat Arm of his, which was a chopping one, was the least Member about him? … Does not your Politician, your little great Man of bus'ness, that sets the World together by the Ears, after all his Plotting, Drudging and Sweating at Lying, retire to some little Punk and untap at night?

(II, 178)

Similar passages could be multiplied ad nauseam. Consequently Nemours' closing speech, if read straight, comes as a considerable surprise.

For my part, the Death of the Prince of Cleve, upon second thoughts, has so truly wrought a change in me, as nothing else but a Miracle cou'd—For first I see, and loath my Debaucheries—Next, while I am in Health, I am resolv'd to give satisfaction to all I have wrong'd; and first to this Lady [Marguerite], whom I will make my Wife before all this Company e'er we part—This, I hope, whenever I dye, will convince the World of the Ingenuity of my Repentance, because I had the power to go on.

He well Repents that will not Sin, yet can,
But Death-bed Sorrow rarely shews the Man.

(II, 226)

Much turns on how we read this astonishing speech. Thomas B. Stroup feels that Nemours is “good at heart”: “His attempt upon the Princess sobers him and brings him to the realization that he has greatly wronged the faithful Marguerite.” But if Lee means this reform to be taken literally, it is left so perfunctory as to be entirely unconvincing. Unlike Stroup, I cannot leave the play feeling that Lee delights in “the repentance of the rake” and means to tout “the natural goodness of man in the character of Nemours.” Exactly forty lines before the final speech Nemours replies to the Princess' announcement that she will never see him again: “She Lyes, I'll Wager my State, I Bed her eighteen months three weeks hence, at half an hour past two in the Morning. … I know the Souls of Women better than they know themselves” (II, 225). This suggests neither reform nor goodness of heart.

An examination of some key passages will show that there is no sudden change of heart at the end; that Nemours has long been seriously attracted to Marguerite, and does not intend to lose her; and that his “reform” is a carefully devised piece of bait. After a stormy encounter with Marguerite in IV.i. Nemours comments:

                                                            Yet when I see my time I must recall her,
For she has admirable things in her, such as if I gain not, the Princess of
Cleve may fix me to her, without nauseating the Vice of Constancy.

(II, 203)

The punctuation in this slovenly quarto is often problematical: delete the comma after “not” and add one after “Cleve,” and one gets a different, perhaps a better meaning for this speech. But the determination not to lose Marguerite is clear. A little later Nemours debates with himself—what if the Prince dies? “Shall I Marry the Princess of Cleve, or stick to Marguerite as we are? for 'tis most certain she has rare things in her, which I found by my last Experiment, and I love her more than ever, almost to Jealousie; … I'll throw boldly, clear the Table if I can, if not, 'tis but at last forswearing Play, shake off my new acquaintance, and be easie with my reserve” (II, 210). Nemours wants both women. But Marguerite's renunciation of him rouses his jealousy. “Lose her I must not, no, I'll lose a Limb first, [to Tournon] therefore go tell her, tell her the Prince of Cleve's Death has wrought my Conversion, I grow weary of my wild Courses, repent of my Sins, am resolv'd to leave off Whoreing and marry his Wife” (II, 218). He promptly proposes marriage to the Princess, who loves him dearly but sees all too clearly that his affections will soon wander, despite his solemn protestation that “Once to be yours, is to be for ever yours, / Yours only, without thought of other Woman” (II, 223). He threatens suicide, but she departs anyway, whereupon he utters his boast about bedding her in due course, and sets out to regain Marguerite.

Heark there without, the voice of Marguerite,
Now thou shalt see a Battle worth the gazing,
Mark but how easily my reason flings her.

(II, 225)16

In short, Nemours' “reform” is nothing more than a cleverly calculated scheme to persuade Marguerite into marriage. He may “love” her (whatever that means by his lights—we have gathered that she is something extraordinary in bed), but the leopard has not changed his spots.

To what end does Lee accomplish this stunning degradation of Madame de La Fayette's “polish'd Hero”? The literary effect will be considered in the next section. But Lee clearly had a more personal and vindictive motive as well. As Montague Summers points out, Duke Nemours is a stage representation of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester.17 We know very little about Lee's personal relations with Rochester. On slender evidence R. G. Ham asserts that “to Lee the name of Rochester was almost beyond praise” (Otway and Lee, p. 49), an opinion founded partly on Lee's rhapsodic Dedication of Nero (publ. 1675), and partly on the “Count Rosidore” passage in The Princess of Cleve. That Lee initially worshipped Rochester is likely enough, but that he continued to do so after about 1677 is implausible. Rochester's “Allusion to Horace,” probably written in the winter of 1675-76, calls Lee “a hot-brained fustian fool” who belongs “In Busby's hands, to be well lashed at school.” As David Vieth observes, by 1677 Lee had deserted (or been rejected by) the “Rochester-Shadwell” clique, and aligned himself with “the Dryden-Mulgrave axis.” Rochester has been exonerated from responsibility for Dryden's Rose Alley beating in 1679, but the hostility between the two camps is notorious.18

We may then be surprised to find in The Princess of Cleve what Pinto calls “a touching tribute” to Rochester, “clearly the product of genuine affection and admiration.”19 This passage is likewise taken at face value by Ham, Vieth, and others.

                    He that was the Life, the Soul of Pleasure,
Count Rosidore, is dead.
                                                                                          Then we may say
Wit was and Satyr is a Carcass now.
I thought his last Debauch wou'd be his Death—
But is it certain?
                                                            Yes I saw him dust.
I saw the mighty thing a nothing made,
Huddled with Worms, and swept to that cold Den,
Where Kings lye crumbled just like other Men.
                    Nay then let's Rave and Elegize together,
Where Rosidore is now but common clay. …
He was the Spirit of Wit—and had such an art in guilding his
Failures, that it was hard not to love his Faults: He never spoke a
Witty thing twice, tho to different Persons; his Imperfections were
catching, and his Genius was so Luxuriant, that he was forc'd to
tame it with a Hesitation in his Speech to keep it in view—but oh
how awkward, how insipid, how poor and wretchedly dull is the
imitation of those that have all the affectation of his Verse and
none of his Wit.

(II, 162)

Two other, much briefer passages, usually ignored, should be set beside this glowing tribute.

The Fury of Wine and Fury of Women possess me waking and sleeping; let me Dream of nothing but dimpl'd Cheeks, and laughing Lips, and flowing Bowls, Venus be my Star, and Whoring my House, and Death I defie thee. Thus sung Rosidore in the Urn.

(II, 188)

[TOURNON, of Nemours]
Go thy ways Petronius, nay, if he were dying too, with his Veins cut, he wou'd call for Wine, Fiddles and Whores, and laugh himself into the other World.

(II, 218)

These three passages, together with Nemours' closing speech, clearly allude to Rochester. And there is a progression from mention of his death to a sharp query about deathbed conversion.

Pinto, Ham, and others take the first passage as a spontaneous tribute to Rochester, interpolated into the play as a topical compliment soon after Rochester's death. I propose, rather, that Lee inserts it as a device to bring Rochester to mind.20 Nemours, fatally attractive but vicious, is a portrait of “what Rochester was really like.” And in the series of four more or less direct allusions to Rochester Lee moves from high compliment (out of Nemours' mouth, we should remember) to what Summers calls the “scorpion sting” of the final couplet:

He well Repents that will not Sin, yet can,
But Death-bed Sorrow rarely shews the Man.

Rochester's celebrated deathbed conversion, widely publicized in Robert Parsons' A Sermon preached at the Earl of Rochester's Funeral and Bishop Burnet's Some Passages of the Life and Death of the Right Honourable John Earl of Rochester (1680), is here viewed sardonically, to say the least.

Rochester, Lee tells us, was a Nemours. Significantly, I think, Lee's 1689 epilogue picks up the notion of “Wit,” for which “Count Rosidore” is praised so highly. A question is posed: “What is this Wit which Cowley cou'd not name?” The epilogue concludes: “'Tis like the Comedy you have to day, / A Bulling Gallant in a wanton Play.” “Bulling” here means “fraudulent, scheming”: put Nemours' praise together with Lee's epilogue, and the result is yet another blunt authorial comment.

Would an attack on Rochester have been timely in 1682? Would anyone have cared about it? Quite by chance, we can answer these questions decisively and affirmatively. On 26 June 1682 the Lord Chamberlain forbade the acting of a new comedy by John Crowne, City Politiques. As with The Duke of Guise (forbidden in July), the ban was lifted at the end of the autumn, and the United Company staged the play in January—a savage lampoon on Titus Oates, Stephen College, and the Whig faction. But “Libels may prove costly things,” as Crowne notes in his Preface, declaiming against “barbarous cowardly Assassinates.” This reference is explained by a passage in the Morrice Entry Book: “Mr Crowne was cudgled on Wednesday last in St Martin's Lane and hee that beat him said hee did it at the suite of [i.e., in behalf of] the Earle of Rochester some time since deceased who was greatly abused in the play for his penetency & c.”21 Exception was evidently taken to Florio, “A Debauch, who pretends to be Dying of the Diseases his Vices brought upon him, and penitent, in love with Rosaura.” The rakish Artall impersonates him at various points in the play, driving home Crowne's lesson in the sexual success of hypocrisy.

Thus we have another play, written and performed at almost exactly the dates I have hypothesized for The Princess of Cleve, in which Rochester is a satiric target. I think we can conclude both that Rochester's debauchery and penitence remained topical in 1683 and that to attack him for them was physically dangerous. This helps account for three puzzling facts about The Princess of Cleve. First, Lee is careful not to associate Nemours directly with Rochester, except by implication in the final speech. Second, the obvious and glowing initial reference to Rochester can serve as a shield against criticism—even if it does turn out to be Nemours' view of Rochester, not Lee's. And third, Lee's failure to publish the play in 1683 is entirely comprehensible if we suppose that he reflected on Crowne's experience and hesitated to expose his partially disguised attack to the close scrutiny which print allows.


On a personal and historical level The Princess of Cleve is a savage attack on Rochester. But the play also functions in a literary frame of reference. Nemours becomes the representative of the libertine ethos so common in the sex comedies of the Carolean period, and in so doing he becomes a touchstone by which we judge the heroic ethos represented by the Prince and Princess of Cleve. There are two worlds in the play, one courtly and refined, the other crass and bourgeois. Disconcertingly, Nemours bridges the gap, functioning comfortably in both.

The Prince and Princess, painfully noble, honest, and decent, customarily speak in the high-flown blank-verse rhetoric of Restoration tragedy. For example, at the end of the “confession” scene we are given the following exchange:

                    The study of my Life shall be to love you.
                    Never, Oh never! I were mad to hope it,
Yet thou shalt give me leave to fold thy hand,
To press it with my Lips, to sigh upon it,
And wash it with my Tears—
                    I cannot bear this kindness without dying.
                    Nay, we will walk and talk sometimes together,
Like Age we'll call to mind the Pleasures past;
Pleasures like theirs, which never shall return,
For Oh! my Chartres, since thy Heart's estrang'd,
The pleasure of thy Beauty is no more,
Yet I each night will see thee softly laid,
Kneel by thy side, and when thy Vows are paid,
Take one last kiss, e'er I to Death retire,
Wish that the Heav'ns had giv'n us equal fire;
Then sigh, it cannot be, and so expire.

(II, 182)

When Nemours falsely clears himself of responsibility for the dropped letter,22 the Princess exclaims

O 'tis too much, I'm lost, I'm lost agen—
The Duke has clear'd himself, to the confusion
Of all my settl'd Rage, and vow'd Revenge;
And now he shews more lovely than before:
He comes agen to wake my sleeping Passion,
To rouze me into Torture; O the Racks
Of hopeless Love! it shoots, it glows, it burns,
And thou alas! shalt shortly close my Eyes.

(II, 169)

This is melodramatic bombast, though less inflated than the worst excesses typical of Lee's 1670's style. But, very significantly, Nemours insincerely indulges in the same sort of rhetoric, making it flagrantly bombastic.

[To the Princess]
                    Behold a Slave that Glories in your Chains,
                    Ah! with some shew of Mercy view my Pains;
                    Your piercing Eyes have made their splendid way,
                    Where Lightning cou'd not pass—
                    Even through my Soul their pointed Lustre goes,
                    And Sacred Smart upon my Spirit throws;
                    Yet I your Wounds with as much Zeal desire,
                    As Sinners that wou'd pass to Bliss through Fire.
                    Yes, Madam, I must love you to my Death,
                    I'll sigh your name with my last gasp of Breath.

(II, 212)

In a scene which is not in the original novel, Lee has Nemours and the Prince fight. The Prince declares, “one of us must fall.” Nemours replies, “Then take my Life.” Provoked into drawing his sword, Nemours disarms the Prince, “gives him his Sword agen,” and solemnly announces, “I swear upon the point of Death, / Your Wife's as clear from me, as Heav'n first made her” (II, 205-206). Both men then burst into tears and swear eternal friendship as before. Resemblances to both heroic drama and the duel scene in Steele's The Conscious Lovers (1722) are obvious: indeed this scene is carried out with the throbbing melodramatic gusto of John Banks or Elkanah Settle. The audience normally did take such heroics very seriously, and its instinctive reaction would be admiration. And yet we know what Nemours really is, even if the Prince does not. And to see the Prince and Princess completely blind to Nemours' hypocrisy casts a deep ironic shadow over the exalted heroic and moral standards they represent.

The ineffectuality of the Prince is made painfully obvious throughout the play. The noble and pathetic love-death of the novel simply seems stupid when Nemours is transformed into a ruttish liar. The Princess fares a little better, since she finally sees part of the truth about Nemours. But her continued love of so worthless a person, and the obvious possibility of a future yielding, are not to her credit. We are also left to wonder how pure and disinterested her “confession” is. Dryden's epilogue calls her, with a lovely double irony, a “saintlike fool.” Lee had specialized in villain plays during the seventies, but most of them contain genuine heroes and heroines. The Princess belongs, in type, with the noble Statira in The Rival Queens, but in this context she is made to seem foolish rather than heroic or charmingly pathetic.

The omnipresent subplot further degrades the heroic element in the play. St. Andre and Poltrot are doltish cit cuckolds; their wives Elianor and Celia are witty but sex-mad sluts. Sometimes assisted by Nemours, the four of them provide a steady stream of smutty songs (e.g., “Phillis is soft, Phillis is plump,” II, 163-64) and heavy badinage, as “is the fashion.” The husbands' wenching schemes mirror and travesty Nemours' upper-class love-intrigues. Together they try to whore, while each endeavors to cuckold the other. The scene in which the two men unknowingly pay their addresses to their masked wives (III.i) is typical. They boast of their prowess (“we never miss hitting between Wind and Water”) and abuse their wives. St. Andre: “mine's so fulsome, that a Goat with the help of Cantharides wou'd not touch her.” Poltrot: “Gad, and my Wife has Tets in the wrong place, she's warted all over like a pumpl'd Orange” (II, 189-90). St. Andre's “sleepwalking” speeches and Poltrot's description of catching his wife in flagrante delicto (concluding, “I feel something trickle, trickle in my Breeches”) are bluntly and joylessly obscene (II, 207-10). This rancid smut is followed instantly by Nemours' announcement that the Prince is dying of a fever brought on by the violence of his love for his chaste but unloving wife.23 This juxtaposition is no accident. The report of the Prince's death comes a little later, at the end of a page on which Celia justifies her adultery by saying that her “ravisher” had threatened to “rip open” her husband's body. To this Poltrot replies, “And so thou wert forc'd to consent. … I must praise thy Discretion in Sacrificing thy Body, for o' my Conscience, if they had seen this Smock-face of mine, I had gone to pot too before my Execution” (II, 217). This excremental reference from a cowardly cuckold makes a weird prelude to the announcement of the Prince of Cleve's romantic love-death.

There is no need to multiply examples of smut and ugliness: they are legion. This profusion presents us with two possibilities. Either Lee has produced a sloppy and pointless amalgam of filth and heroic sentiment, or he has deliberately set out to debase the heroic part of the play. The intermingling of elements, especially in the presence of Nemours, makes a satiric interaction inevitable. Split plots can be used for a thematic contrast which supports, rather than undercuts the heroic plane, as in Dryden's The Spanish Fryar. Even in the more ironic Marriage A-la-Mode (1671) the heroic is not systematically dirtied, as it is here. What happens in The Princess of Cleve is very simple: in the world of the play, the heroic ethos and its rhetoric become a ghastly mockery.


To see the “point” of the satire we need to start by considering the reactions Lee was seeking to elicit. Nemours is indubitably a scabrous swine and the play may indeed be accurately described as a rotting dung heap. Whatever the original audience made of it, twentieth-century critics have generally responded with disgust, nausea, and revulsion. I see no reason to suppose that this is not exactly what Lee wanted.

He knew perfectly well what he was doing. “When they expected the most polish'd Hero in Nemours, I gave 'em a Ruffian reeking from Whetstone's-Park.” How does Lee want us to react to this startling transformation? The next two sentences of the Dedication give us a valuable and hitherto ignored hint. “The fourth and fifth Acts of the Chances, where Don John is pulling down; Marriage Alamode, where they are bare to the Waste; the Libertine, and Epsom-Wells, are but Copies of his Villany. He lays about him like the Gladiator in the Park; they may walk by, and take no notice.” Each of these four plays puts a “gentleman's” sexual misconduct in a negative light, though there are considerable differences in the authors' treatment of the subject. In Buckingham's revision of Fletcher's The Chances (1667), Don John comes off as a reasonably attractive scapegrace, despite some blunt descriptions of his lying, womanizing ways.24 Similarly, Dryden's satire in the female-swapping plot in Marriage A-la-Mode can be ignored, and the material taken purely for its titillative value. Indeed an anonymous contemporary indignantly reports that the members of the audience completely missed the point of Dryden's “gentile Satyre against this sort of folly,” and contrived to enjoy what should have shamed them.25 As Dryden says in his epilogue, using a phrase Lee picks up, he “would not quite the Woman's frailty bare, / But stript 'em to the waste, and left 'em there.” In fact, Dryden's picture of sexual infidelity is bluntly negative. And Lee tells us, in so many words, that he has gone further and been blunter. On the evidence of Marriage Asserted, the audience needed to have things spelled out.

Shadwell's Epsom-Wells (1672) makes a valuable comparison to The Princess of Cleve because of its use of a multi-lined plot with characters at different social levels. At the top, the romantic couples (Rains and Lucia, Bevil and Carolina) put up a graceful show of gay-couple wit. A cut below them come the Woodlys, whose adulteries wind up in divorce. Still lower come the contemptible cuckold cits, Bisket and Fribble, and their wives (called respectively “an impertinent, imperious Strumpet” and “a very Whore” in the Dramatis Personae). They are treated with the kind of contempt Lee lavishes on St. Andre and Poltrot. Lowest of all we find the scum—Kick and Cuff (“cheating, sharking, cowardly Bullies”) and Mrs. Jilt (“a silly, affected Whore”). By keeping these levels fairly distinct (as Lee deliberately avoids doing) Shadwell is enabled to expend brutal contempt on his cits, while turning a surprisingly indulgent eye on the escapades of his upper class characters, persons of “Wit and Pleasure.” Lee was not minded to be so generous. Shadwell's The Libertine (1675), a wild and bloody recension of the Don Juan story, and Timon of Athens (1678)—though Lee does not name it—make even better comparisons.26 Both are “satyrical tragedy,” in which the moral code of contemporary libertine comedy is imported into a tragic structure. The result in The Libertine is a sardonic comment upon both horror tragedy and the ethos of libertine comedy. In Timon Shadwell set up contrasts which “compelled [or ought to have] his unsuspecting audience to develop a gradual but unequivocal revulsion for the Hobbesian principles of which they approved in comedy.”27 Lee, I believe, is seeking a very similar result in The Princess of Cleve. Very probably the audience refused to listen. This, I presume, is what Lee means by his cryptic remark that the audience “may walk by, and take no notice.” If one chooses to treat the action as a diversion in cloud-cuckooland, then one may enjoy the play as a value-free farce, just as John Palmer read The Country-Wife.28 But we have ample evidence that Lee did not want the play taken this way, and to judge by the reactions of most of the critics, he succeeded in making it almost impossible to do so.

If we look beyond the text of the play for its extrinsic targets, we will find three of them:

1. Nemours is Rochester, and the demolition is devastating, especially where the vaunted deathbed conversion is concerned. Lee's attack is obviously personal and moral; it may also be latently political. Rochester had associated himself with Whig politicians late in life, especially Dorset and Buckingham. And in both literature and politics he had ties to Shadwell, with whom the Tory writers were feuding energetically in 1682 and 1683. Mac Flecknoe, the second part of Absalom and Achitophel, Dryden's Vindication of the Duke of Guise, and Otway's The Atheist (ca. June 1683)29 all belong to this quarrel. Lee's use of sexual innuendo is of course highly suitable to Rochester, and actually it is fairly restrained. Otway's depiction of Shaftesbury in the nicky-nacky scenes of Venice Preserv'd (February 1682) is far uglier—an attack staged while Lee was probably at work on The Princess of Cleve.

2. The heroic/précieuse ethos of Restoration tragedy is debunked by association with degraded sexuality. It is not made evil or hypocritical, just ineffectual. Lee had specialized in grand if overheated displays of love, nobility, and heroism. The powerful love-death of Sophonisba and Massinissa in Sophonisba (1675), the achingly real feelings of Statira and Roxana in The Rival Queens (1677), the searing pathos of Monima and Semandra in Mithridates (1678), the still-powerful display of love and sensibility in Theodosius (1680) all lead one to expect an exuberant exaltation of the Prince of Cleve. Madame de La Fayette's triangle provided Lee with precisely the sort of situation from which he was accustomed to wring every ounce of pathos, adorned with floods of heroic rant. But in The Princess of Cleve Lee's rousing affirmations of the heroic vanish: the love-story suffers from a peculiar flatness which reflects, I suspect, simple lack of conviction. When “reality” is Nemours and the cuckold cits, the exquisite sensibility of the Prince becomes meaningless.

3. Nemours behaves like the rake “hero” of an ordinary Carolean sex comedy—The Country-Wife, Durfey's A Fond Husband (1677), or Ravenscroft's The London Cuckolds (1681). But here we are not invited to sit back, relax, and enjoy the frolic. The continual and obtrusive presence of the heroic/précieuse standard serves as a jarring reminder of Nemours' viciousness. Wycherley's Horner hurts no one who matters; Nemours does, and we cannot forget it, even though Lee is not bent on drumming up sympathy for the victims. As James Sutherland cogently observes, “In the Duke of Nemours Lee seems to be saying to his audience: ‘This is the sort of character you admire. Well, take a good look at him, and see what your precious Dorimants are really like’.”30 Comparison to The Man of Mode (1676) is indeed useful here. By most accounts Dorimant is a picture of Rochester, drawn sympathetically by a friend. The portrait was favorable enough to outrage Richard Steele, whose memorable denunciation of the character and the play appears in Spectator 65 (1711). Dennis defended the play, a decade later, on the ground that the Carolean audience saw Dorimant's faults and knew him to be no fit pattern for imitation. Nonetheless, Dorimant is glamorous, powerful, and successful, and he is evidently to be rewarded with a beautiful and wealthy wife—whom he wins in a kind of mock-conversion scene. Coincidentally, the part was played by Thomas Betterton. I certainly do not mean to suggest that Lee was writing with an eye on Etherege's play. But clearly Dorimant and Nemours represent opposite poles of opinion about the Earl of Rochester, in particular, and about the libertine heroes of contemporary comedy in general. Lee tears away the tinsel and false glamor with icy distaste. He does not preach, and he is wise enough to avoid punishing Nemours—to provide poetic justice would ruin the play's point. Nemours emerges powerful, glamorous, and successful—and all the more horrible for that. The audience ought to feel his attractions just enough to be revolted by its own readiness to tolerate this slippery, goatish scoundrel.

Nothing in the Lee canon prepares one for The Princess of Cleve. Consequently the play has seemed an aberration, to be set aside with fastidious distaste or blank incomprehension.31 I have shown that far from being a random assemblage of incongruous materials, the play is in fact a biting three-pronged satire. And if my redating is correct, it comes out of the eighteen-month period in Lee's life in which he somehow swung from Whig rebel to Tory loyalist. The reasons behind this radical shift we are unlikely ever to learn, barring the discovery of hitherto unknown letters or diaries. We know nothing of Lee's earlier views on comedy, though his seething contempt for the libertine ethos comes as no great surprise. Likewise his savaging of Rochester is perfectly comprehensible, on personal, literary, and political grounds. But the bleakly sardonic view of the heroic ethos taken in The Princess of Cleve has to come as a shock. I do not think it merely fanciful to say that the play seems to represent the “chaos is come again” stage of Lee's conversion. The ugliness and moral flux so evident in the work reflect, I think, the author's distress about his loss of faith in a heroic value-system which he must have linked, disastrously, to a political outlook he had been forced to abandon. Ham complains, with perfect justice, about the relative “flatness” and lack of conviction in Lee's last two plays—his part of The Duke of Guise and Constantine the Great. This flatness is not just a sign of diminished poetic fire; rather it is the result of a radical reversal of outlook which seems to have left Lee clinging, rather desperately, to a Tory orthodoxy he could not passionately believe in.

The Princess of Cleve is certainly an unusual work—nasty, ugly, degrading, and meant to seem so. Critics have usually been too repelled to ask why it is so. This is odd, since critics have forever been fretting after hard-hitting satire in “Restoration comedies,” wanting the likes of Wycherley, Etherege, and Congreve to be the angry moralists traditional comic theory says they ought to be.32 Well, here is a savage satire. Lee does not just decry libertine comedy, though this is probably the most effective demolition of its premises in the whole period. Nor does he just travesty the heroic drama. Instead, he brings the two value systems together and lets each expose the hollowness and inadequacy of the other. The play is more a despairing than an angry satire: we are not given a comfortable sermon from a superior vantage point, but rather a brutal exposé whose author can find no meaningful positive norm. In his final works Lee retreats uncomfortably into the Tory verities, maintaining what shadow of the heroic ethos he can. In The Princess of Cleve, which springs from the period of transition, Lee bitterly weighs the two value systems most characteristic of Restoration drama and finds them both horribly wanting. The result is a dizzying and deliberately sickening view into a moral abyss.


  1. Allardyce Nicoll, A History of English Drama 1660-1900, 6 vols., rev. ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1952-1959), i, 419; Alfred Harbage, Annals of English Drama 975-1700, rev. S. Schoenbaum (London: Methuen, 1964), p. 183; Montague Summers, A Bibliography of the Restoration Drama (1935; rpt. New York: Russell and Russell, 1970), p. 86; Thomas B. Stroup, “The Princess of Cleve and Sentimental Comedy,” RES, 11 (1935), 200-203; James Sutherland, English Literature of the Late Seventeenth Century, Oxford History of English Literature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), pp. 143-44; Gerard Langbaine, An Account of the English Dramatick Poets (Oxford: L. L. for George West and Henry Clements, 1691), p. 324.

  2. All references to Lee's text are to The Works of Nathaniel Lee, ed. Thomas B. Stroup and Arthur L. Cooke, 2 vols. (1954-1955; rpt. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Reprint Corp., 1968).

  3. Roswell Gray Ham, Otway and Lee (1931; rpt. New York: Greenwood, 1969), p. 169.

  4. John Genest, Some Account of the English Stage, 10 vols. (1832; rpt. New York: Burt Franklin, n.d.), i, 319-20.

  5. John Harrington Smith, The Gay Couple in Restoration Comedy (1948; rpt. New York: Octagon, 1971), p. 98.

  6. The 1689 quarto names only nine of the fourteen actors. All of those named were members of the Duke's Company, and Mrs. Betterton is among them. She took few new roles after the union until the Bettertons lost their money in 1691. She did, however, appear in The Massacre of Paris when it was finally performed in 1689: probably she had been cast for the play before it was banned. But especially since the cast list is incomplete, it does not prove anything except that on its evidence the premiere could have been before the union of November 1682.

  7. The London Stage 1660-1800, Part 1, 1660-1700, ed. William Van Lennep, Emmett L. Avery, and Arthur H. Scouten (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1965), pp. 290-91.

  8. See BM Add. MSS. 19183-19185.

  9. See Judith Milhous and Robert D. Hume, “Dating Play Premières from Publication Data, 1660-1700,” HLB, 22 (1974), 374-405. The reason for the sudden resurrection of The Princess and The Massacre in 1689 is twofold: the Glorious Revolution of 1688 made the latter acceptable on the stage, and Lee, released from Bedlam in the spring of 1689, needed to support himself. He died a drunkard in May 1692 without doing any more writing.

  10. For detailed accounts of the borrowed material in The Princess of Cleve and The Duke of Guise, see the notes in the Stroup-Cooke edition.

  11. See Arthur F. White, “The Office of Revels and Dramatic Censorship During the Restoration Period,” Western Reserve University Bulletin, New Series, 34 (Sept. 1931), 5-45.

  12. See Frances Barbour, “The Unconventional Heroic Plays of Nathaniel Lee,” University of Texas Studies in English (1940), pp. 109-16.

  13. Dryden: The Dramatic Works, ed. Montague Summers, 6 vols. (London: Nonesuch, 1931-1932), v, 326-27.

  14. From the treatment of homosexuality in Otway's The Souldiers Fortune, Southerne's Sir Anthony Love, Vanbrugh's The Relapse, and a host of other plays, we may assume that the Restoration audience could be expected to find bisexuality thoroughly repulsive. Lee was presumably aware that he was perfectly accurate when he imputed it to Rochester.

  15. Compare the violent satire on false friends in Otway's Friendship in Fashion (1678), discussed in my “Otway and the Comic Muse,” SP, 73 (1976), 87-116.

  16. Stroup and Cooke (II, 588 nn.) note that a passage was probably cut just at this point, since “the audience has been prepared for a scene of some length and importance between Marguerite and Nemours, but the quarrel between the two is limited to two lines.” I would guess that the material cut was probably an alteration of III.ii.44-170 of The Massacre of Paris (Works, ii, 26-29). If so, it would not have prepared us any better for the astonishing reversal at the end.

  17. Montague Summers, The Playhouse of Pepys (1935; rpt. New York: Humanities Press, 1964), p. 301. Summers makes the point only in passing.

  18. The Complete Poems of John Wilmot Earl of Rochester, ed. David Vieth (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1968), p. xxx. J. Harold Wilson, “Rochester, Dryden, and the Rose Street Affair,” RES, 15 (1939), 294-301.

  19. Vivian de Sola Pinto, Enthusiast in Wit: A Portrait of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester 1647-1680, rev. ed. (London: Routledge, 1962), p. 232.

  20. In a letter to TLS (2 November 1935) Graham Greene backed up Summers' identification of Nemours with Rochester by pointing out that just before the Count Rosidore passage Lee puts into Nemours' mouth a speech (“Nay, now thou put'st me in Poetick Rapture …”—II, 161) lifted from the opening of Rochester's version of Fletcher's Valentinian. In a reply, W. J. Lawrence (9 November) argued that the passage must be a late addition, since Valentinian was not printed until December 1684. But there is evidence that as Lucina's Rape (see BM Add. MS. 28692) Rochester's play was performed by the King's Company ca. 1675-1676. This problem will be reviewed in the forthcoming Supplement volume to The London Stage, edited by Arthur H. Scouten and myself.

  21. 27 January 1683. Cited in The London Stage, Part 1, p. 318.

  22. In the novel the dropped letter belongs to the Vidam of Chartres; Nemours allows it to be attributed to him as a favor to his friend—thus unintentionally making the Princess think him false when he is not. Here Lee further blackens Nemours by making him the author, and the disclaimer a lie.

  23. In his RES article Stroup says that “the lovelorn Prince … runs upon Nemours' drawn sword and gets himself out of his friend's way.” This is not accurate: the Prince suffers no physical wound. “I have no Wound but that which Honour makes, / And yet there's something cold upon my Heart” (II, 206).

  24. E.g., The Chances (London: Langley Curtis, 1682), p. 11:

    “Oaths? What care you for Oaths to gain your ends
    When ye are high and pamper'd? What Saint know ye?
    Or what Religion, but your purpos'd lewdness,
    Is to be look'd for of ye?”
  25. See Marriage Asserted (London: Herringman, 1674), pp. 75-76; cited by Harold Brooks, “Some Notes on Dryden, Cowley, and Shadwell,” N & Q, 168 (1935), 94-95.

  26. For a further discussion of these other plays see Chs. 7 and 8 of my The Development of English Drama in the Late Seventeenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976).

  27. See John Edmunds, “‘Timon of Athens’ Blended with ‘Le Misanthrope’: Shadwell's Recipe for Satirical Tragedy,” MLR, 64 (1969), 500-507.

  28. John Palmer, The Comedy of Manners (London: Bell, 1913), Ch. 4.

  29. See J. C. Ross, “An Attack on Thomas Shadwell in Otway's The Atheist,PQ, 52 (1973), 753-60.

  30. Sutherland, p. 144.

  31. Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century opinion seems typified by Nicoll on the one hand and H. M. Sanders on the other. Sanders reports only that the play “need not detain us,” since it “is a tragi-comedy of a flagrant type, and if, as the author tells us, it cost him much pains [actually, this is said of The Massacre!], it is a pity his labour was so ill-bestowed.” See “The Plays of Nat Lee, Gent.,” Temple Bar, 124 (1901), 497-508.

  32. See, for example, Charles O. McDonald, “Restoration Comedy as Drama of Satire: An Investigation into Seventeenth Century Aesthetics,” SP, 61(1964), 522-44, and Rose A. Zimbardo, Wycherley's Drama: A Link in the Development of English Satire (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1965).

David Scott Kastan (essay date 1977)

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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 London were involved in the political activity growing out of the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Bill in the last years of Charles II's reign.”1 But this assumption, which finds a political concern in Restoration tragedy only after 1678, needs to be reconsidered in light of the intense political sensitivity of the age. The Popish Plot was but the culmination of the dissension that followed quickly upon the heels of the Restoration euphoria.

Nathaniel Lee seems to have felt keenly the betrayal of the Restoration promise, yet among his critics only Frances Barbour has noticed a clear political intent in the plays written prior to 1680.2 Even John Loftis, disposed by the very nature of his study to discover topical meanings, finds only that “innuendo in Lee's early plays may or may not have been intended as a criticism of Charles's personal failings. …”3 Yet the political significance of Lee's early plays appears less problematic than Loftis suggests. Lee's monarchs display characteristics remarkably apposite to Charles. They sacrifice the governing of the state to their ungoverned passions; and, revealingly, the political doggerel of the 1670s levels the same charge at the English king. Rochester irreverently writes of his monarch that “his sceptre and his p———k are of a length, / And she may sway the one who plays with t'other.”4 In the face of a corrupt and self-indulgent court, the paeans of the Restoration soured. Panegyric turned to satire. John Lacy asks, “Was ever prince's soul so meanly poor / To be enslaved to ev'ry little whore?” (426). Charles's life of lustful excess became the primary focus of the swiftly growing ranks of the disenchanted. John Freke, in “The History of Insipids” (a poem often attributed to Rochester), writes:

Our Romish bondage-breaker Harry
          Espoused half a dozen wives;
Charles only one resolves to marry,
          And other men's he never swives.
Yet hath he sons and daughters more
Than e'er had Harry by threescore.

“All agree,” Freke adds, “'tis a lewd king” (244, 249).5

Against this background of political dissension, the actions of Lee's dissolute and despotic Nero must appear no less as evidence of an intended political application than as proof of the playwright's desire for sensational effects.6 The use of a plot drawn from classical history obviously does not argue against the claim of topical consciousness, for Lee's practice reflects the dominant seventeenth-century conception of historiography that finds the essential dignity of history in its ability to serve as a clarifying mirror for the present by providing appropriate parallels from the past.

But the historical parallels that one draws depend, of course, upon one's political vantage point. Royalists often found analogues of the reign of Charles II in the lawful rule of the biblical David;7 while those opposed to the court found them in the decadence of Rome. Like the author of “Further Advice to a Painter,” Charles's opponents found it easy to imagine “in one scene London and Rome” (164). The “Second Advice to a Painter,” written following the Dutch attack on Chatham Harbour in 1667, contains an instruction to “let the flaming London come in view, / Like Nero's Rome …” (36-37). The parallel becomes a glass in which the vices of the present age are exposed for recognition and amelioration, as in the “Fourth Advice,” where the poet offers an explicit comparison between Charles and Nero, focusing again upon the libidinous behavior of the Stuart monarch:

As Nero once, with harp in hand, survey'd
His flaming Rome and, as that burn'd, he play'd,
So our great Prince, when the Dutch fleet arriv'd,
Saw his ships burn'd and, as they burn'd, he swiv'd.


Seen in this context, Lee's Nero becomes almost explicitly a political play. I do not wish to suggest, however, that it functions as an allegory depending upon a rigid scheme of political typology, but rather that Lee's play has a foundation in the controversies regarding sovereignty that the failure of the Restoration settlement had engendered. The correspondences that do exist between contemporary politics and the classical subject matter of Nero are implicit parallels of situation rather than explicit parallels of character.8

Lee fully exploits the correspondence that most had been conditioned to see between Nero's Rome and Restoration England, but he does so with an aim that transcends showing, in Milton's phrase (with reference, however, to Charles I), “how like Nero Charles was.”9 Lee's interests are political, but they find their expression in conceptual rather than in exclusively personal terms. Nero's monstrous willfulness raises the issue of the royal prerogative that was the central political question of the reign of Charles II. The restored monarch sought at every turn to affirm the principle and practice of royal sovereignty. “He did not think he was a king,” writes Burnet, “as long as a company of fellows were looking into all his actions, and examining his ministers as well as his accounts.”10 From 1664 with the repeal of the Triennial Bill to the prorogued Parliaments of 1671-1673, Charles systematically moved to free himself from Parliament and to establish absolute rule. John Ayloffe, in a bitter satire on the Cabal, imagines Shaftesbury urging the king to “let other kingdoms see / Your will's your law: that's absolute monarchy” (195).11

Even with his less than single-minded pursuit of “absolute monarchy,” Charles very nearly succeeded in centralizing power in the crown. He was for a time able to quiet the growing fears of absolutism by invoking divine sanctions of kingship and by assuring the populace that their protection lay precisely in such absolutism. The crown held, in Lord Guilford's words, that “a King is above ambition, and it will be easy to obtain justice from one who hath almost all he desires.”12

In Nero, however, Lee creates a ruler who mocks Guilford's assurance. Nero's first act, the sentencing of his mother Agrippina to death for her imagined hand in a plot against the throne, reveals the vulnerability of a state to the tyranny of unquestioned royal power. Britannicus appeals, if not for justice, for mercy for Agrippina, but is rebuffed by Nero: “But why, with you, do I capitulate? / My word's an Oracle, and stands her Fate” (1.1.92-93).13

Whatever hints exist in the classical histories to justify Nero's decision14 are eliminated in Lee's play, presumably to emphasize the unmotivated evil of Nero's actions. Nero callously commands that Agrippina “shall die,” while members of his court helplessly protest her innocence. But none is led to oppose Nero's “black intent” and Britannicus, even in the face of the matricide, affirms the doctrine of obedience that Royalists had traditionally advanced in England: “when e're I rise against that Sacred head / In thought, may loads of Thunder strike me dead. / You are my Master, and Rome's Emperour” (1.1.107-9).

Conservative Englishmen looked upon opposition to any ruler as a violation of the oftimes invoked injunction of Romans 13:1-2, which asserts that obedience to earthly powers is necessitated by their origin in the ordinance of God. This appeal to Divine Right was a recurring theme of the restored monarchy. David Ogg points out how carefully Charles “availed himself of the religious sanctions with which the Divine Right school surrounded the throne; he confirmed these sanctions by the assiduity and success with which he touched for the King's Evil, and no one could have worn more gracefully than did he the halo with which Anglican devotion sanctified the royal head.”15

The insistence upon the holy union of God and King, implicit in Britannicus's reference to Nero's “Sacred Head,” had been a commonplace of English political theory since the Reformation. Non-resistance was seen as being incumbent upon all individuals from both theological and secular perspectives. Samuel Parker maintained pragmatically that “the miseries of Tyranny are less, than those of Anarchy; and therefore 'tis better to submit to the unreasonable Impositions of Nero, or Caligula, than to hazard the dissolution of the State.”16

Yet events of the 1640s culminating in the beheading of Charles I attest that the doctrine of obedience had been rejected, or at least radically redefined, by a large percentage of the English populace. Parliamentarians argued that a tyrant had, by virtue of his failure to fulfill his sworn contract with his people, repudiated the role of King that properly demanded obedience.17 Milton, speaking for the proponents of contractual monarchy, held that “the power of Kings and Magistrates is nothing else, but what is only derivative, transferr'd and committed to them in trust from the People”; and having established the source of monarchical power, he defines a King as one “who governs to the good and profit of his people, and not for his own ends.”18

As Milton considers the basis of royal authority to be derivative, he must conclude “that it is Lawfull, and hath been held so through all ages, for any, who have the Power, to call to Account a Tyrant, or wicked King, and after due conviction, to depose, and put him to death.”19 In Nero it is Drusillus who echoes the assumptions of the regicides when he suggests that “some noble Roman should / Dare to be glorious, dangerously good, / And kill this Tyrant” (2.1.17-19).

Nero is, indeed, presented as the paradigm of the tyrant, explicitly rejecting the responsibilities of monarchy. “Let plegmatic [sic] dull KINGS, call Crowns their care: / Mine is my wanton” (1.2.137-38). In Milton's terms, he rules solely “for his own ends.” The rant that most critics have recognized (and condemned) in the play must be seen as contributing to this characterization. It is primarily Nero who speaks the much-abused fustian, and the stylistic excess is clearly designed to echo the “riot” of his throne.

Appropriately, the imagery of the sun, traditionally associated with kingship, is held to be unsuitable for the tyrant. Sylvius speaks of the Roman court as “a full Orb / Of matchless Glory, where your Emperor / Rules, like the Sun, and gives each noble, warmth.” But Otho answers, “Nothing appears, alas, as heretofore; / The darkness of his horrid vices, have / Eclips'd the glimmering rays of his frail virtue” (1.1.40-45). The sun of the monarchy is “eclips'd,” and Rome is plunged into darkness.20 Unlike “Great Julius and Augustus” whose “glory shines now they are gone. / Because, with us, like Stars their virtues shone” (1.2.29-30), Nero holds that “Virtue's the greatest crime” (4.1.80), and his “black impieties” dominate the court.

Britannicus's madness, precipitated by Cyara's ironic masquerade that she is dead, is his inevitable response to this world that he believes to be totally emptied of goodness. His anguished cry, “O GODS! Devils! Hell, Heaven and Earth” (3.1.71), issues from his realization that Nero's evil blankets every sphere. If Cyara is dead, the last bright lamp of virtue that might have illumined the black court of Rome has gone out:

The Canopy of Heav'n is hung with Sable;
The Sun, like a great mourner, drives her Hearse,
Wrap'd round with clouds; each Star withdraws
His Golden head, and burns within his socket.
The whole cope is dark, black, dismal,
And mourns the sudden loss of fair Cyara.


Perhaps anomalously, Petronius, wooing Poppea for Nero, calls the Emperor “a flame, whose matchless splendor drowns the Stars” (3.2.3), but the flame is of the fire of lust and casts no light. Poppea quickly learns that “nothing agrees with Love so well as Night; / Hush'd, and in darkness hid …” (5.3.63-64). And Drusillus translates the iterative imagery of light and darkness into explicitly political terms by recognizing that the killing of Nero is the only way of “forcing a day, and making black night shine” (2.1.20). The corruption of Nero has so befouled the Empire that light cannot enter the world again until the tyrant is deposed.

In this context Britannicus's madness, caused by his vision of unrelieved suffering, becomes symbolic of the disorder of the Roman state: his mental disease mirrors the political dis-ease that infects the heart of the Empire. The correspondence between the internal condition of Britannicus and the situation of Rome is explicitly urged in the juxtaposition of the final scene of act 4 and the opening of the fifth act. At the end of act 4, Nero, goaded by the ghost of Caligula, decides to set fire to the city (a fire that itself would enforce a parallel between London and Rome):21

Nothing but flames can quench my kindled Ire:
Blood's not enough; Fire I'le revenge with fire.
Fierce as young Phaeton I will return:
Great ROME, the World's Metropolis, shall burn.


The parallel becomes unmistakable as Britannicus enters, at the beginning of the fifth act, “burning” with the fire of deadly poison. “I burn, I burn,” he cries, “Fire, fire, I'm all one flame, fly, my friends fly, / Or I shall blast you; O my breath is Brimstone, / My Lungs are Sulphur, my hot brains boil over” (5.1.1-3).

The reason for Lee's insistence upon this correspondence of body and state is not difficult to find. Britannicus suffers the fate of the nation because he is, in a very real sense, the embodiment of the nation. The historical Britannicus was poisoned several weeks before his fourteenth birthday in A.D. 55, thirteen years before the events with which Lee's play purports to deal.22 The violent distortion of the historical data leads William Van Lennap to conclude despairingly that Lee “could scarcely deal with historical facts and misrepresent them more completely”;23 but Lee's “misrepresentation” should be seen more as a signal of artistic intent than evidence of historical ignorance. Racine had, in the second preface to his Britannicus, declared that “the age of Britannicus was so well known that it was not permitted me to depict him other than as a young prince who had much spirit, much love, and much sincerity, ordinary qualities in a young man.”24 Lee's decision to depart from such “well known” facts can best be explained by his desire to capitalize upon the extreme aptness of the name, with its deliberate suggestion of “Britain.”25 The fact is that Britannicus suffers, as Britain herself suffers in 1674, for the political failures of the monarchy.

But if Britannicus is to be identified with the political fate of England, his destruction must therefore betray a deep pessimism. No answers to Lee's agonizing questioning about the nature of sovereignty appear in this play or in any other of the tragedies written prior to 1680. In Nero he presents a tyrant and the two polar responses to tyranny that had been defined in the political dialogue of the preceding thirty years. Yet neither the loyalism of Britannicus nor the proximate republicanism of Drusillus emerges as a viable response to Nero's murderous tyranny. To suffer the tyrant is to consent to the rape of the state; to oppose him is to substitute chaos for despotism.

Confronted with the evils of the court and the political dilemma, Plautus's cry is understandable. “[W]here is Astrea fled? / Foul vice Triumphs, trampling on Virtues head” (2.3.90-91). Astraea, goddess of Justice, is absent from the moral landscape of Nero, but the mythological explanation for the ascendancy of vice in the corrupt political world of the Roman court is not without contemporary sting. The audience of Lee's play would certainly remember that Dryden had hailed Charles's return in Astraea Redux (1660). The restoration of the English king is seen by Dryden to reinstitute a time of peace and justice. As the epigraph to his panegyric, Dryden chooses the famous line of Virgil's fourth Ecologue: Iam redit et Virgo, redeunt Saturnia regna—“now the Virgin [i.e., Astraea] returns, the reign of Saturn returns.” Lee, however, perhaps sobered by the ensuing fourteen years, sees no evidence in Restoration England that the Golden Age has come again. His text is implicitly Ovidian rather than Virgilian. In the Golden Age, writes Ovid, under the rule of Saturn, men were virtuous and lived according to the laws of nature; but by degrees men degenerated to evil, and the age of gold became an iron age. Piety was vanquished, and the virgin Astraea, the last of the immortals, fled the earth—terras Astraea reliquit.26

Astraea's flight heralds the origin of politics. Justice no longer resides on earth, and civil law becomes necessary to restrain man's sinfulness. The very nature of politics, rather than any specific form of it, occasions Lee's political pessimism. Like Antony Ascham, Lee seems to understand that all laws “grow out of vices, which makes all governments carry with them the causes of their own corruption.”27 In Nero Lee sees the terrible threat of arbitrary rule, but he offers no easy alternative. Any form of government is an imperfect, though an imperative, response to our fallen condition. Thus, even in his repudiation of the course of the English monarchy after the restoration, Lee never reflects the arrogance of one like the embittered Freke who could write:

Of kings curs'd be the power and name,
          Let all the earth henceforth abhor 'em;
Monsters which knaves sacred proclaim
          And then like slaves fall down before 'em.
What can there be in kings divine?
The most are wolves, goats, sheep, or swine.


Rather than any historically necessitated theory of sovereignty, Lee advances a limited and pragmatic conception. In The Rival Queens Lysimachus asks Alexander, “To whom does your dread majesty bequeath / The Empire of the World?” Alexander's curt reply is an important element in Lee's understanding of proper kingship: “To him that is most worthy.”28 But the nature of royal worth is, of course, difficult to determine. Lee certainly does not hold with Dryden's King Boabdelin that “tis true from force the noblest title springs”;29 nor with Caesario in Gloriana that by mere fact of royal birth he is “the World's lawfull Heir” (184). Alexander revealingly has commented not upon the source, but rather upon the use of sovereignty. For Lee, worthiness resides only in those few who, as Seneca instructs Nero, “do well and noble acts Atchieve” (1.2.48). The primary responsibility for the monarch is to obey the dictum of Britannicus to “make right use of pow'r” (1.1.110). Yet Nero and, by suggestion, Charles conceive of power only as a vehicle for satisfying private lust rather than public need.

It might be objected that the triumphant entrance of Galba into Rome in the final scene of Nero belies my discussion of Lee's cautious political pessimism. But the ending of the play should be read with care, for finally the sense of restoration in Lee's play is slight. The ending is conventional and unconvincing, yet perhaps this is as it should be. Galba is welcomed in ways that too nearly recall Nero's tyranny:

Let's to the FORUM haste, and there proclaim
A mighty donative in Galba's name.
With all the Pomp ‘Oth’ Court his Camp wee'll meet,
And his approach with Joyful shoutings greet:
Proclaim him Emperour with Trumpets Sound
While he, now made a God, shall scorn the ground,
And, on our shoulders ride, with Lawrels Crown'd.


Galba's rule may prove no better than Nero's, for the essential question about the royal prerogative has not been resolved. Galba is proclaimed a god as Nero deified himself,30 and what is certain is that the nature of the monarchy has not changed. The state would again be at the mercy of a willful and coercive ruler should Galba “scorn the ground” in a sense different from that which Piso intends.

But there is a second, more compelling reason why the ending of Nero cannot be viewed as being properly restorative. Suetonius, the classical source for the events of the final years of Nero's reign, emphasizes the instability of Galba's seven-month rule, noting that “many prodigies in rapid succession from the very beginning of his reign had foretold Galba's end.”31 His entrance into Rome, like that of Charles into London, was indeed hailed by the admiring populace, but also like the English king, he did not succeed in bringing peace to the land. Following the death of Nero, four men, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian, struggled for control for almost a full year. During this period, as the seventeenth-century historian Edmund Bolton writes, Rome had “to suffer a Nymphidivs, a Galba, an Otho, a Vitellivs, and all the bloudy confusions inseperable to sidings for the imperiall garland … nothing being tolerable, during that whole space of time, but onely the shortness of it.”32 Finally in December of A.D. 69, it was Vespasian, and not Galba, who prevailed and succeeded in restoring order to the badly shaken Empire. Only then, as H. H. Scullard writes, could Rome “once more believe in herself and in her future.”33

But Lee, at least in 1675, is decidedly pessimistic about the future of Restoration England. The tragic tonality of Nero is a reflection of Lee's political thought: no Vespasian appears to grant a final vision of political ideality because nothing in the experience of seventeenth-century England suggested such a possibility. The failure of the monarchy in the England of Charles II, as in Nero's Rome, raised again the hateful spectre of political disorder. With the memory of one revolution fresh and the possibility of another growing, it was easy to conclude that “Time, and dark Chaos, will devour us all” (4.3.22).


  1. “Political Satire on the London Stage,” Modern Philology 28 (1930): 29. See also Allardyce Nicoll, “Political Plays of the Restoration,” Modern Language Review 16 (1921): 224-42; George W. Whiting, “The Condition of the London Theatre 1679-83: A Reflection of the Political Situation,” Modern Philology 25 (1927): 195-206.

  2. “The Unconventional Heroic Plays of Nathaniel Lee,” University of Texas Studies in English 20 (1940): 109-16.

  3. The Politics of Drama in Augustan England (Oxford, 1963), p. 15.

  4. Poems on Affairs of State, ed. George deForest Lord, vol. 1, 1660-1678 (New Haven, 1963), p. 424; further references are to this edition and are cited by page within the text. Lee, it should be remembered, dedicated Nero to the irrepressible Rochester.

  5. Charles is known to have had at least thirteen illegitimate children by eight mistresses. See Maurice Ashley, Charles II (London, 1971), pp. 144-54. The attribution of the poem to Freke is made by Frank Ellis, “John Freke and The History of the Insipids,Philological Quarterly 44 (1965): 472-83.

  6. The usual estimation of Lee's Nero is that it is one of a group of “crude, undigested melodramas, depending upon violent action and bloody show for their shock effect.” See John Harold Wilson, A Preface to Restoration Drama (London, 1965), p. 64.

  7. Bernard Schilling, Dryden and the Conservative Myth (New Haven, 1961), pp. 268-71.

  8. See John Wallace, “Dryden and History: A Problem in Allegorical Reading,” ELH 36 (1969): 265-90; and David M. Veith, “Concept as Metaphor: Dryden's Attempted Stylistic Revolution,” Language and Style 3 (1970): 197-204.

  9. Defence of the People of England, in Complete Prose Works of John Milton, 6 vols. (New Haven, 1966), vol. 4, pt. 1, ed. Don M. Wolfe, p. 451.

  10. Gilbert Burnet, The History of My Own Time, ed. Osmund Airy (Oxford, 1897), pp. 2, 3.

  11. See also J. H. Plumb, The Origins of Political Stability: England 1675-1725 (Boston, 1967). Plumb calls 1668 “that vital year of decision in which Charles II must have decided to move more determinedly along the path towards arbitrary government” (p. 17).

  12. As quoted in David Ogg, England in the Reign of Charles II, 2d ed., 2 vols. (Oxford, 1956), 2:451.

  13. The Tragedy of Nero, in The Works of Nathaniel Lee, ed. Thomas B. Stroup and Arthur L. Cooke, 2 vols. (New Brunswick, N.J., 1954), 1:29. All references to Nero are cited from this edition and identified by act, scene, and line in parentheses following the quotation.

  14. Tacitus, for instance, emphasizes Agrippina's desire to consolidate power for herself. The Annals of Tacitus, Books XI-XVI, trans. George Gilbert Ramsay (London, 1909), pp. 122, 178.

  15. England in the Reign of Charles II, 2:451-52.

  16. A Discourse of Ecclesiastical Politie (London, 1670), p. 215.

  17. The restored Monarchy sought emphatically to deny the “damnable doctrine” that civil authority derives from the people. Clarendon felt that the last vestiges of the “late rebellion could not be destroyed until ‘the King's regal and inherent power and prerogative should be fully avowed and vindicated …’” (Ogg, p. 450).

  18. Complete Prose Works of John Milton (New Haven, 1962), vol. 3, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes, p. 202.

  19. Ibid., 3:202.

  20. 1.1.44; 2.1.2; 2.1.20; 2.3.134; 4.1.120; 5.1.74; passim.

  21. Caligula's ghost threatens Rome with “raging Plagues” as well as with fire, which would have inevitably suggested to Lee's audience the terrible plague and fire of 1666.

  22. The Annals of Tacitus, pp. 130-33.

  23. “The Life and Works of Nathaniel Lee Dramatist” (Dissertation, Harvard University, 1933), p. 72.

  24. Britannicus, trans. Eric Vaughn (San Francisco, 1962), p. 8.

  25. “Britannicus” was an eponymous epithet given to Tiberius Claudius Germanicus by his father Claudius after the invasion of Britain by Claudius in A.D. 44.

  26. Metamorphoses, 1:149-50. See also Francis Yates, “Queen Elizabeth as Astraea,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 10 (1947): 27-82.

  27. Of the Confusions and Revolutions of Governments [sic] (London, 1649), p. 77.

  28. The Works of Nathaniel Lee, 1:280. Alexander's bequest to the “most worthy” is, of course, reported in Lee's source. Quintus Curtius writes in his De Rebus Gestis Alexandri Magni (Paris, 1678), EEe2r, “Quaerentibusque his cui relinquerit regnum, respondit, ei qui esset optimus” (10.4.5).

  29. The Conquest of Granada, Dryden: Dramatic Works, ed. Montague Summers 6 vols. (1932; rpt. New York, 1968), 3:37.

  30. “I am a GOD; my self I Canonize” (1.2.28).

  31. Suetonius, trans. J. C. Rolfe (Cambridge, Mass., 1914), p. 219. Tacitus' account, as is well known, breaks off in the sixteenth book, carrying the narration only to A.D. 66.

  32. Nero Caesar, or Monarchie depraued (London, 1623 [for 1624]), 203v.

  33. From the Gracchi to Nero (London, 1959), pp. 330-32.

J. M. Armistead (essay date December 1978)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6359

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 accepted impressionistic or satiric responses to the play—responses like those of the Earl of Rochester, Henry Fielding, and Sir Adolphus Ward, all of whom felt Lee had unforgivably distorted history into an extravanganza of ranting lovesickness. The most recent historian of Restoration drama, Robert D. Hume, continues this negative trend by reiterating the opinions of Dryden and Langbaine: Lee fails to unify his two plots and sacrifices artistry to please the ladies with emotion-freighted love scenes.2

Such unsympathetic reactions are not really counteracted by the enthusiasm of Lee's biographer, Roswell G. Ham, the sane pronouncements of Allardyce Nicoll, or the historical perspective of Eugene Waith, for their comments turn out to be misleading, too general, or inconclusive as regards Lee's artistic achievement. Ham, it seems to me, is patently wrong in classifying this play as an exemplar of the ‘heroic formula’ that dramatizes superhuman valor and desperate love ending in ‘the conflict of great duties’.3 And in trying to fasten a positive judgment on Lee's expression of powerful emotions, Nicoll merely perpetuates the negative impressions of Langbaine and Fielding.4 To Waith, it is true, we owe provocative insights into Sophonisba's character as Lee interprets it—she combines Mairet's death-defying lover with Corneille's (and Marston's) stoically patriotic martyr and thus evokes both pity and admiration. But Waith unhappily confines his attention to the love affairs and mostly ignores ‘Hannibal's Overthrow’ in the military and political sense.5

The result is that we so far have no firm sense of the play's controlling theme or structural design, even though Lee himself urges us to notice these aspects above all. Though first performed in 1675, the play seems to have been revived at Oxford in 1680/81, while the court awaited developments in the Parliamentary session called there by the King. Charles had hoped to cool down exclusionist passions in the House of Commons by freeing it from influence by London's fanatical mobs.6 Dryden's new Prologue places the play in this politically tense context—‘none e're cry'd us down, / But who dislik'd both Bishop and a Crown’ (ll. 27-28)—but Lee's Epilogue scrupulously avoids political innuendo, stressing instead what he finds wanting in earlier responses to the play: its artistry. Just as Charles seeks in Oxford freedom from irrational politics, so Lee is glad to be ‘Free from the partial Censure of the Town, / Where senseless Faction runs the Poet down’ (ll. 5-6) and to rely on ‘this Learn'd Audience’ (l. 1) who, knowing the historical and literary originals of his plot and characters, will impartially assess his witty ‘Copy’ and ‘Crown the Artist with deserved Bayes’ (ll. 16-17). In particular, he can expect the scholars, faculty, and courtiers to note his complex adaptation of the ‘Loves’ of Ovid and Catullus and the ‘Labours’ of Aeneas and Achilles (ll. 33-35).

In combination, the Prologue and Epilogue urge the reader to see Sophonisba as a work of art having sympathetic relevance to the established hierarchy of King and Bishops. Specifically, we are to be sensitive to Lee's way of ringing variations on earlier versions (in history and literature) of his story and to his use of different kinds of love (Ovidian, Catullian) and valor (Homeric, Virgilian). There is no suggestion here of an heroic formula, on stress on spectacle and emotion for their own sakes, and no emphasis on appealing specially to a feminine audience. In fact, the female characters in the play itself are mentioned not as immasculating or enchanting sex objects but as inspirers of ‘Idea's’ of different kinds of love (Epilogue, l. 23).

So far as I can tell, no scholar or critic has followed up these implications. Eric Rothstein has come as close to the mark as any by noting that in Sophonisba ‘heroic self-aggrandizement’ is diluted as heroic traits are divided among three leading characters. He also senses that instead of using the action to bring out the established integrity of these heroes and to reconcile private and public commitments, Lee shows his characters responding plausibly to events and learning that man's deepest desires are unrealizable in public life.7 What Rothstein suggests here, and what a fresh examination of the play reveals, is that Sophonisba employs heroic conventions to study heroism itself in a context that is relevant to contemporary political life—a context of socio-political changes driven by Providence. Thus, Lee's artistry involves (1) a process of selecting and recombining actions, characters, themes, and conventions, from a well-known body of history, romance, and drama and (2) representing these materials in such a way as to comment movingly on the problem of heroic leadership in ‘modern’ life. Furthermore, if Dryden's prologue is supposed to convey an attitude congenial to Lee, then we can expect this contemporary commentary to be pro-Establishment in some way.

William Van Lennep and Eugene Waith8 have mentioned Lee's variations on his sources, but neither attempts to connect the variations—which both allow to be happy ones—to theme and design. A brief summary of the double plot will prepare the way for a new analysis. The first plot line involves Hannibal of Carthage, who vows to continue the war with Rome that his father trained him to prosecute. He regrets, however, the military defections, political delays and chicanery, and his own amorous procrastination, which have turned the tide of battle against him. When his spies return with glowing reports of Rome's splendid legions and when supernatural phenomena portend catastrophe, he orders his priests to consult the gods about prospects. Meanwhile, his mistress, Rosalinda, a Roman lady thought to be Scipio's captive, has persuaded the young and love-sick Massina, nephew to the Numidian King who supports Rome, to help gain her freedom. When they appear in Hannibal's tent, he misinterprets their alliance and orders the youth imprisoned, but he quickly relents when Rosalinda reconfirms her constancy. Massina, however, has been made to understand that she prefers Hannibal's veteran heroism to his youthful passion, and he stabs himself to death in despair. Hannibal regards the suicide as an ominous sign of irrational forces ranged against him, so he proceeds to interrogate the priestesses about the designs of fate. When they foresee an ambiguous stand-off between him and Scipio, but envision Rosalinda's death, Hannibal decides to negotiate a peace, if possible, to delay a climactic battle until the signs are more propitious.

In the parallel plot, Massinissa, King of Numidia, is melancholy about losing his Carthaginian mistress, Sophonisba, to a Numidian rival, Syphax, who now moves against Rome in league with her father, the Carthagenian general Asdrubal. Scipio, Consul of Rome, persuades Massinissa to reassume an heroic posture and to attack Syphax at Cirta, capture Sophonisba, and join the Roman legions against Hannibal at Zama. After killing Syphax in personal combat, Massinissa first grimly and obediently orders Sophonisba bound, but then gives in to her charms as she convinces him she never consummated the marriage with Syphax that her father had commanded. He arranges to marry her immediately, violating both Scipio's orders and his own loyalty to Rome. Upon confronting the newlyweds, Scipio accuses Sophonisba of sorcery and places her under house arrest until he and Massinissa deal with Hannibal.

As the two plots converge, Scipio courteously rejects Hannibal's peace offering and the two armies meet in battle. A series of staccato scenes impressionistically shows that Massinissa's forces push back all but the veteran wing of Hannibal's army, while Hannibal himself nearly defeats Scipio in a duel until reinforcements beat him off. Meanwhile, Rosalinda, dressed as a soldier, is fatally wounded, and when Hannibal finds her, he curses the gods and prepares to resign himself to fate. His aides, however, persuade him to continue as the one heroic prop to a falling kingdom, and he promises a new campaign. Having been victorious on the whole, Scipio now orders Massinissa to bury his unpatriotic and unmanly passion, and Massinissa pretends to obey by having Sophonisba executed. As soon as he is alone with her, however, they pledge eternal love, drink poison, and die in a last embrace. Scipio is thunderstruck by their act and determines to stop the war, retire from public life, and hereafter bend all his waking thoughts on the subject of death.

A potent argument for the play's artistic integrity is that Lee rather deliberately constructs this action by adding his own innovations to elements carefully selected from diverse literary and historical sources. The Massinissa-Sophonisba plot seems inspired mainly by Marston's The Wonder of Women, or The Tragedy of Sophonisba (c. 1606) and by Mairet's (1634) and Corneille's (1663) plays, both entitled Sophonisbe. As in Mairet: (1) Lee's Sophonisba pitiably and desperately loves Massinissa, (2) Massinissa kills Syphax and thus avoids a bigamous marriage, and (3) both Massinissa and Sophonisba commit suicide rather than compromise their love. As in Marston and Corneille, Lee's Sophonisba remains consistently true to Carthage and to her own proud freedom from Roman captivity. Additionally, there is an echo of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra in the closing scene, where Sophonisba, disdaining Roman chains, and Massinissa, rejecting worldly acquisitions and status, give all for love. The Hannibal-Rosalinda plot owes a good deal to Roger Boyle's romance, Parthenissa (1654). There ‘The Story of Izadora and Perolla’ tells of a love triangle in which Hannibal vainly attempts to woo Izadora away from her beloved Perolla. In Lee's version, of course, it is just the other way around: Massina (Perolla) tries to win Rosalinda (Izadora) from Hannibal. To Boyle, Lee also seems to owe the scene of confrontation between Hannibal and Scipio, for the equivalent scene in Livy, the historical source for both authors, is not so clearly echoed in Lee's language.

It is this scene which begins the convergence of the two plots, a phenomenon which distinguishes Lee's play from the work of his chief predecessors. The only earlier literary work that unites the two sub-plots in a meaningful whole is Thomas Nabbes' Hannibal and Scipio (1637, possibly revived 1671), but if Lee knew this play, he owes no apparent debt to its details. Livy, of course, recounts events involving Hannibal as well as Massinissa, Sophonisba, and Scipio, but he records Sophonisba's suicide as occurring before the battle of Zama, and he avoids the kinds of parallels between leaders, heroes, and lovers that Lee chiefly exploits. However, in using Philemon Holland's translation of Livy (1600, with many later printings), Lee may have adapted to his own uses the historian's mention of a certain beautiful and naive nephew of Massinissa (Massina in the play), and he could have transformed the historical Scipio's momentary passion for a young Spanish girl into the fictional Consul's repressed yearning for Rosalinda. Almost certainly, Lee used Livy as his source for (1) the account of Hannibal's previous adventures and (2) the prodigy in which two suns appear in a blood-red sky amidst lightning and thunder.9

To examine Lee's design in adapting his sources is to discover a fresh dramatic assessment of the conventional subjects of heroic drama, love and valor. The Hannibal-Rosalinda plot shows the frustration of old-style heroism in an alien socio-political environment. The self-indulgent confusion of purpose within Carthage, created by ‘Pride’ (I. i. 73) and the ‘wicked policy’ (I. i. 33) of statesmen like Hanno, has made Hannibal's fatherland unworthy of his patriotism, so that he is thrown back on three deeper motives for heroic strife against Rome: (1) ‘natural hate to Rome’ taught by his father (I. i. 92), (2) ‘love’ for the captive Rosalinda (I. i. 93), and (3) a personal sense of honor that regards martial prowess as innately glorious (one must ‘perish bravely, though unfortunate,’ II. ii. 99). Thus, he is not a civic leader, champion of his county, as G. Wilson Knight would have it,10 but rather an isolated powerhouse like the early Almanzor.

Throughout the play he is described as a natural force contending gloriously with other natural forces. He recalls how ‘Nature’ was startled to see him conquer the Alps (I. i. 10) and rush ‘torrent like’ down to ‘Romes proud Walls’ (V. i. 5-6), and when supernatural omens intimate that fortune is against him, he sees himself as ‘Earth’ thundering ‘back upon the sky’ (II. ii. 106). Rosalinda sees him as ‘some rowling Whale’ that ‘Dashes the frighted Nations from his side’ as he becomes both ‘The Ocean's Lord’ and ‘Tirant of the Land’ (III. i. 70-75). By the end of the play he has been deserted not only by Carthage but also, unwillingly, by Rosalinda, whose death in battle confirms the prophecy that fortune now favors Rome. Yet after a brief lament, he readily accepts Maherbal's (and Bomilcar's) heroic philosophy that he must exercise, albeit to no earthly purpose, his god-given valor (V. i. 189-96), for it is the cosmically ordained, and therefore ‘natural’, course of action: honor, says Hannibal, ‘Shall like the Ocean in a Tempest wake. / Wee'l pass new Alpes, new Consuls overthrow’ (V. i. 224-25).

The causes of ‘Hannibal's Overthrow’ are both providential or primary—a subject to be touched upon later—and sublunar, or secondary. Among the secondary causes are his pride and his amorous weakness. The first is revealed by his boasting of god-like powers in battle (I. i. 10, 56-58; IV. i. 168-70) and god-like passion in love (II. ii. 21), and by his vows to force either gods or demons to foretell his destiny (III. ii. 170-79; IV. i. 122-28). The second is a recurring theme in his verbal self-recriminations: ‘I stood almost Immortal Man, / Till Love … / And pointed Beauty through my Armour ran’ (III, ii. 116-18 and see I. i. 103-05). It is an important part of Lee's artistic purpose, however, to make Rosalinda oppose the ‘soft Contagion’ (II. ii. 11) she herself has passed to Hannibal. Like the Sophonisba in Marston's play, she reproaches Hannibal for the amorous weakness that prompts jealousy (III. ii. 85-86). She subordinates the kind of transcendent, youthful passion offered by Massina, as well as loyalty to her country (see III. i. 22-23), to a more lasting commitment to ‘the best and bravest Man in War’ and to the immortal glory conferred by such a commitment (II. i. 232-40). In Rosalinda, Hannibal finds a kindred spirit, another devotee of natural prowess and cosmic honor, and he pays her tribute ‘As Rocks to Seas, or stubborn Oaks to wind’ (III. ii. 113). Thus, Hannibal and Rosalinda represent what happens in the world of the play when one gives all for honor in the high heroic sense. Both end up pursuing prowess and glory without the social nourishment to be derived from state or conventional love.

They are contrasted with Sophonisba and Massinissa, another non-pragmatic pair, who give all for love, rather than for honor. If Rosalinda, a Roman lady, scorns country and courtly love, in order to join her civil enemy in seeking martial glory, Sophonisba, a Carthaginian, scorns country and martial honor, in order to join her ‘official’ enemy in seeking a transcendent passion. The effect of Rosalinda's determination is to ‘save’ Hannibal from love in order to promote heroism. But the effect of Sophonisba's determination is to ‘save’ Massinissa from heroism in order to promote love. Both couples, through these higher loyalties, become alienated from social commitments.

Despite her titular prominence, Sophonisba is much less visible (and audible) than Massinissa, Hannibal, or Scipio. She is, as Waith rightly observes, a clearly conceived combination of Mairet's enthusiastic lover (‘all one desire’, III. iv. 151) and Corneille's proud individualist (‘Bondage is a load I cannot bear,’ IV. i. 224). Massinissa, however, is more prominent in the design and is a more complex personality than his mistress. Like Hannibal, he is torn between love and valor, but his ultimate choice is the opposite of Hannibal's. Until feeling Sophonisba's charms, he was an heroic natural force, much like Hannibal, and revelled in his prowess for its own sake. During the Battle of Zama, when he briefly recaptures this lost heroism, he fights like ‘a Hawke’ (V. i. 83) or ‘As hurricans toss showers, and scatter hail’ (V. i. 79). But in general he deteriorates from an heroic force to be reckoned with—‘I had a Soul cou'd storms outwear,’ I. i. 144—to the victim of both psychological and external tempests: from the moment he held Sophonisba he felt ‘like a dying man’ (I. i. 239), and he now begins to ‘sink in th' abyss of thought’ (III. iv. 107; and see I. i. 156-59, 284-89; II. i.14), ‘the Tempest of … mind’ (II. i. 132), ‘Love's tempestuous Sea’ of passion (I. i. 316). He becomes increasingly less fit to cope with ‘New storms of War’ (I. i. 263). Throughout this degeneration he expresses his fate in nautical terms, as if Sophonisba were a Syren with appeal ‘as powerful as Circes’ (III. iii. 23, 30) and he an Odyssean mariner drowning in her charms (V. i. 413-16). Or he sees himself as a wrecked vessel's merchant-owner, who grasps the one casket of his love and ‘fearless, shoots himself into the Main’ (IV. i. 251-56).

Massinissa's earthly failure is clearly a product of immasculating love, but as in the case of Hannibal's overthrow, there is also a higher cause, providential design. Sophonisba's enchanting eyes are both earthly snares and ‘fatal fires’ acting on behalf of ‘crosser Stars’ (II. i. 14-18). The adverse fate she unwittingly serves involves a larger socio-political change that helps account for both Massinissa's and Hannibal's failures as hero-lovers. The nature of this change is sensed by Massinissa in his first dialogue with Menander and Lelius. Under the influence of love melancholy, he begins to question the virtue of martial heroism. Is it not merely ‘lust of Power’, ‘A strong temptation, to do bravely ill’ (I. i. 132-33)? And does it not result in senseless carnage that is at least as undesirable as the immasculation consequent to love (I. i. 319-22)? Menander responds that Massinissa has confused the truly ‘gallant souls Ambition’ for ‘mystick Empire’ (I. i. 138, 125) with the bestial and mercinary lust for power that makes Empire a mere ‘Bawd’ (I. i. 139). It is the difference, he says, between ‘Mirth’ and ‘lewdness’ in a bride, or between spiritualized self-denial and ‘Pride’ in a ‘Vestal Virgin’ (I. i. 140-41). What Menander is suggesting is that Massinissa is beginning to lose sight of ‘true’ heroism, not only because he is love-blind, but also because there is less and less opportunity for it to emerge in a world increasingly dominated by a more pragmatic and earthly sort of ambition.

It is this new heroism and the new world it implies that is fate's main operative in the play. It envelops both Massinissa and Hannibal, making it impossible for either to achieve a vital fusion of high heroism and high love. Its personification is Scipio, the Roman Consul, just as Hannibal personifies old-style heroism and Massinissa old-style love. Scipio's values, and thus the definition of a new wave in the providential history of heroism, are most clearly enunciated in his dialogues with Massinissa. If these values seem less appealing and admirable than the superhuman courage or passion of Hannibal and Massinissa, they are at least not exactly the venal and bestial traits described by Menander. Scipio is not chiefly interested in the ‘Bawd of Empire’; he does not seek material self-indulgence. Yet his goals are certainly more pragmatic and mundane than those of his antagonists. What he wants to achieve is social and psychological order in the earthly kingdom, and he is not sensitive to the more transcendental aims of heroes and lovers. To conquer kingdoms as a test of personal valor is, he tells Massinissa, ‘to imitate great Heroes dead’ (II. i. 83). Instead, he urges, conquer ‘For Rome, not for your sake’ (IV. i. 281). And as for transcendent love, that is an illusion, mere ‘passion's heat’ (IV. i. 332), just as Sophonisba is not a priceless jewel but rather a witch (IV. i. 367) or the carrier of some contagious mental disease (V. i. 241-42). Better to govern one's passions, ‘quench th'inglorious ardour of your mind’ (II. i. 86-88), and seek the kind of fame that follows upon exemplary self-control, friendship, and the patriotic defense of imperial order. To the love-struck Numidian this is bland fare, and he willfully rejects and misinterprets the lifestyle it seems to offer:

Let melancholy Monarchs Councel take,
Wed by advice and sullen Nuptials make.
But I prefer [Sophonisba] …
To all the wealth that Earth or Seas can hold,
.....Spight of proud Rome and all her haughty men,

(III. iv. 238-43)

Nevertheless, just as he has seen fate in Sophonisba's attractions, he perceives that Scipio's way is somehow the way of the gods: ‘O Rome! Oh Heaven: both equally my foes’ (V. i. 10). Scipio, likewise, understands that he is carrying forward a providential design—‘With me contending against fate you strive’ (IV. i. 294)—and if Massinissa sees himself as drowning in a psychological and moral tempest, Scipio compares himself to the ‘Star fix'd’ that commands and controls such earthly disturbances with the irresistibility of destiny (II. i. 99 and see V. i. 39-41).

If the tragedy of Massinissa is most fully defined in his verbal exchanges with Scipio, Hannibal's tragedy is delineated as he interprets, with Rosalinda, the full significance of his military ‘dialogue’ with the Roman Consul. In each case, the conclusion is the same: Scipio is heaven's new hero, and Roman order is to become fate's new steward. Of all the characters, Hannibal is the most inquisitive about the providential implications of what is taking place. In his opening dialogue with Bomilcar and Maherbal, he shares their feeling that time is now ripe for the ‘Gods’ to give a decisive victory to Carthage or Rome, ‘As each might take up all the care of Heaven’ (I. i. 86-91), and he tacitly accepts their nostalgia for ‘a Time … / When victory on Hills of Heroes sat’ (I. i. 59-60). To such old-time heroism, he explicitly contrasts what he calls Scipio's ‘Civil brav'ry’ (II. ii. 36), and he is brought to admit that while ‘fortune once did on our Genius shine’ (V. i. 25), now she seems to have shifted her allegiance to a new kind of leadership. The dying words of Rosalinda are pitiably accurate: ‘The Roman glory [i.e. Scipio's star] shines too fatally bright’ (V. i. 178). In his most pessimistic mood, upon witnessing the lovesick suicide of Massina, Hannibal bitterly resigns himself: ‘The bus'ness of our life's a senseless thing,’ and we are mere ‘Sport for the Gods’ (III. ii. 146-50). But at the play's end he accepts heaven's opposition as perhaps his greatest challenge, an opportunity to display his heroism on its most cosmic and glorious level: ‘I could the summons meet of hell or Heaven …’ (V. i. 204).

Appropriately, it is to Hannibal, the transcendent hero, and not to the pragmatic and temperate Scipio, that the designs of fate are revealed through supernatural omens. As usual, Lee employs his prodigies carefully, making their spectacular effects somehow symbolize key aspects of plot or theme. In Act II Hannibal witnesses two suns, which become two gigantic warriors wearing diamond-studded armor, locked in battle while black demons drum hollow clouds and blow trumpets inlayed with sunbeams. Mountains are buried, household deities sweat, temples drop their garlands, a wolf and wild boar spread carnage through the Carthaginian army, and voices cry ‘Carthage is fal'n’ (II. ii. 56-83 and S.D.). Perhaps the wolf and boar are Carthage's own self-destructive politicians, while the two warrior-suns symbolize the natural opposition that exists between Hannibal's heroic valor and Scipio's civil bravery. The prediction of defeat for Carthage foreshadows the actuality and drives Hannibal to seek more detailed prophecies, a determination that is intensified by what he feels is the senseless death of Massina: thus, he must ‘Know to what good or ill this lifes design'd’ and will go ‘For the great secret to the Gods’ (III. ii. 170-79). What he learns there, through the blood-sacrificing priestesses in Bellona's temple, is that Rome will prevail over Carthage, even though Hannibal himself will survive ‘Spight of fortune and fate: / And the Gods that oppose’ (IV. i. 50-81). When this fails to satisfy him, he demands further details, this time from the underworld, and is shown a dreadful vision of Rosalinda dying. When events confirm all these predictions, Hannibal readily perceives it—‘Dire Goddess of war, / Too true … thy presages’ (V. i. 155-56)—and girds himself for the ultimate heroism in combat against fate herself.

It should be fairly evident now that Sophonisba is no formulaic heroic play and that its two story-lines are both clearly conceived and well knit into a meaningful whole. Instead of using action and utterance to figure forth some admirable idea of greatness, Lee dramatizes the struggle of alternative kinds of heroism and love to survive the unfolding of a new socio-political order. He draws our attention to this central concern when, in the Epilogue, he asks the readers and auditors not to be surprised if he embodies various types of love (from that of Catullus to that of Ovid) and heroism (from Homeric to Virgilian). This approach to characterization was, of course, not unique to Lee, but the distinctive way in which he adapted it to his own ends is interestingly revealed by contrast to Dryden's similar technique in The Conquest of Granada (1670-71). There, Dryden divides heroic traits between the irregular, Herculean greatness of Almanzor and the ‘correct’ heroic virtue of Ozmyn. As the play develops, however, the two heroic types are seen to converge as they approach—in time, place, and attitudes—their ultimate enfoldment by Ferdinand, the idealized hero-King. Thus like most heroic plays, this one works toward a final definition of ‘true’ heroism, and all the alternatives—including unheroic variations like Zulema, Abdalla and Abdelmelech—sooner or later become subsumed in the controlling idea, or succumb, usually through death, to its enveloping power. Similarly, the various gradations of love/lust—from Lyndaraxa's Hobbesian desire for power (and Zulema's desire for carnal pleasure), to Almahide's agonized balance of conflicting commitments, to Benzayda's ideally constant devotion—are dramatized to show the definitive emergence of some ideal combination, in love, of Christian and pagan virtues, an ideal the lovers approach in the person of Isabella, the perfect lover-Queen.

Not so in Sophonisba. Lee's characters are not choreographed to move symbolically toward some ideal reconciliation of opposite traits. Neither pair of lovers—Hannibal/Rosalinda or Massinissa/Sophonisba—manages to effect a relationship that can grow with the changing times. As the times change, so do the requirements for heroism and love—and with a vengeance. Isabella gains her husband's consent to the proposition that intense love will breed intensely patriotic heroism in the new Christian kingdom. In Lee's play Scipio can agree to nothing of the sort. He discourages Massinissa's amorous passion, and when he himself once feels moved by a woman's charms (Rosalinda's), his reponse is to resist with all the self-control of his ‘yet unshaken Soul’ which ‘No force of War, or Love cou'd ever wound’ (III. i. 28-29). Like Ferdinand and his Christian state, Scipio and the Roman order he serves prevail in the world of the play, but this dominance is not achieved, in Scipio's case, by inspiring allegiance in key opponents. The Roman Empire rolls over and displaces its opposition, and there is no simultaneous fusing of diverse strengths among the combatants and no purging of villainess weaknesses.

This is because Sophonisba is not an heroic play but rather a dramatic paradigm for the tragedy of heroism in the ‘modern’ world. Far more significantly than it looks back to The Conquest of Granada, it looks forward to All for Love (1677), and one must hereafter, it seems to me, regard it as a source for the later play. To see All for Love as the heir to tendencies in Aureng-Zebe (1675)11 is perhaps a less instructive exercise than to see it as an adaptation of Shakespeare along lines strongly suggested by Lee's two recent successes, Sophonisba and The Rival Queens (1676/77). As David Vieth has noted, Dryden must have been influenced by the following elements in The Rival Queens: its casting, blank verse, emphasis on a clash of cultures (Persia/Macedonia, Egypt/Rome), and structural focus on a flawed hero (Alexander, Antony) as related to his antithesis (Cassander, Alexas), rival lovers (Statira/Roxana, Cleopatra/Octavia), stoical counsellor (Clytus, Ventidius), and effeminate friend (Hephestion, Dolabella).12 Yet some of these same elements were also present in the earlier Lee play, along with other aspects of theme, characterization, and structure that suggest an even stronger influence on Dryden. As in The Rival Queens, most of the key roles in Sophonisba were played by actors who took equivalent parts in All for Love: Hart, who created both Alexander and Antony, played Massinissa; Thomas Clark, the Hephestion and Dolabella of the later plays, became Massina; Michael Mohun was Hannibal, and later embodied Clytus and Ventidius; and Elizabeth Boutell was the Rosalinda of 1681 (the Oxford revival), and was later to play Statira and Cleopatra. Moreover, the clash of cultures is as important in Sophonisba as in the subsequent plays. What Massinissa gives up for Sophonisba is not only worldly treasures but also his short-lived attempt to manacle his instinctive self, his passionate nature, in service to the Roman virtues of rational self-control and pragmatic relationships. If the Africans of the play—Hannibal, Massinissa, Massina, Sophonisba—are repeatedly compared to warm or tempestuous images from physical nature (storms, powerful animals, flames: I. i. 10, 144; II. i. 14-17, ii. 106; IV. i. 70-75, ii. 92, 113, iv. 150; V. i. 5-6, 79, 83, 224-25), the Romans, as represented by Scipio, are imaged as cold, emotionally distant engineers of an ‘artificial’ empire (II. i. 53, 82-86, 99, 172; III. i. 28-29, ii. 92; IV. i. 281-332; V. i. 39-41).

If one sees fewer similarities between Sophonisba and All for Love than between Dryden's play and The Rival Queens, there is a qualitatively more significant thematic and structural principle in the earlier Lee play which Dryden makes central to his design. This is the sense of an inexorable, not wholly sympathetic socio-political force pressing upon the more passionate characters. In both plays, this force is conceptualized as Rome and is personified by a Roman leader, Scipio or Octavius, whose dominance is felt to be more psychological than martial. In the process of confronting this force, the heroic lovers in both plays—Sophonisba/Massinissa, Cleopatra/Antony—reveal similar sets of attitudes (as mentioned above, pp. 38-9) and reject worldly status and possession in order to achieve transcendent dominion in love.

But here the likenesses, and the apparent debts, cease. Dryden's focus remains fixed with Aristotelian concentration on the agonies and suicides of his two lovers, and his other characters subserve this primary interest. Lee, on the other hand, splits his attention between the heroic lovers, Sophonisba/Massinissa, and the two lover-heroes, Rosalinda/Hannibal. Furthermore, Dryden's narrow focus necessitates keeping Octavius offstage and so transforming him into a concept and a shadowy force, while Lee brings his Roman pragmatist, Scipio, before us and uses him not only to articulate the new heroics that will succeed the ‘Time … / When victory on Hills of Heroes sat’ but also to provide a structural centerpiece. In The Rival Queens, Alexander performs the same structural function, but the dynamics of his position are radically different. Like an old star whose own spent energy collapses inward in a self-destructive catastrophe, Alexander's weakness allows the enemies, which he has in a sense created, to destroy him. In Lee's Scipio, however, we have a strong central figure, a star on the rise, as he depicts himself (V. i. 41), and the consequence of his confronting opposition in Hannibal and Massinissa is their defeat, not his own. If Alexander draws opposition inward like a vacuum, Scipio polarizes and drives away opposed forces as his field of energy expands. Eschewing his dull, calm determination, Rosalinda flees to the camp of Hannibal, the excitingly tempestuous hero; and Massinissa, rejecting Scipio's stoical attitude toward love, moves away to join passions with Sophonisba.

As we watch the concluding battle, in which these three centers of energy come together in a tragic catastrophe, we become provocatively aware that the play offers us no villains, no winners, no losers, no poetic justice. There is something to approve and something to regret in each set of combatants. Rosalinda dies nobly, but we may wish her to have sought fuller development as a lover, instead of giving all for honor. Hannibal is admirably determined to fight on heroically against fate itself, yet we wish pride had not blocked out the prospect of his injecting a little Herculean energy into the new socio-political order. Massina pathetically kills himself in a fit of love-melancholy, and we regret he could not have learned enough Roman stoicism to get through his despair. Massinissa achieves his ethereal palace of love, but we cannot approve his vacillation between an honorable devotion to prowess and a passionate commitment to Sophonisba, and we regret his inability to find an earthly solution to his dilemma. Likewise, our attitude toward Sophonisba is mixed: her self-sacrifice seems both movingly virtuous and pathetically defeatist. Finally, one cannot help but feel an aversion to Scipio's cool politics, self-righteously balanced psyche, and verbal assaults on ‘great Heroes’ (II. i. 83) and ‘storms of Passion’ (II. i. 53). Yet the kind of virtue he represents is not unseemly, and it is certainly practical. To maintain an orderly society and to orchestrate the diverse forces of a complex body politic, a sovereign must be self-possessed and capable of basing decisions on reasonable and practical criteria. Such virtues, those of a strong, patriotic manager, are to be respected, if not loved.

The contemporary relevance of these mixed portraits, hinted at by Dryden in his Prologue, can be no more than just that: relevance—not specific parallel, allegory, or satire. Yet one may easily imagine that as Charles II watched this play—not only in 1675 when his climactic troubles were brewing as he idled with his mistresses, but also in 1680/81 when he was about to act decisively for a change—he sensed allusions to the present state of England. The alternative forms of heroism and love dramatized by Lee may well have seemed to imply Charles's own choices, and the results of those choices, both personal and public, would then have had their poignancy for the Merry Monarch. What of Massinissa's deadly failure to reconcile amorous passion and participation in the great public developments of his day? Can one become a Scipio without stoically subordinating his love life and his luxuries to patriotic duty? Are the high heroics of Hannibal and his dramatic predecessors merely anachronistic, unrealizable in the modern world?

Scipio's curious closing speech raises these issues to the level of tragic vision:

These unexpected objects [the corpses of Sophonisba and Massinissa]
                              … amaze,
My reason. …
.....With Carthage peace wee'l instantly conclud,
.....To Rome our Drooping Eagles … shall steer,
When after tiresome honours wee'l repair
To some small village …
And study not to live, but how to die.

(V. i. 425-34)

The effect of this lament is to shift the audience's attention from the victory of Roman arms and the ascendancy of a new form of heroism, to the tragic loss of old-fashioned heroic love and honor. It is tragic because this new episode in providential history, this new ice age of Roman imperialism, has created an environment uncongenial to the great dinosaurs of prowess and passion; its gains are matched by losses, and a kind of blandly civilized ecology takes over the once primitively exotic terrain. Rome triumphs, but grand amour is extinct, and the once indomitable Hannibal desperately shakes a clinched fist at fate, while Scipio, with Charles II and the rest of the audience, leaves the theatre to ‘study’ the consequences.


  1. My text is in The Works of Nathaniel Lee, ed. Thomas B. Stroup and Arthur L. Cooke (1954; rpt. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1968), I, 73-144. Hereafter, citation will be made parenthetically to act, scene, and/or lines.

  2. See ‘An Allusion to Horace, the Tenth Satyr of the First Book’, ll. 37-40, in The Complete Poems of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, ed. David M. Vieth (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1968), p. 122; Fielding, ‘H. Scriblerus Secundus; His Preface’, The Tragedy of Tragedies; or the Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great (London and Dublin, 1731), n.pag.; Ward, A History of English Literature to the Death of Queen Anne, rev. ed. (London: Macmillan, 1899), iii, 408-09; Hume, The Development of English Drama in the Late Seventeenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), p. 313; John Dryden, cited by Stroup and Cooke, Works, ii, 76; Gerard Langbaine, An Account of the English Dramatic Poets (1691), ed. John Loftis, The Augustan Reprint Society (Los Angeles: Clark Library, 1971), ii, 325-26.

  3. Otway and Lee (1931; rpt. New York: Greenwood Press, 1969), p. 66.

  4. Restoration Drama, 1660-1700, 4th ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952), p. 123.

  5. Ideas of Greatness: Heroic Drama in England (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1971), pp. 236-39.

  6. For the historical background of this essay, I rely chiefly on David Ogg, England in the Reign of Charles II, 2 vols., 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955), esp. chs. i, iv-v, viii-x, xv-xvii, xix.

  7. Restoration Tragedy: Form and the Process of Change (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1963), pp. 81-85.

  8. The best source study is Van Lennep's ‘The Life and Works of Nathaniel Lee, Dramatist: A Study of the Sources’, Diss Harvard 1933, pp. 94-120. Waith (pp. 236-39) is more easily accessible but is less thorough.

  9. These sources, and other versions of the Sophonisba story, are more fully discussed by Van Lennep.

  10. The Golden Labyrinth: A Study of British Drama (London: Phoenix House, 1962), pp. 159-60.

  11. The view of Arthur C. Kirsch, ‘The Importance of Dryden's Aureng-Zebe’, ELH, 29 (1962), 160-74.

  12. ‘Introduction’, All for Love, ed. Vieth (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1972), pp. xxiii-xxv. In reviewing past discoveries of Dryden's literary debts in this play, Vieth, like all other scholars thus far, does not comment on its relation to Sophonisba.

J. M. Armistead (essay date 1979)

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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.]


To the informed reader, Caesar Borgia is one of Lee's most rewarding compositions, though it is commonly thought little more than a terror-filled, verbose affair hastily thrown together to compensate for the prohibition of The Massacre of Paris. Some critics, indeed, have praised it for occasional passages of powerful verse and for success in making Borgia and Machiavel compelling characters, and William Van Lennep has instructively noted its indebtedness to specific historical sources and to Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists.1 But such observations do little to highlight distinctive qualities of the play or to elucidate its artistic design.

More to the point would be a series of questions, based on just such critical notations, but leading to a fuller understanding of theme and form. If the banning of The Massacre of Paris necessitated the creation of a politically tame play, what can a comparison of the two works reveal? How and to what end does Lee fictionalize history? What is the artistic intent of his most obvious borrowings from earlier literature: the Machiavellian villain, the Iago-Othello relation between the two central characters, and the motif of Columbus's discovery of the New World? Dealing with these and related issues suggests that in this play Lee continues to comment on contemporary affairs but that he does so chiefly through psychology and symbol rather than through historically parallel actions and political ideologies as in The Massacre of Paris. In Caesar Borgia he explores psychological relationships that are fundamentally relevant to the era of the Popish Plot and Exclusion Crisis. He shows these relationships and the actions they generate developing within an aesthetic environment of highly charged traditional symbols that connect psychology and behavior to political theory, morality, and religion. Ultimately, then, he urges his audience to see the play not as specific political editorial but as symbolic paradigm showing how Providence unfolds implications inherent in minds and hearts of the sorts that flourish in all eras of intense political intrigue.


Caesar Borgia could hardly have been composed in haste. Careful design was required if Lee was to avoid creating another overt commentary on current events like The Massacre of Paris. He faced essentially two alternatives: either to ignore current politics altogether and write a play with no apparent contemporary relevance—another variation on eternal themes, like Oedipus, another study of tyrannic love, like Mithridates—or to avoid only the specific parallels while exploring the underlying moral and psychological dimensions of the present scene. In typical fashion, he undertook the latter.

What he carried over from The Massacre of Paris is as revealing as what he avoided. The sheer horror of the earlier piece, for example, is not materially reduced. If a stage strewn with corpses formed a morbid background for the stabbing, mutilation, and burning of the Protestant leader in Massacre, in Caesar Borgia the audience witnesses the bludgeoning of Gandia in view of his beloved Bellamira (Borgia: “here, dip her Handkerchief, / … in his blood, and bid her dry her eyes” [V. i. 112-13]), the subsequent strangling of Bellamira as she gazes, horror-struck, at the corpses of her murdered family, and the presentation to the dying Borgia of his maimed and blinded son, Seraphino. In both plays these atrocities serve essentially the same purpose, to show that vicious politics, supported by a corrupt church, inevitably lead to cruelly inhumane consequences. As he wrote the second play, however, Lee apparently wished to emphasize the vices of Machiavellianism more than those of Roman Catholicism. Thus, when he replaced the Paris of Charles IX, the Guises, and Catherine de Medici with one less patently mirroring the contemporary scene—the Rome of Pope Alexander VI and his bastard son Caesar Borgia—he gave a more central role to the unscrupulous political advisor (Catherine de Medici in the earlier play) and embodied it in “Machiavel” himself. The anti-Papist bias remains in the offstage presence of Alexander VI and in the minor character, Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, but the emphasis now falls on “Machiavellian Magick” (III. i. 454).

In this respect the play would have been more aptly entitled “Machiavel and Caesar Borgia,” for it deals primarily with the interaction between these two figures. Machiavel's scheme to promote Borgia initiates a chain of gory murders that unexpectedly ends with Borgia's own. Machiavel is directly responsible only for the first of these, that of Bellamira's confidante, Adorna, who is disposed of through the use of poisoned gloves, once she is no longer useful as a source of chamber keys and fraudulent letters exposing her mistress's infidelities. The remaining homicides, except his own, are accomplished by Borgia after he becomes obsessed with the notion, implanted by Machiavel, that Bellamira prefers and, indeed, carries on an affair with, his brother the Duke of Gandia. Once this conviction gets possession of him he is driven far beyond Machiavel's immediate purpose in inciting him, which was to have him reject the unheroic role of pusillanimous lover by doing away with the unfaithful Bellamira and her “incestuous” devotee, Gandia. So the tragic action of the play emerges from Machiavel's powerful mind operating on Borgia's passionate nature. They are two parts, as it were, of a single personality. When Machiavel calls Borgia “my second self” (I. i. 84) he does not mean “another me” but rather “a complementary side, that part of me which feels and acts out my grand designs.”

This is a stylized version of the Iago-Othello relationship, but the accent on what we now call the fragmented personality makes it distinctive, and Lee's way of endowing it with larger implications is, on the whole, new and ingenious. This can best be demonstrated by examining the extent to which he borrowed and modified historical facts and literary traditions. Van Lennep has identified the chief historical sources as Tomaso Tomasi's Vita del Duca Valentino (1671), Francesco Guicciardini's Historie (trans. Geoffrey Fenton, 1561, going into many later editions), and Machiavelli's The Prince and so-called “Sinigallia Tract” (entitled “A Relation of the course taken by Duke Valentine [Borgia], in the murdering of … the Family of the Orsini”), published together in a 1640 translation by Edmund Dacres, with several later editions.2

That Lee employed dozens of details from these sources is not so striking, however, as his way of fictionalizing the facts. His major changes were designed to draw together separate historical episodes into a unified whole where their different kinds of significance—political, moral, religious—would interpenetrate and develop as a single pattern of meaning. First, he altered the love triangle—which Tomasi and Guicciardini define as an incestuous one involving Borgia, Gandia, and their sister Lucrezia—by replacing Lucrezia with the wholly fictitious Bellamira, supposed daughter of Paul Orsino, one of the leading enemies whom the historical Borgia liquidated at Sinigallia. Bellamira becomes a pivotal character around whom Lee can make historically separate murders revolve in one time and place. Envisioning her as having an illicit love affair with Gandia, Borgia first murders his own brother, an incident which Guicciardini and Tomasi ascribe mainly to sibling rivalry for temporal power and popularity. Using as a lure the temporary conciliation which Bellamira has effected between himself and her father, Borgia next draws the Orsini and Vitelli into his murderous clutches, a development which the historians locate in Sinigallia, not Rome, and which they connect not to Borgia's love life but to his political machinations. Finally, he murders Bellamira herself, an entirely fictional event, and his resultant insanity prefaces his own accidental death (and that of his father, the Pope) by drinking the poisoned wine he had intended for others—another historically based occurrence with a changed set, slightly altered cast, and modified outcome (the historical Borgia lives to laugh at Fortune).


If the invention of Bellamira provides a means of achieving unity of time and place and of fusing the central political episodes to the love plot, Lee's second key innovation, the injecting of Machiavel into this boiling cauldron of tensions, adds psychological and moral ingredients. Despite his use of Borgia as the exemplary “Prince” in his own writings, the historical Machiavelli seems never to have served for long as Borgia's confidential advisor, though he tells us that at the time of the Sinigallia massacre he was on the scene, having been sent as Florence's ambassador to aid Borgia against his enemies.3 Possibly this is where Lee derived the notion of giving Machiavel a central role in the whole chain of events dramatized in the play. It is more likely, however, that he took his cue from the long English literary tradition of creating Machiavellian villains, and it is by examining his belated employment of the type that we can best appreciate this aspect of his artistry.

In the earlier seventeenth century Machiavelli had become an established figure in philosophy, religion, political thought, and drama. Usually when he was invoked it was to represent his realpolitik in a negative light, though a few republican or disinterested writers could see him as a practical student of classical history who founded a kind of political science. More often, however, he appeared as the embodiment of Satan (or, at the very least, as a pagan or atheist) intriguing against the moral order to acquire wealth and power. Cruelty, cynicism, and an “aesthetic appreciation of his own villainies”4 were his most prominent personal traits. This mythical Machiavel shared few characteristics with his original, the sane political observer, statesman, and classicist, who wrote The Prince and The Discourses.

Lee's Machiavel owes something to both the imaginative tradition and the historical figure. With many of his literary predecessors he shares a keen pleasure in the aesthetics of his own schemes (III. i. 60-63), and his frank egotism (III. i. 244) and scorn for the dictates of conscience (III. i. 251-52) recall similar attitudes in previous villains like Thomas Kyd's Lorenzo and Shakespeare's Richard III. His apparent atheism and penchant for using poisons are also typical of earlier stage Machiavels. But he seems to inherit at least two traits from the historical figure as well, though Lee avoids featuring the latter's republican ideals (perhaps to avoid the censure that greeted the republican admiral in Massacre). Unlike his original, Lee's Machiavel is a monarchist interested only in promoting his “Italian Tyrant” (I. i. 206), and he is motivated not by a political philosophy that sees Borgia as a necessary evil in corrupt times but rather by an obsession to mold another's destiny—an obsession that springs primarily from a visionary desire to recreate the ancient Roman Empire. This last notion links him to the author of The Prince, for both are students of classical history and wish to raise Borgia “to the old height of Roman Tyrants” (I. i. 86). Lee's Machiavel wants to do this personally, by snatching Borgia away from Bellamira, who melts his passion for “Arms and Glory” (I. i. 151), and by removing the impediments of Gandia, the Orsini, and the Vitelli.5

The second trait that Lee's Machiavel shares with the political writer is his concern for the relation between individual will and Fortune. Though, as Aubrey Williams has been reminding us, this whole issue of the role of Fortune (or Providence if seen from a Christian viewpoint) was “of crucial importance” to many Restoration authors,6 Lee seems to have derived his interest in it in this case less from the “climate of opinion” than from The Prince, The Discourses, and the Fenton translation of Guicciardini. In all three works Fortune is taken very seriously and is conceived of in essentially the same way—the only great discrepancy being that to Fenton's Guicciardini she is God's handmaiden, while to Machiavelli she is a symbol for the constellation of social forces that share with individual will the responsibility for specific events in history. Both authors regard Fortune as being partially comprehensible by human judgment. Perceptive men may discern the direction toward which she tends and adjust their own designs so as to reap benefits derived from assisting her. Machiavelli adds that since men are bound by the limitations of their individual natures—their particular configurations of passion and intellect—they are not always able to change their tactics as Fortune changes hers, so that the drift of affairs will sometimes operate against them. Moreover, even when man manages to predict Fortune's course accurately, his most prudent decisions may not be able entirely to prevent her from acting against his interests.7 This is what Machiavel's overzealous protégé in Lee's play means when, in a paraphrase of The Prince, he resolves to “dam … up” Fortune's torrent, so that “if she does ore-flow, she may … / Bring but half Ruine to our great designs” (V. iii. 68, 71-72).

Lee's Machiavel shares his original's respect for Fortune, but in his drive to define her inclinations he leaves out of consideration what Lee, like the translator of Guicciardini, senses to be her ultimate characteristic: her subservience to God's cosmic design. Machiavel cannot see that Fortune is, in fact, Providence, and his blindness leads toward a tragedy so fundamental that it shakes the foundations of his confidence and sanity. In the beginning he regards Borgia as Fortune's choice of the perfect raw material out of which he can “finish forth a greatness,” for Borgia, like Dryden's Absalom, is “a Bastard, got in a fit of Nature!” (I. i. 93-94). His father, a priest, “stampt the Bullion in a heat,” possibly while “in the Embraces of a Nun” (I. i. 96, 102). Like his brother and sister, therefore, Borgia is “a start of Nature” formed by a chance collision of “wandering Atoms” and measuring up to one of “Lucian's Gods” (I. i. 108, 272, 276). Thus, he has all the raw traits any Machiavel could wish for in a protégé: powerful natural parts, politically useful religious connections, and the apparent approval of Fortune. It remains to disburden him of Bellamira's softening charms and of his bugbear conscience, in order to show him that “Self-love's the Universal Beam of Nature, / The Axle-tree that darts through all its Frame” (III. i. 246-47). Only then will it be possible to make his “Golden Fortune” (V. iii. 9) by “another's ruine” (III. i. 250) and by carefully husbanding “the Pope … that rich source” (V. iii. 10).

Lee's Machiavel, then, like the author of The Prince, thinks in pre-Christian terms. He wishes to make Borgia into a fine Roman tyrant who is guided by Machiavel's own philosophy of opportunism combined with egotism, Lucretian materialism, and a love of diabolical machination. The trouble with this ambition, as the events of the play make clear, is that it ignores the nature of the Christian cosmos, that Augustinian universe which still held fascination for Lee and his contemporaries, even though it was being reinterpreted to account for the findings of science and realignments in the political and economic order. To Lee's Machiavel the whole conception of a fallen world, where only a precariously maintained social and moral organization prevents the Devil from capitalizing on human pride and passion, is a fiction whose chief manifestation in the human mind is Christian conscience, which he regards as a childish superstition. The universe consists, he believes, of mind, matter, power, passion, and Fortune, and whoever orchestrates these to his own advantage can count on success. Passion, in particular, is ignoble only when it expends itself purposelessly, on women or mere pleasure. Such “Gothick Fury” (I. i. 563) Machiavel condemns in Borgia's feeling for Bellamira, feelings which he presumes were generated by “the Vandals” (III. i. 336) when they overran old Rome and put out the flames of “manly Confidence and Roman Vertue” (I. i. 562). Equally ignoble is Christian passivity, the gutless absence of passion, the otherworldly “meekness of an Anchorite” (II. i. 287) which insults manhood. In its place he would inspire a “dazling Passion, and becoming Fury” (II. i. 376) to drive Borgia forward to greatness. He envisions an invincible partnership between his own omniscient intellect and Borgia's fortunate combination of natural strength, passion, and prestige.

He is defeated because this vision, based soundly enough on a pagan conception of the universe, is erroneous. In the world of this play at least, an Augustinian order prevails, Fortune is Providence, and egotism and earthly desire are the Devil's tools. Interestingly enough, Lee does not make Machiavel himself an embodiment of Satan, though this was a common practice on the Tudor and Caroline stage. Instead, he is shown to be an unwitting agent of Hell who, by misinterpreting the universe, enables Satan to possess the soul of Borgia. On various occasions Machiavel defines his strategies by using metaphors drawn from the imagery of demonism, but he is not serious about them. To his mind they are merely metaphors, aids to expression which he peppers among others of a less occult nature. He regards himself, for example, as a sculptor whose brass or marble is Borgia (I. i. 81-93), as a physician mixing the ingredients of “the potion Death” (I. i. 215-16), as a shipwright whose vessel is designed to brave the tempests of Fortune (III. i. 60-63), the holder of a key to victory over Borgia's enemies (V. i. 40-44), the trainer of a champion greyhound about to run his most triumphant race (V. i. 76-77). Amidst such rhetorical images appears the telling one: thus far his evil influence is merely an “Infant Fury,” but he intends to “nurse this Brood of Hell to such perfection / As shall e're long become the Devil's Manhood” (III. i. 452, 455-56). He knows not how truly, how nonmetaphorically, he speaks in this case. The infant mischief brought into Borgia's personality by his midwifery, and nursed by his continuing strategies, is more than the simple jealousy which he expects to result in the expedient deaths of Bellamira and Gandia. It is, in fact, “the Devil's Manhood,” whose gory acts ensanguine the stage of Act V, presenting a spectacle that temporarily destroys Machiavel's rational self-control: in an hallucination he sees ghost-like forms of Borgia and the Pope, and he confesses that his “mind” is “deeply shockt, even from her own Foundation” (V. iii. 35-43, 242-44) by the extravagance of suffering his schemes have caused.


But if Machiavel's confrontation with the true nature of Fortune results in a shock, for Borgia such knowledge is to be had only at the expense of his humanity, sanity, and salvation. From the moment he comes on stage Borgia carries with him an ugly reputation for cruelty, lust, and incest, and it is only the flicker of a higher, redeeming sort of relationship with Bellamira that alerts him to the radical disjunction between her humane, Christian world and Machiavel's world of ego, power politics, and the passion for conquest. As Machiavel gains more and more control over his will, Borgia becomes progressively less capable of distinguishing the two worlds, of differentiating love from lust, humane justice from bestial revenge, the establishing of a relationship from the exploitation of others. Three, interrelated strands of imagery helps us to follow Borgia's degeneration. All three are significantly woven into his conception of Bellamira, whom he sees less frequently as a “Cherubim” (II. i. 373), “bright Augusta” (V. i. 345), and “pattern of the Gods” (IV. i. 371)—or in moments of fury as sorceress and serpent (IV. i. 96; V. i. 74)—than as an Edenic New World which he must seek through perilous seas. What emerges most noticeably as we examine different uses of this cluster of images is that the three central metaphors—Columbus's New World to describe Bellamira, Eden to express the ideal state of loving her, and tempestuous seas to represent the psychological and social impediments to Borgia's ambitions—grow and change in significance as the play develops.

The ambivalent symbolism of New World imagery was well established by the time Lee chose to employ it. In England the literary response to America began in the 1550s with Richard Eden's translation of Peter Martyr's Decades and with John Ponet's Short Treatise of Politicke Power. By the early seventeenth century the New World had made its way into all the major branches of imaginative writing—lyric poetry, drama, essay, chronicle—where it began to be seen in certain conventional perspectives. Later seventeenth-century writers like Lee could, therefore, presume that allusions to Columbus, the New World, and Indians would automatically convey a variety of connotations simultaneously: on the positive side, the spirit of adventurous discovery, a virgin resource of riches and medicinal cures, an Arcadia, Utopia, New Eden or earthly paradise, where the Golden Age still existed. Negatively, such references carried connotations of natural terrors—jungles, strange and deadly plants and animals—and of aboriginal cannibals who served the Devil, sacrificed humans to an insatiable sun god, and originated that scourge of the accomplished rake, syphilis. Moreover, almost any allusion to America conjured up the popular myth of Spanish atrocities against the Indians.8

Lee's references to the New World—which are made not only through Borgia but also in the remarks of Cardinal Ascanio—emphasize five of these conventional connotations: the spirit of exploration and discovery, the rediscovery of the Golden Age or New Eden, the aura of Devil worship, the “pox,” and the cruel exploitation of America's land and inhabitants. He selects these because they can be logically connected in order to bring out part of his theme. Briefly, the point he makes with this set of images is that Machiavellian politics and Roman Catholicism deal with human beings in essentially the same way, from the same motives, as the Spaniards were thought to have dealt with the New World. Finding it a pristine paradise, they barbarously exploited it in order to possess its gold and Indian slaves. Such behavior not only betokened bestiality and depravity; it also resulted in increased corruption, for the exploited Indians who were brought to Europe carried with them the influence of Satan and the “pox.” As with the Spaniards, so, in Lee's version, with the Roman Church (headed during the era of Columbus's discoveries by the Spanish Pope, Alexander VI, Borgia's father) and so with Machiavellian politics as acted out by Borgia.

Before demonstrating this in respect to politics, Borgia, and the play's overarching meaning, let us briefly turn to the most interesting minor character, Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, and the satire of ecclesia. He personifies the secularized, unscrupulous, materialistic, and lustful Roman Churchman. That by his past actions he had already sealed his pact with the Devil is clear from the beginning, for, unlike Borgia, he is incapable even of perceiving human relations on a level higher than the material and sensual. He drools over Bellamira's “skin full of alluring flesh” (I. i. 29), and it is to avenge himself on Borgia for possessing her first that he causes Seraphino's eyes to be gouged out and his face mangled. While admiring Machiavel's earthly wisdom (“Brain, all brain” [I. i. 104]), Ascanio is realistic about his own grosser merits (“stuff to him— / Meer … Guts of Government” [I. i. 105-06]). In essence, if not in spirit, he agrees with Machiavel and Paul Orsino, who consider him a “dull … walking lump of Lust” with an “ungorg'd appetite” for whores to whom he has given “the Neapolitan Pox” (I. i. 203-04, 357)—presumably having picked it up in Naples to which, according to Guicciardini, it had come from Spain after Spanish adventurers brought it from America. Ascanio is a caricature of the venal prelate (of the same name) described by Guicciardini, and it may well be that Lee decided to connect him with images of the New World by reading in that same source brief discussions of the origins of the “pox,” of Columbus, and of the Spanish practice of exploiting riches in America instead of propagating Christianity.9

At any rate, it is Ascanio who has brought to the Papal Chamber of State the “little American Boys with Boxes of Jewels in their hands” (stage directions to Act I), and it is implied that they were part of his payment to the Pope for raising him to the Cardinalate (Guicciardini says Ascanio was among the first to buy Papal patronage). As the play opens, he has Alonzo introduce these “Children of the new-found World” (I. i. 155) to Machiavel and offer their jewels as an earnest of further compensation should Machiavel agree to sever Borgia from Bellamira. To back his own program for promoting Borgia, Machiavel has already decided to accept “Ascanio's new golden World” (I. i. 110), implicitly including the Pope's favor, and later he reminds Borgia that such support is a kind of “Golden Fortune” (V. iii. 9) that always favors their designs. Here, Machiavel is of one mind with Ascanio, who explains to Alonzo that for “twenty thousand Crowns” many “Monks, Fryers, Jesuits … would kill their Fathers, / Ravish their Mothers, eat their Brothers and Sisters” (III. i. 24-27). We are not surprised, then, when the dying Ascanio begins to babble with seeming incoherence about a corrupt Church, the New World, and the Devil: the Church is “like Babels Whore”; the Pope is “a very leud / And wicked Head”; it is time to “drink Columbus's health,” for these dancing Indians “are pretty Children, very fine Boys”; his “Guts” are on fire, and “Devils are quarter'd in my Bowels” (V. iii. 153, 156-57, 170, 173, 214, 221).

Ascanio and his Church have become diabolical exploiters of nature, rather than ministers to the human spirit. Whether their object be America or Bellamira, they are chiefly interested in material gain, in Devil-worshipping slaves, in riches, and in carnal pleasure.10

A common seventeenth-century notion was that, without the Spaniards and their Church, America could have been a New Eden, a paradise where the Golden Age might begin anew.11 Sir Thomas More located his Utopia in the New World, and Sir William Davenant in his play, The Cruelty of the Spaniards in Peru (1658), shows the Indians enjoying a Golden Age before the Spanish arrive. But the Spanish did arrive, and in Lee's play this is tantamount to saying that Ascanio and the Pope are rank weeds that spoil “the Churches Corn” (I. i. 368) and that Borgia, through Machiavel's instigation, exploits and destroys, instead of loving and protecting, the woman who could have been his New World, his Eve in Paradise. We might wonder if Lee had somehow got hold of a copy of Samuel Butler's little-known Character, “A Modern Politician,” which defines a Machiavellian type as one who “makes new Discoveries in Politics … like those that Columbus made of the new World, very rich but barbarous. He endeavours to restore Mankind to the original Condition, it fell from, by forgetting to discern between Good and Evil; and reduce all Prudence back again to its first Author the Serpent, that taught Adam Wisdome. …”12 Such, indeed, would appear to be Machiavel's way of dealing with Borgia. While the latter may never have had much in common with Adam, Machiavel does, in effect, teach him the Devil's wisdom that prevents him from achieving with Bellamira a relationship akin to that of Adam and Eve in Paradise.

The change in Borgia's attitude toward her and, at the same time, in his entire personality, is underlined by his use of the three kinds of images noted above. In his least corrupt frame of mind he sees her as the New Eden that he can reclaim by heroically navigating the fallen world (and his own psyche):

Thus, to a glorious Coast, through Tempests hurl'd,
We sail like him who sought the Indian world.
‘Tis more; ‘tis Paradise I go to prove,
And Bellamira is the Land of Love;
.....… like the first Maid she walks:
Fair as the Day when first the World began;
And I am doom'd to be the happy man.

(II. i. 377-84)

But we can perceive a difference when he speaks under the direct influence of Machiavel, whom he regards as “my Heav'n, my … / … God” (I. i. 575-76). In this context she becomes not an Edenic New World but a “White World” to “travel o're, to feast my Love,” and to become “gorg'd with Revels” and “all the Liberties of loose desire” (III. i. 207-12). She is now an “Indian Treasure” (II. i. 203) open to exploitation. Borgia's love has turned to lust, and his state of mind begins to resemble that of Seagull in George Chapman's The Middle Temple and Lincoln's Inn Mask (1613), when he says in reference to America, “Come, boys, Virginia longs till we share the rest of her maidenhead.”13 Borgia is now in the position of John Donne's rake who calls his mistress “my America! my new-found land” and “My Myne of precious stones.”14.


Whenever this attitude takes over inside Borgia's mind, not only does the New World become a gold mine and Eden a bed in a brothel, but also the associated imagery of tempestuous seas assumes new significance. That ocean which, in the quest for Bellamira/Eve in her paradisiacal New World, provided a glorious trial of his devotion, now becomes a “dismal Gulph”—specifically referring here to marriage—”which like the Hellespont do'st rore between / Me and my Joys” (I. i. 582-84). Thus, he'll “plunge, or perish, or enjoy her” (I. i. 588). As this lust becomes transformed by jealousy into what even Machiavel regretfully sees as “blind, ungovern'd rage” (IV. i. 223), Borgia begins to give way to violent, self-destructive passion, so that he is ready to submit his Indian treasure to his own fate, just as “the weeping Merchant,” to “gorge” the sea's “ravenous Jaws,”

… hurls all his Wealth,
And stands himself upon the splitting Deck,
For the last plunge. …

(IV. i. 217-20)

Machiavel's “start of Nature” has become a natural disaster, and the way to Bellamira's New World has become the tempestuous sea of Borgia's own insanity and depravity. He has learned, as he says, “to follow Nature; / For so do Flames that burn, and Seas that drown” (II. i. 324-25).

This connection between insanity and depravity, and the relation of both to Providence, is insisted upon in the play. As Machiavel's blasting rhetoric convinces Borgia of Bellamira's infidelity, it is as if “two Furies leap” from the counselor's “red Eyes” and Borgia is no longer “Master of [his] Passion” (III. i. 364, 372). Hereafter he is tortured by “ghastly fears and cloven jealousies, / … Monsters” that, like “sullen Fiends” make “sick” his “Brain” (III. i. 557-60). By Act V he sees himself as a “poor Lunatick” (V. i. 262) who in his quest for paradise has been overwhelmed by “this Torrent of the world, / Fortune” (V. iii. 67); “‘Tis all the work of Chance,” he laments, “and trick of Fortune” (V. iii. 249). Like Machiavel, he is ignoring what Lee has made clear all along: Fortune is really Providence, the handmaiden of God, which has consigned Borgia to the underworld of his father and Ascanio. Just before her death, Bellamira discerns what has happened. The human lover has become a “Monster,” “Beast” (IV. i. 412-413), “Hellhound,” “Devil,” “Son of that old cursed Serpent, / Who daubs the holy Chair with blood,” “Hells Vicar, and his first begotten Devil” (V. i. 108, 110, 127-28, 131). And as Borgia insanely struggles against the effects of the poisoned wine he had intended for his enemies, his delirium reveals what Providence has in store: a sea of fire, emerging from which “the Master Devil” (V. iii. 305) offers full pardon in exchange for gold. “Gold for my pardon, hey—‘tis seal'd and given! / And for a Ducat thus I purchase Heav'n—” (V. iii. 358-59).


Curiously, Borgia's “second self,” Machiavel, does not perish along with the other main characters—even though he has claimed that when Borgia, “a very Limb of me,” dies, “thou'lt see me halt” (V. i. 13-14). The psychological pressure which Machiavel exerts on Borgia has not materially changed his own personality, though it does seem to have altered one tenet of his philosophy. Unlike his historical original, he is at this point not so much a student of the classics as he is the vile empiric, for at the play's end he is prepared to regard the whole previous chain of tragic events as so much mere data from which to generate a political maxim. Momentarily “shockt” by the proceedings, he can now coolly conclude, “No Power is safe, nor no Religion good, / Whose Principles of growth are laid in Blood” (V. iii. 371-72). This sounds a good deal like Shakespeare's King John telling Hubert, “There is no sure foundation set on blood, / No certain life achiev'd by others' death,”15 but it is the direct opposite of Machiavel's philosophy earlier in the play, where he would have agreed with his namesake in the “Prologue” to Marlowe's The Jew of Malta: “Might first made kings, and laws were then most sure / When, like the Draco's, they were writ in blood.”16 Perhaps there is a clue here to the ultimate contemporary significance Lee meant for his play to convey.

In the first place, even if Machiavel's second doctrine is more appealing than the first, we cannot expect much from a man who induces generalizations from such gory “experiments.” At the end of the play he continues to hold in our esteem a place alongside that of the Nazi medical teams who did research on human guinea pigs. Moreover, we are apprehensive about the lone survival of a cruel philosopher who instigated horrors that overtook all the other main characters. It is as if Lee had read Marlowe's “Prologue” rather attentively:

Albeit the world think Machiavel is dead,
Yet was his soul but flown beyond the Alps,
And, now the Guise is dead, is come from France
To view this land and frolic with his friends.(17)

In Marlowe's time the Duke of Guise had recently been murdered. Lee's Duke, along with his Machiavellian accomplice, Catherine de Medici, had been “assassinated” a century later when The Massacre of Paris was denied the stage. So Lee decided to send Machiavel again “beyond the Alps,” only this time in the other direction, and to inject him into a scene with fewer obvious parallels to contemporary London. But he retained almost the same symbolic and moral dimensions, for both plays convey their themes through the imagery of seas and tempests, beasts and devils, the Eden myth and Providence. Both warn against the importation of diabolical influences connected with Machiavellian politics and the Roman Church. And both imply that the “soul” of Machiavel and, indeed, the souls of Borgia and Ascanio, are reincarnated whenever the time and circumstances allow.

Since in Caesar Borgia this warning could not be expressed through events parallel to the Popish Plot, it is made more than implicit in Borgia's final speech: “I'll live,” he says, to “create new wicked Popes” and

Murder successively two Kings of France;
Brittain attempt, though her most watchful Angel
Saves the Lov'd Monarch of that happy Isle,
And turns upon our selves the plotted Wound,
… yet still wee'll on,
And hatch new deeds of darkness; O Hell, and Furies!
Why should we not, since the great Head himself
Will back my Plots, joyn me in blood and horror,
And after give me Bond for my Salvation.

(V. iii. 340-52)

Clearly, Borgia becomes more than Borgia here, just as in Marlowe's “Prologue” Machiavel expands into a symbol for all satanic politicians. The sense of this passage is that we Borgias, we fraudulent priests of the Romish Church (Borgia had been, as Bellamira informs us, “Priest,” “Archbishop,” and “Cardinal” before being made Duke [V. i. 124]), possessed by the Devil, will appear in this fallen world in all eras to do mischief—just as the demented friar, Jaques Clement, and the fanatical monk, Ravaillac, stabbed to death “successively two Kings of France,” Henri III and Henri IV (Lee could have learned this partly from Davila's Historie, his source for The Massacre of Paris).18 In his “Epilogue” Lee asks the audience to “damn those Rogues” who “act” out terrible schemes such as those in the play “o're again” on the stage of mid-Restoration London (1. 22).

But Lee has not created an historical parallel or political prophecy.19 Each of the more active characters represents a different aspect of the same corrupt element of society or, to use a psychological analogy, of the same kind of mind. If Borgia and Machiavel are two parts of the same “self,” Ascanio is a third part. Together and separately they represent the fallen psyche, its corrupt tendencies exaggerated, divided from the beneficent influence of the rest, and subjected to Satan's dictates—the kind of personality that exploited rather than cultivated the American garden. Machiavel is the sterile, inhumane intellect; Ascanio the sensual priest; and Borgia the fanatical and destructive man of action. Lee's message, therefore, is political only in the sense that its significance pertains equally to politics, morality, and psychology, within the cosmic framework of religion. The kind of Roman Catholic plot that presently threatened England was not so much a consequence of particular actions by specific individuals as a sign of periodic degeneration in the human spirit. In the long run what England, with her “watchful Angel,” must guard against is the “Machiavellian Magick” of powerful minds bent on creating tyranny at the expense of humanity (possibly the Jesuits, who were sometimes connected to Machiavelli?),20 sensual indulgence that ignores moral duty (the Stuart court?), and fanatical violence for the sake of distorted principles (on the part of both Roman Catholics and Radical Whigs?). Such extravagancies both invite and manifest the Devil's work in fallen man, and, Lee seems to say, if Providence acts against us while we harbor such criminal psyches, let us not say we were not forewarned.



It is difficult to know whether Lee was innovative when we look at his works as part of more general developments in Restoration serious drama. Certainly, The Rival Queens (1676/7) anticipated Dryden's All for Love (1677) in restoring blank verse as the dominant form for serious drama. Possibly we can also credit Lee with leading the mid-Restoration movement from awe-inspiring characters and happy endings—typical of tragicomedies and heroic plays of the 1660s—to the more vulnerable and pathetic figures, and to the homicidal or suicidal conclusions, which characterized the tragedies of the later 1670s and 1680s. For the most part, however, he shared the predilections of his fellow playwrights. Like them, he tended to write about “the evils arising from disregard of the royal prerogative,”21 especially in the era of the Popish Plot and Exclusion Crisis (1678-81), and he too adapted his plots from a combination of history and romance. With Thomas Otway and John Banks, he wrote in the tradition that Eric Rothstein has defined as “late heroic,”22 wherein protagonists become more flawed and the conflicts between their private and public lives irreconcilable. He probably invented no new subgenres. Nero, Massacre, and Borgia are villain tragedies growing out of the Elizabethan tragedies of blood and following such Restoration examples as Thomas Porter's The Villain (1662) and Nevil Payne's Fatal Jealousy (1672). Sophonisba, Gloriana, Theodosius, and Constantine are sentimentalized variations on the high heroic mode, like Dryden's Aureng-Zebe (1675) and Elkanah Settle's Fatal Love (1680). The Rival Queens, Mithridates, and Lucius Junius Brutus are high tragedies in the fashion of Dryden's All for Love and Otway's Venice Preserv'd (1682). The Princess of Cleve, finally, is a hybrid that imbues split-plot tragicomedy (e.g., Marriage A-la Mode, 1671) with the satiric savagery of Thomas Shadwell's The Libertine (1675) or Otway's Friendship in Fashion (1678).23

Working within such conventional limits, Lee achieved a dramatic style that is distinctive and that enabled him to gain a unique perspective on contemporary life. The central characteristic of this style, a kind of impassioned lyricism, has long been recognized but never adequately described or given its due as a legitimate mode of dramaturgy.24 For Lee it is a particularly appropriate mode because it provides a natural approach to his favorite subject: the mental pathology of political leadership and its relation to both social and supernatural phenomena.25 That the usual result of this union of interest and artistic mode is a more intensely emotional drama than Lee's friend Dryden typically produced is probably not owing to any marked difference in the two playwrights' abilities to design plays. The standard distinction between Dryden the disciplined designer and Lee the wild-eyed expressionist is off the mark,26 for many of Lee's plays were clearly conceived and ably constructed. It would be more accurate to say that Dryden's dramatic designs are more intellectual, Lee's more lyrical.

In All for Love, for instance, the characters work through passion toward a philosophical apprehension of their tragic situation. Sensing that his infatuation with Cleopatra has cut him off from the natural, external order of the universe, Antony painfully acquires an alternative philosophy to guide his conduct—an inner sanctuary of values with transcendental criteria of fulfillment, instead of those “Roman” virtues favored by historical destiny. Dryden's characters have to philosophize passion; they feel compelled to make intellectual—as well as political, moral, and emotional—order out of their lives. An Antony's or an Aureng-Zebe's greatest sense of achievement comes not from defeating the enemy, winning love, or ascending a throne, but rather from fulfilling a philosophy of conduct and understanding what he does and feels.27

By contrast, what so often happens in Lee's plays is that his characters fail to grasp what is really happening to them. Only the audience can grasp it, and the audience is told more through patterns of action, allusion, and imagery than through discourse. Alexander suffers a conflict between passion and duty that is similar to Antony's, but while he sporadically regrets his weaknesses, he never fully understands how they are destroying him by remote control. He dies without the personal hope Antony gains from philosophical conviction, though he can at least foresee how a different psychological makeup might better qualify a monarch for peacetime leadership. Likewise, Mithridates does penance and cancels the power his misplaced favor has put into the hands of Pharnaces. But unlike the Emperor in Aureng-Zebe, he never comprehends the full implications of his unnatural behavior, so that he fails to save his virtuous and loyal son from the destructive forces which—as so often in Lee—have expanded into the power vacuum.

Rational judgment and courageous virtue are weaker qualities in Lee's plays than they are in contemporaneous ones by Dryden. The courage and idealism of a Britannicus, the “civil brav'ry” of a Scipio, the public spirit of a Brutus—these admirable traits do not save their possessors from death, despair, or inhumanity, respectively. It would appear that Lee's so-called lyrical, impassioned mode of drama was not merely the spontaneous effusion of a verbose and excitable writer; it may have been the outward impress of an almost Calvinistic conviction that the bestiality of fallen man is irremediable except through some form of spiritual grace. Out of the immense reservoir of his own powerful emotions Lee draws the obsessions that define his characters' psyches and drive their actions, while on another level he informs their language and the setting with images and allusions that allow the audience to make both social and supernatural sense of their doings.

This dual vision, conveyed through a bipartite dramatic mode, preserves for the audience an ultimately metaphysical perspective on the action, a perspective that belies the Hobbesian assumptions operative in the personalities and behavior of the characters themselves. A kind of persistent dramatic irony is at work in Lee. Through allusions, imagery, and spectacle, he enables his audience to see on-stage phenomena as part of a larger pattern of action. Yet the characters are usually so taken up with satisfying their obsessions that they fail to discern the more significant shapes into which their behavior is falling. Lee carefully contrives his prodigies, his characters' predispositions, and their language, so as to provide the audience with means of assessing—of philosophizing about—events which onstage are passionally, not philosophically, determined. Dryden's lead characters work toward some harmonious adjustment between conduct and theory. Lee's pursue the course of conduct fixed by their personalities, and it becomes the audience's responsibility to understand the philosophical implications of what is going on.

Thus, Lee's plays can be called “lyrical” for two reasons. First, their plots are emotionally, not intellectually, motivated. Unlike Dryden, Lee is finally interested in how social and political patterns develop out of certain configurations of passion. Second, in Lee's plays the figurative content—imagery, spectacle, allusions—expresses the author's, not his character's, personal explication of what is happening.28

As his artistry develops, it is the nature of this explication that changes more than anything else. Lee's political philosophy, for example, does not materially change, notwithstanding prevailing opinions that he oscillated between Whig and Tory attitudes after 1678.29 As Frances Barbour accurately explained it in one of the least biassed of modern commentaries, “on the whole it seems as if Lee liked the sound of lofty expressions of loyalty and the current phrases relative to divine right, but that, confronted with misdemeanors of a ruler, he would hold the ruler accountable, and in extreme cases would counsel measures of deliverance.”30 Such extreme cases he depicts in most of his plays, and the various forms of deliverance he contemplated are to be found in Theodosius (an engrafting of proven virtue onto the royal stock: Marcian/Pulcheria, William/Mary), Lucius Junius Brutus (imposition of order by a republican strongman), and Constantine (fostering of psychospiritual order within the current monarch).

The fact that these three dramas of deliverance were written in the final three years of Lee's active career suggests the pattern of change which his artistry took. While maintaining throughout his works essentially the same definition of effective sovereignty—judicious leadership founded on self-control, humane compassion, a sense of familial and civic duty, martial prowess, and spiritual humility—Lee gradually developed a vision of cosmic order that modulated into confidence in providential design. With the advantage of hindsight, we can perceive two cycles in this progression. In moving from Nero to Mithridates, we explore increasingly sophisticated rhythms of psychological disintegration, a disintegration encouraged by demonic forces and exfoliating in social chaos and destruction. We also note a shift from the dividing of opposed obsessions between two or more distinct personalities (Nero/Britannicus, Hannibal/Massinissa/Scipio) to the uniting of conflicting obsessions as aspects of a single, tortured mind (Alexander, Mithridates). Finally, we sense Lee's growing conviction that specific cases of disorder and evil operate as aspects of a more general ecology of sociopolitical relations. In Nero and Sophonisba we study forms of ruin; in The Rival Queens and Mithridates we perceive that such forms belong to the larger dynamics of sociopolitical ecology: that a sovereign's melancholy or madness amounts to an imbalance of psychological forces which creates a correlative imbalance in the social and political interrelations of his family, court, and state.

To turn from these first five plays to the last six is to start a second, thematically and formally more complex, cycle. The early plays deal in pagan subjects and settings, and they focus upon sublunar phenomena, adding only a hint of infernal cooperation in the various patterns of disorder. In the later plays, except Lucius Junius Brutus, the religious scaffolding is overtly Christian, and as infernal powers become more clearly defined, the hand of Providence also comes into better focus. Moreover, the last plays are more definitely topical than their predecessors. While the earlier works always seemed to comment on the Restoration court in the most abstract, oblique ways, the later ones allude to such distinct events as the Popish Plot, the Exclusion Crisis, and the Rye House Plot; to such issues as religious enthusiasm, republicanism, and royal succession; and to such individuals as Cromwell, Shaftesbury, and William and Mary.

Thus, as Lee composes these later plays, he stretches significance in two directions: toward a more specific assessment of contemporary life and toward a more completely metaphysical vision of social and psychological phenomena in general. This reaching for a more comprehensive Christian interpretation develops in a pattern similar to the one leading from Nero to Mithridates. In the first five plays of the later cycle, the conflicting forces are embodied in separate personalities (Queen Mother/Admiral; Brutus/Tiberius). But in Constantine, as in The Rival Queens and Mithridates, the discordant energies function within the emperor's own divided psyche, while the other characters gain identity as correlatives to these mental conflicts. The general movement in the later plays is a Christian equivalent to the growing sense of “classical” order in the early works. More and more, Lee shows that patterns of depravity and madness are episodes in a providential history whose greater contours, humanly incomprehensible, can only be pointed to by prodigies and the vocabulary of devil-possession. While this metaphysical confidence is conveyed to the audience through Lee's increasingly spectacular staging, accompanied by a highly figurative, allusive language, his characters continue to wrestle with essentially the same egocentric lusts that made a demon of Nero and a witch of Poppea.


  1. Earlier criticism is summarized in Works, II, 67-70. See Van Lennep, “Sources.” In the latest remarks on Caesar Borgia Robert Hume calls Borgia and Machiavel “real and interesting” and notes the “gore and horror”: Development, pp. 201, 348.

  2. See Van Lennep, pp. 330-78.

  3. “A Relation …,” in Nicholas Machiavel's Prince, trans. Edmund Dacres (London, 1640), p. 293.

  4. Robert Ornstein, The Moral Vision of Jacobean Tragedy (Madison, 1960), pp. 25-26. And see Edward Meyer, Machiavelli and the Elizabethan Drama (1897; rpt. New York, n.d.); Mario Praz, “The Politic Brain: Machiavelli and the Elizabethans,” in The Flaming Heart (Garden City, N.Y., 1958), pp. 90-145; and Felix Rabb, The English Face of Machiavelli: A Changing Interpretation, 1500-1700 (London, 1964). The serious stage villains of Kyd, Marlowe, Chapman and others were influenced by Innocent Gentillet's biassed image in the widely read Contre Nicholas Machiavelli (1576, trans. Simon Patricke, 1602). Comic Machiavellians also appeared, like Sir Politicke Would-be in Volpone, and at least five plays, the second and third no longer extant, present Machiavelli under his own name, as in Lee: the “Prologue” to Marlowe's The Jew of Malta (c. 1588), a play called Machiavel (1591), Robert Daborne's Machiavel and The Devil (1613), Thomas Rawlins's The Rebellion (1640), and Aston Cokaine's Trappolin suppos'd a Prince (1658).

  5. We may speculate on other borrowings as well. In Barnabe Barnes's The Divel's Charter (1607) Pope Alexander VI is a Machiavellian who makes a Faustian pact with the Devil, and Borgia has Gandia killed but then murders the assassin in turn by pitching him (not Gandia's corpse, as in Lee) into the Tiber. In Alphonsus, Emperor of Germany (c. 1636) the Machiavellian Lorenzo poisons himself with his own poison and the Borgia-like Spaniard, Alphonsus, attempts to poison enemies at a banquet that repeats “Pope Alexander VI's famous feast, with the difference that Alphonsus only pretends to be poisoned himself” (Praz, pp. 121, 127, 143; Meyer, pp. 47, 111, 113, 159; Van Lennep, p. 354). And in The Jew of Malta Barabas prepares a poison for Abigail which he hopes will “work like Borgia's wine, / Whereof his sire, the Pope, was poisoned” (III. iv. 94-95, in The Complete Plays of Christopher Marlowe, ed. Irving Ribner, New York, 1963).

  6. “The ‘Just Decrees of Heav'n’ and Congreve's Mourning Bride,” in Congreve Reconsidered, ed. H. T. Swedenberg (Los Angeles, 1971), p. 5; and see Williams's similar comments in other articles: ELH, XXXV (1968), 540-65; Tennessee Studies in Literature, XVII (1972), 1-18; PQ, L111 (1974), 676-80; and Studies in the Literary Imagination, X (1977), 57-76. The most likely general sources for Lee's interest in Providence were Hakewil's Apologie (1627) and Wilkins's discourse (1649), both in his father's library (see ch. 1, n. 6).

  7. See Thomas Flangan, “The Concept of Fortuna in Machiavelli,” in The Political Calculus: Essays on Machiavelli's Philosophy, ed. Anthony Parel (Toronto, 1972), pp. 127-56; Rudolf B. Gottfried, Geoffrey Fenton's Historie of Guicciardini (Bloomington, n.d.), pp. 34-42; and Jacob Viner, The Role of Providence in the Social Order (Philadelphia, 1972), pp. 4-11.

  8. This paragraph synthesizes information drawn from Willard Hallam Bonner, Captain William Dampier, Buccaneer-Author (Stanford, Calif., 1934), esp. pp. 50-53; Robert R. Cawley, The Voyagers and Elizabethan Drama (Boston, 1938) and Milton and the Literature of Travel (Princeton, 1951); Irving A. Leonard, Books of the Brave (1949; rpt. New York, 1964); Boies Penrose, Travel and Discovery in the Renaissance (Cambridge, Mass., 1952); Howard Mumford Jones, O Strange New World (New York, 1965), chs. 1 and 2; Harry Levin, The Myth of the Golden Age in the Renaissance (New York, 1969), esp. pp. 59-62; J. H. Elliott, The Old World and the New (Cambridge, Eng., 1970); and Percy G. Adams, “The Discovery of America and European Renaissance Literature,” Comparative Literature Studies, XIII (1976), 100-15.

  9. See The History of Italy, readably translated by Sidney Alexander (New York, 1969), pp. 9-10, 108-09, 179-82.

  10. Before Lee's use, many seventeenth-century literary works used the New World as metaphor for the misuse of human beings and earthly goods: e.g., John Phillips's translation of Las Casas, The Tears of the Indians (1656); Davenant's The Cruelty of the Spaniards in Peru (1658); and Dryden's Indian Emperor (1665). See Cawley, Voyagers, pp. 282, 295, 297, 299, 302, 328; Howard Mumford Jones, pp. 46-48; and John Loftis, commentary to The Indian Emperor, in The Works of John Dryden, ed. Loftis and V. A. Dearing (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1966), IX, 309-16.

  11. See Cawley, Voyagers, pp. 290-91, 344-46; Jones, pp. 16-20, 33-36; and Harry Levin, pp. 59-62.

  12. Samuel Butler (1612-1680): Characters, ed. Charles W. Daves (Cleveland and London, 1970), p. 29. For guiding me to this passage I am grateful to Professor James Gill of the University of Tennessee.

  13. Quoted by Cawley, Voyagers, p. 338.

  14. “Elegie: Going to Bed,” 11. 27-28, in The Metaphysical Poets, ed. Helen Gardner (Baltimore, 1964), p. 54.

  15. The Life and Death of King John, IV, ii. 104-05, in The Complete Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare, ed. William A. Neilson and Charles J. Hill (Cambridge, Mass., 1942), p. 587.

  16. Marlowe in Ribner, ed., p. 179, 11. 20-21.

  17. Ibid., pp. 178-79, 11. 1-4.

  18. See H. C. Davila, The Historie of the Civill Warres of France, trans. William Aylesbury and Charles Cotterell (London, 1647), pp. 817-19; and Richard S. Dunn, The Age of Religious Wars (New York, 1970), pp. 23-31, 132-33.

  19. See my extended analysis of suggested specific parallels, in “Lee, Renaissance Conventions, and the Psychology of Providence: the Design of Caesar Borgia,Essays in Literature, IV (1977), 171; Van Lennep. p. 374; and K. H. D. Haley, The First Earl of Shaftesbury (Oxford, 1968), pp. 137, 211-14, 414-16, 440.

  20. See Praz, The Flaming Heart, pp. 131-40, esp. his reading of Donne's Ignatius his Conclave (1611).

  21. John Loftis, The Politics of Drama in Augustan England, p. 155.

  22. Restoration Tragedy, pp. 77-110.

  23. These subgenre labels are adapted from John Harold Wilson, A Preface to Restoration Drama, pp. 52-118, and Robert D. Hume, Development, pp. 192-224, 269-363.

  24. See, for example, Nicoll, History, I, 148; Waith, Ideas, pp. 241-42; and Hume, Development, p. 323.

  25. I agree here with G. Wilson Knight, The Golden Labyrinth, p. 164.

  26. For the usual comparison, see Nicoll, History, I, 148; Waith, Ideas, pp. 241-42; Sutherland, English Literature of the Late Seventeenth Century, p. 78; Wilson, Preface, p. 89; and Hume, Development, pp. 197-98, 323.

  27. The best discussions of Dryden's earlier dramatic style remain Eugene M. Waith's The Herculean Hero (New York, 1962), pp. 152-201; Arthur C. Kirsch's Dryden's Heroic Drama (Princeton, 1965); Bruce King's Dryden's Major Plays (Edinburgh, 1966); and Anne T. Barbeau's The Intellectual Design of John Dryden's Heroic Plays (New Haven, 1970).

  28. Rothstein, Restoration Tragedy, p. 93, senses this aspect of Lee's artistry as it appears in his language: his visual imagery “clings to the connotative world within the minds of the audience rather than to the created world of the drama.”

  29. See Hume, “Satiric Design,” p. 211; and Loftis, ed., Brutus, p. xviii.

  30. “The Unconventional Heroic Plays of Nathaniel Lee,” University of Texas Studies in English, XX (1940), p. 114.

Selected Bibliography

Primary Sources

The Works of Nathaniel Lee. Ed. Thomas B. Stroup and Arthur L. Cooke. 2 vols. 1954-55; rpt. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Reprint Corp., 1968.

Lucius Junius Brutus. Ed. John Loftis. Regents Restoration Drama Series. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1967.

Secondary Sources

Biography: 1900-1978

Van Lennep, William. “The Life and Works of Nathaniel Lee, Dramatist: A Study of Sources.” Diss. Harvard 1933.

Criticism and Scholarship: 1900-1978

Barbour, Frances. “The Unconventional Heroic Plays of Nathaniel Lee.” University of Texas Studies in English, XX (1940), 109-16.

Hume, Robert D. The Development of English Drama in the Late Seventeenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon, 1976.

———. “The Satiric Design of Nat. Lee's The Princess of Cleve.JEGP, LXXV (1976), 117-38.

Knight, G. Wilson. The Golden Labyrinth: A Study of British Drama. London: Phoenix House, 1962. Pp. 157-67.

Loftis, John. The Politics of Drama in Augustan England. Oxford: Clarendon, 1963, esp. pp. 15-23.

Nicoll, Allardyce. A History of English Drama 1660-1900. Vol. I. 4th ed. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1952.

Rothstein, Eric. Restoration Tragedy: Form and the Process of Change. Madison, Milwaukee, and London: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1967.

Sutherland, James. English Literature of the Late Seventeenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon, 1969. Pp. 71-75, 143-44.

Waith, Eugene M. Ideas of Greatness: Heroic Drama in England. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1971. Pp. 235-42.

Wilson, John Harold. A Preface to Restoration Drama. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1968.

Laura Brown (essay date 1981)

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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 and episodes of an affective tragedy are comprehensible not in terms of an internal standard of judgment that directs our assessments and expectations, but rather in terms of the expressed pathos of the situation. In the fictional world posited by such a form, merit is either ignored or assumed, and action and meaning depend upon the affective power of the protagonist's plight. This emphasis on situation at the expense of assessment corresponds to a diminished interest in characterization and a diminished ability to create and sustain consistent characters. Furthermore, it requires a simplification of depiction and an inattention to motive that inevitably exclude character development or complexity and that frequently imply, to augment the pathos, that the protagonist is perfectly innocent. It leads to the replacement of aristocratic heroes by private citizens, to the frequent use of women in supporting roles and—more significantly—as protagonists, as well as to the turn to domestic material and, ultimately, national as opposed to exotic history.1

Though affective tragedy differs fundamentally from the heroic action that precedes it, it is directly and closely derived from that earlier form. In effect, it drains the heroic play of evaluative efficacy and meaning, and substitutes the affective response of pity for the judgmental one of admiration. Thus, its ties to prior conventions perpetuate the limitations in scope and characterization of the heroic form, despite its specific elimination of aristocratic values. Ultimately, affective tragedy is a consequence of the changes in the evolution of the heroic action from Davenant and Orrery to Dryden and Lee. The fragmentation of the neat love-and-honor standard, leaving love alone as the preeminent and potentially most pathetic choice; the general disintegration of assessment, especially in Lee's incoherent characterization; and the growing interest in “natural” pity and sympathy at the expense of the heightened and exaggerated mode of the artificial heroic action all presage the evolution of a new drama able to rationalize and incorporate these impulses into a form that ignores or eliminates judgment, replaces it with pathetic situation, and designates empathetic response as its determining formal principle. The changes that occur in serious drama from 1660 to 1677, then, are significant in themselves and in their relevance to the definition and evolution of the heroic action, but in retrospect they represent the initial quantitative signals of a qualitative shift that results in the new formal and ideological coherence of affective tragedy.

The major tragic dramatists of the late Restoration—Lee, Dryden, and Otway—along with many playwrights of the second rank, like Banks and Southerne, share a set of assumptions and priorities that we will be able to recognize and define as formally affective. And within these general similarities, affective tragedy, like the heroic action, undergoes a subsidiary evolution of its own that, interrupted by the period of dramatic inactivity occasioned by the union of the theaters and the political instability of the 1680s, results in the fulfillment of the implications of its formal assumptions and anticipates the moral action of the eighteenth century. The early affective and near-affective tragedy of Lee and Dryden maintains the legendary and exotic aristocratic characters typical of the heroic action, though it either gives those heroes an effectually antiaristocratic ideology, or depicts them at the tragic and passive close of their careers and consequently defines them not so much by their status as by their unfortunate situation. But because early affective form continues to depend, at least nominally, upon heroic material, it sustains an interest in aristocratic character that becomes unusual in later pathetic tragedy.

With the advent of Otway, Banks, and Southerne, affective assumptions are brought to their logical conclusion by the depiction of a domestic situation and the designation of a passive, innocent female protagonist or, in the absence of an appropriate woman, a Stupid Hero2 who is at the physical and psychological mercy of her or his environment. A private citizen, a Stupid Hero, or, even better, a woman, effectively eliminates the issue of character assessment by removing the traditional source of such assessment in social status. This frees the form for the single-minded pursuit of the pathetic situation and for the unadulterated advocacy of classless pathos. For Banks, domestic history operates as a corollary to the domestic situation, and justifies his experiments in the new form. In fact, historical drama acts as a catalyst in this period, freeing playwrights for formal innovation that might otherwise seem to violate the ideals of standard tragedy. These writers are close predecessors of eighteenth-century moral dramatists like Rowe, who combines domestic history with a female paragon protagonist to produce his moral she-tragedies.

The stages in the evolution of affective drama serve to define the form with increasing precision, since each subsequent variation of the general model reveals some particular aspect of its essential assumptions. Thus, as we develop a comprehensive definition of affective form in itself and a specific means of distinguishing each affective play from the others, we also discover the particular history of affective tragedy that eventuates in the moral action of the eighteenth century, as well as the necessary mediation of affective form in the larger generic evolution from a drama of social status to a drama of moral worth.


The past grandeur of Lee's and Dryden's declining emperors in The Rival Queens (March 1677) and All for Love (December 1677) defines the initial stage in the evolution of Restoration affective tragedy. These plays, performed within nine months of each other, both depict the last, passive days of their heroes' careers and both carefully recollect the terms of a previous heroic assessment. Dryden's play is formally affective, consisting of an action and apotheosis determined and achieved not by Herculean merit, but by the pathos of despair and death. Lee, however, remains primarily a transitional dramatist, experimenting often incoherently with character assessment, and betraying a symptomatic rejection of the aristocratic hierarchy of values affirmed in the heroic action. But the particular incoherence of The Rival Queens begins, indirectly, to suggest the ideological basis of Lee's formal experimentation in the direction of affective tragedy. Lucius Junius Brutus (1680) brings that experimentation to its logical conclusion, by attaching a specific ideological content to a coherent affective form. Thus the latter half of Lee's career provides an idiosyncratic but significant model for the initial, transitional stages in the evolution of affective drama. All for Love, then, can be seen along with Lucius Junius Brutus as a formal response to The Rival Queens, perfecting and refining that initial experiment.

The incoherence in Nathaniel Lee's presentation of his protagonist in The Rival Queens duplicates the problems of characterization in his earlier plays, except that Alexander's particular inconsistency reveals the implicit source of Lee's attack upon the heroic action. The hero is depicted in the hours before his death, surrounded by portents and prognostications of doom that are to be realized through the combined effects of a violent love rivalry and a hellish political conspiracy against his life. Alexander is both a suffering lover who repeatedly and explicitly chooses love over empire and a vicious tyrant who is ambiguously reprehensible in the arbitrary assertion of his imperial power. These two definitions of his character alternate unpredictably in the process of the action, and the inconsistency that ensues is a sign of the fragmentation of the heroic standard as well as a corollary to the antiabsolutist ideology expressed in the play.

Alexander is described as a demigod, “the master of the world.”3 Though we observe him after his battles have been fought and his doom is already foretold, he makes his delayed entrance in Act II as a conquering hero amidst the fanfare of a noisy triumph. But Lee qualifies the conventional definition of the Herculean protagonist in two distinct and unrelated ways. First, despite those numerous claims to active heroism, Alexander repeatedly chooses love over honor for the sake of Statira (e.g., III.294-97), even forcing his army, the physical embodiment of his honor in an action that represents no battles, to submit to the commands of love:

But first kneel with me [to Statira], all my soldiers, kneel. All kneel.
Yet lower, prostrate to the earth.


Clytus's reiterated accusations clarify the issue: “While each hand does beauty hold, / Where is there room for glory?” (I.i.66-67). Love and honor are evaluative opposites, eternally at odds, and either choice is inevitably defective. Unlike the neat and comprehensive hierarchy of the heroic action, where the proper act eventually ensures both love and honor, Lee's drama offers only one or the other. The disintegration and depoliticization of that heroic hierarchy and the consequent absence of an efficacious ethical standard imply that the choice of love must bring disaster, suicide, and death. Consequently, the play is pervaded with gloom. Every scene repeats the foreboding that is expressed directly through the vows of the conspirators (I.i.130-47), Statira's ill-fated oath (I.ii.87-92), and the ghosts (I.i.282 s.d.), portents (II.1-36), and spirits (V.i.1-19).

Thus, out of Alexander's choice of love over honor, Lee constructs a pathetic situation in which the conquering hero becomes, at least for the moment, an object of pity rather than admiration. His appearance on the stage in conjunction with the weak and innocent Statira is calculated to augment this pathos. He pleads (III.272-75); he faints (III. 339); he falls upon the floor (III.277-78); he seems to die (III.406-09). In short, we are forced to see him as a victim, a suffering lover, or a “child” (I.ii.30)4 and to respond to his plight with the kind of pity that the magnanimous Alexander is said to have bestowed upon others (II.281-87). This pity, as we will see, is a common quality of the period's pathetic protagonists, and it illustrates the degree of identification that the form requires of its audience.5

The “rival queens” serve, in Alexander's absence, to maintain the continuity of this pathetic effect through the course of the action. They epitomize the suicidal choice that Alexander has made, and their dispute, with Roxana's consequent violent schemes, represents the direct realization of Clytus's ominous predictions. Roxana plots revenge upon Alexander, while Statira, in the role of the wronged wife, weeps and declares her innocence to an appreciative audience. Her reiterated weakness in the opening scene, in the confrontation with Roxana, and finally in her pathetic death, as well as in the central pleading scene with Alexander, all serve to increase the affective force of the action and to connect that pathos with Alexander's antiheroic choice of love over empire. If the “rival queens” appear to usurp preeminence in the play,6 it is because they must perform the task of locating and enacting the specific formal implications of Alexander's choice. With the destruction of the heroic action's controlling hierarchy, Lee is left without an internal means of judgment; comprehensibility now depends upon pathos.

But the subversive turn to pathos is not the only modification that Lee is tempted to make in Alexander's heroism. At other moments, Alexander remains a Herculean figure, but his aggressive dominance is interpreted as tyranny. In these scenes he is not a simple Herculean villain—like Maximin in Tyrannic Love, who uses his heroic virtues to evil ends—but an example of the potential tyranny of any absolute power. The Lysimachus-Parisatis subplot serves primarily to unmask this tyranny implicit in the Herculean ideal. Lysimachus is the emblematic victim of Alexander's excesses. His true love for Parisatis, whom Alexander has promised to Hephestion, the court favorite, makes him the innocent object of Alexander's violent and autocratic decrees, which even include an order for his death (II.400-03).

Lee's depiction of the scheme against Alexander's life casts further doubt on the heroic values by which the protagonist is initially defined. The conspirators explicitly attach their condemnation of Alexander to his heroic stature. He “would be a god” but is “cruel as a devil” (I.i.217-19). The lurid descriptions of Alexander's hideous retribution against his suspected enemies (I.i.201-43) lend credence to the conspirators' accusations of tyranny. The conspirators themselves, however, are not admirable agents of justice, but rather, as conspirators invariably are in Restoration drama, evil schemers associated with horror and hell (I.i.272-80 and IV.i.269-82). Thus, even when Alexander remains a heroic figure, Lee vacillates in his depiction of the nature of that heroism: Alexander is sometimes an admirable Herculean demigod threatened by the illegitimate schemes of a pack of unprincipled conspirators, sometimes an arbitrary and vicious tyrant, deserving death.

The inconsistent views of Alexander are most neatly epitomized in the central scene of “honest Clytus's” criticism of Alexander and subsequent death. Early in the play, Lee established Clytus as the legitimate spokesman of Alexander's downfall. Consequently, Clytus must speak two “truths.” First, refusing to wear the luxurious Persian costume that Alexander offers (IV.ii.71 s.d.), Clytus accuses the king of choosing women over empire (IV.ii.140-42). This accusation echoes the criticisms that Clytus has expressed throughout the play, but it is joined, a few lines later, by a separate charge: that Alexander is a tyrant. Clytus recollects for us, this time with the voice of honesty, the crimes that have accompanied Alexander's power, and, defying his incensed emperor to murder him as well, he lists the same victims named earlier by the conspirators (IV.ii.188-97). But Clytus is both a loyalist (IV.i.29-30) and a critic of monarchy (IV.ii.115), and thus when Alexander strikes him down in a further enactment of the tyrant's power, he can repent and rescind all his accusations:

O Alexander, I have been too blame.
Hate me not after death, for I repent
That so I urged your noblest, sweetest nature.


We are left, by this scene, in an evaluative chaos that precisely reflects the particular incoherence of The Rival Queens. In Lee's simultaneous stories, as in Clytus's simultaneous accusations, Alexander is both a pathetic protagonist, sacrificing all for love, and a reprehensible heroic tyrant, judged by his misuse of power. It is to the “noblest, sweetest” Alexander, the admirable heroic lover, that Clytus tenders his repentance, proclaiming the justice of his death (IV.ii.221-22) and affirming the legitimacy of Alexander's sentence: “Let bold subjects learn by thy sad fate, / To tempt the patience of a man above 'em” (IV.ii.214-15). But a few lines later, the violent and autocratic Alexander admits to the tyrannical injustice of which Clytus had accused him:

Death, hell, and furies! You have sunk my glory.
O, I am all a blot, which seas of tears
And my heart's blood can never wash away.


Ultimately The Rival Queens presents two parallel and absolutely irreconcilable accounts of Alexander's story. Alexander is the pathetic victim of an inevitable and disastrous choice of love over honor, whose fate we anticipate and understand in terms of the pity evoked by his distressing situation—or he is the rash, hasty, violent tyrant who sends the innocent and loyal to their deaths and thus brings about his own destruction. The dichotomy between pathetic lover and tyrant is reproduced again in Alexander's death. Technically, the hero dies of the poison given to him by the conspirators, but Alexander feels the first pangs of death as an immediate result of Roxana's curse: “I already feel the sad effects / Of those most fatal imprecations” (V.i.235-36). In fact, the poison administered by Cassander has conveniently taken five hours to work (IV.i.251-52), but we are not unprepared to believe that Alexander might be dying of the effects of love. After all, his love confrontations in the previous scenes frequently left him sick, fainting, and avowedly near death (e.g., II.409-11, III.406-09, and IV.i.97-99). Lee simply uses the same death scene to conclude both versions of his Alexander story; the Herculean hero perishes as a direct consequence both of his tyranny and of his love.

The two separate accounts of “the death of Alexander the Great” are mechanically combined in the opening scene, where the Lysimachus subplot is joined with Clytus's exposition of Alexander's unmanly romantic inclinations. This superficial conjunction is repeated when the injured lover Roxana is brought temporarily into the antityranny conspiracy. The overlapping themes of love and tyranny serve to make the plot appear whole: when Alexander exercises his tyranny against Lysimachus, he is implicitly flouting the power of true love, though in another guise he is himself a lover. But the substance of these apparent connections quickly melts away upon closer examination. In his tyrannical moments, Alexander's hypocrisy as a lover is never mentioned, and when he appears as the victim of passionate love, he abandons the identity of the tyrant. His two careers remain unreconciled.

Lee's tragedy thus displays a major incoherence so pervasive that the resultant ambiguity dominates the play. This ambiguity is not the deliberate and artful ambiguity of complex characterization—which some critics have claimed to find in The Rival Queens7—but rather the inchoate and involuntary ambiguity of formal transition. Such a distinction is absolutely essential to an understanding of generic history. The interpretation that automatically transforms a formal or ideological contradiction into a positive aesthetic value systematically precludes any discussion of change or evolution in literary form. There is no history from such a critical perspective, because there is no conceptual criterion that defines the formal status of the particular effects of character, motif, or theme. In The Rival Queens, the significance of Alexander's ambiguity is only apparent from the structure of the whole play, and furthermore, the historical significance of the play itself is only apparent from such an initial assessment of its form.

Implicit in Lee's incoherence is a juxtaposition that reveals the ideological basis of this early affective form: the juxtaposition of pathos and antiabsolutist sentiment. These effects are interchangeable in the process of the action: Lee finds it unnecessary to distinguish between Alexander the pathetic victim and Alexander the absolutist tyrant. The coexistence of pathetic effect and antimonarchism suggests that the play assumes a natural and necessary analogy between the two. Lee's tendency to weaken the heroic action, to undermine its inclusive aristocratic hierarchy of values, to divide love from honor, and to depict the inevitable and disastrous choice of love over empire and even life results in an increasing recourse to pathetic situation at the expense of definable merit. It reflects as well a loss of confidence in the efficacy of assessment and a lack of attention to consistent characterization in general, and a concurrent prevailing sense of gloom and pessimism. These are the initial, defining qualities of early affective form, and they are, for Lee, perfectly synonymous with an inchoate and incomplete but parallel loss of confidence in the aristocratic ideals that govern the world of the heroic action, and ultimately with an uncertainty about monarchy itself.

Thus, in its persistent analogy of pathos and republicanism, the form of The Rival Queens reveals the ideological basis of Lee's transition to affective tragedy. In a period when the qualification of absolute monarchy had begun to appear not only inevitable but also desirable,8 the “new” dramatists could no longer supply an admirable heroic protagonist, complete with his neat list of Platonic or epic virtues, and hence, they could no longer produce the straightforward character assessment that had marked the prime of the heroic action. Most of them, of course, never stated, and felt no need to state, an alternative to the aristocratic values that their affective forms subverted or ignored. In this respect Lee's forthright republicanism in Lucius Junius Brutus represents a unique achievement of ideological and formal self-consciousness, well before its time. The unrealized analogy in the form of The Rival Queens is its necessary predecessor.

Lucius Junius Brutus solves the problems attendant upon the formal dichotomy of The Rival Queens. In the earlier play Lee qualifies the conventional definition of heroic merit through his incongruous depiction of an alternately pathetic and tyrannical protagonist. But in the explicitly republican Lucius Junius Brutus he effectively combines consistent pathos and consistent antimonarchism in a single coherent action. The subversion of heroic values which in Lee's earlier plays had been merely disruptive finds explicit and simultaneous formal and ideological expression in Lucius Junius Brutus.

Brutus is apparently a hero in the old manner, with all the conventional epithets of Herculean merit. Most important, though, our admiration for him is sustained without confusion or qualification throughout the play, and his consistent heroism differentiates him sharply from Lee's earlier protagonists. In effect, Lee transforms his constitutional disaffection with the judgmental hierarchy of the heroic action into an overt advocacy of an alternative ideal in his depiction of a republican hero. Brutus can be consistently heroic because his merit is everywhere and always tied to his republican virtue. He declares himself the savior of Rome, the upholder of liberty, and the opponent of the tyrant Tarquin from the beginning of the action, and he is seen and applauded as such by the population of the play.

Thus, the admiration evoked for Brutus, though couched in the familiar hyperbolic language of the heroic action, is associated not with aristocratic values, but with republican and bourgeois ideology. Lee's play in this respect is almost a manifesto of the Whig constitutional position during the exclusion controversy,9 and, except for its radical antimonarchism, a full expression of the dominant ideology of Britain after the Glorious Revolution. Brutus explicitly associates for our admiring consumption: freedom, liberty, commonwealth, justice, law, magna carta, constitutionalism, profit, trade, mercantilism, manufacture, imperialism, plenty, and peace.10 To complete the ideological picture, Lee provides the opposing values of tyranny, loyalism, absolutism, factionalism, restoration, royal prerogative, courtier libertinism, Catholicism, murder, and cannibalism (e.g., III.i.107-12, III.ii.50-58, and IV.103-29). Brutus can be a consistent hero for Lee, but only in explicit opposition to the aristocratic ideology of the old heroic action. In this play, then, Lee turns his characteristic subversion of heroic values to a positive formal purpose.

In addition, the pathetic effect that, as we have seen in The Rival Queens, represents the other front of Lee's fragmented war upon heroic form is in Lucius Junius Brutus made to serve the coherent ends of an ideologically republican action. Whereas Alexander must provide Lee with an inevitably incoherent source of both pathos and heroic tyranny, in the later play the soft and suffering Titus, Brutus's wayward son, shares with Brutus the role of protagonist, and those two characters divide the pathos and heroism between them. We recognize Titus as a character who is to be defined and understood in terms of his pathetic situation: “My constant suff'rings are my only glory” (V.i.41). He is “fond, young, soft, and gentle, / Trained by the charms of one that is most lovely” (II.378-79), and hence prone to emotional outbursts, to tears, to physical prostration, and to suicide (III.iii.22-30). Like the pathetic Alexander in The Rival Queens, Titus encounters a dilemma that arises from his allegiance to women and to love, and that is repeatedly contrasted with Brutus's virtuous choice of heroic duty. As his suffering increases, Titus becomes progressively more pathetic and more affectingly attractive to us, as well as to his lover, Teraminta (III.iii.53-56).

The choice of love over “kingdoms” is made not only by the suffering lovers in their affecting and defining dilemma, but also by the audience in its assessment of these characters and its comprehension of the form. Titus's death in this sense provides the pleasurable and anticipated fulfillment of our response to his pathetic situation, and we share the admiring pity of his executioner:

Come then, I'll lead thee, O thou glorious victim,
Thus to the altar of untimely death,
Thus in thy trim, with all thy bloom of youth,
These virtues on thee, whose eternal spring
Shall blossom on thy monumental marble
With never fading glory.


The women in the play, especially Teraminta but also Lucrece and Sempronia, support and increase the pathetic effect centered in Titus's fate. They enter mainly to plead—Lucrece for revenge, Teraminta and Sempronia for Titus's life—and thus to fortify the action with those begging scenes endemic to affective form. In short, by dividing pathos from heroism, Lee maintains his characteristic fragmentation of the love-and-honor hierarchy with its attendant implications of disaster and doom, but without destroying the coherence of his drama.

Titus and Brutus are, then, joint protagonists, representing separate formal forces, who share the action of the play. But despite their significant differences, the two characters are deliberately knit together, and they function formally, especially in the climactic last acts, to embody Lee's coordination of republican heroism and pathetic effect. Even when, early in the action, the contrast between Brutus and his son is first and most explicitly defined, we are warned that in some special sense they are to be identified (II.293-95). Later that identification is reiterated in both physical and spiritual terms. Titus is Brutus's self (IV.330), the “flatt'ring mirror of [his] father's image” (IV.488).

The similarity is reaffirmed in the climactic episodes of the play, when Brutus decrees Titus's execution. With perfect formal symmetry, Lee uses each half of the composite protagonist as a foil for the other. Thus, Titus's rather innocent crime provides us with the fullest and most majestic definition of Brutus's heroic merit. His determination to treat “his darling Titus” (V.i.3) according to the strictest rigor of the law, despite the universal pleas for leniency, specifically earns him those heroic epithets which define his republican virtue: the upholder of liberty, the “father of his country,” “half a god” (V.ii.69). But Brutus's heroism likewise supplies Titus with the climactic fulfillment of his pathetic situation. Though technically guilty, he is actually an innocent victim of a combination of coercion and coincidence, since he signed the list of conspirators only to save Teraminta's life, and then returned to revoke his agreement only seconds too late. His farewell scenes with his father and Teraminta, his scourging, his confrontation with the “mangled” Teraminta, also scourged, and his death all serve to prolong and intensify our pitying response to his plight. It is through this lengthy suffering and leave-taking that Titus becomes, for us and for the population of the play, all pleading together to save his life, a “glorious victim.”

The two protagonists are formally wedded in their reciprocal definition of each other's essential function in the play. But in addition, those separate functions themselves are explicitly merged in the scene of their fullest expression. Brutus, when he declares his heroic resolution to perform strict justice upon his son “without a groan, without one pitying tear” (IV.531), reaches a height not only of stoical republican heroism but also, strangely enough, of pathos. The scene in which “the father of his country” establishes forever through his transcendent example the justice, liberty, prosperity, and imperial power of Rome is also the scene in which he becomes an object of pity. His tearful farewell to Titus epitomizes this uncharacteristic emotionalism (IV.583-84), but throughout the whole scene he groans, weeps, sighs, and throws himself upon the ground, declaring his love for his “best beloved” son (IV.451). In fact, Titus's death is described as if it were Brutus's suicide, “the sacrificing of [his] bowels” (V.ii.38), drawing out “blood, the heart blood of Brutus, on his child” (IV.494). In this sense, Titus is used to provide the pessimistic and emblematic final suicide that invariably concludes the affective action, though in Lee's unique version the protagonist both dies and lives on in the person of the republican hero.

Titus analogously exchanges his characteristic pathos for the resolution and majesty of republican heroism. When Brutus falls to the ground, his son is the one who emblematically stoops and raises him (IV.561-62). Before his father can reveal to him the rigor of his exemplary justice, Titus has declared, in the language of Herculean grandeur and republican virtue, his unflinching willingness to die for Rome:

Titus dares die if so you have decreed;
Nay, he shall die with joy to honor Brutus,
To make your justice famous through the world
And fix the liberty of Rome forever.


Thus, when Brutus declares Titus to be the “mirror of thy father's image,” he only verbalizes the merging of their characters that has already been enacted on the stage. Titus demands republican justice as energetically as Brutus seeks to implement it (IV.564-72) and earns, like Brutus, “a throne … in heav'n” (IV.575), the tribute of the gods (V.ii.180-81).

In Lucius Junius Brutus Lee has discovered a form that can contain both pathos and republican heroism without tension or incongruity. The two ultimately merge because they represent simultaneous consequences of the same career-long formal and ideological process. Both republican heroism and pathetic effect are, for Lee, the products of the fundamental instability of aristocratic evaluative standards. Brutus is possible as a hero because he aggressively defies royalist hierarchies. Titus is viable because his action ignores determinable merit entirely in favor of simple pathetic response. The two can be paired and merged because both assume that tragic fragmentation of the love-and-honor standard which is the formal core of Lee's rejection of heroic values. The fate of the composite protagonist of Lucius Junius Brutus demonstrates the disastrous and affecting result of that fragmented choice: love and its implicit escape from public concerns is inevitably doomed, and honor, even republican honor, is tragic in its triumph. The form of Lucius Junius Brutus is this elegantly conceived consistency of pathos and republicanism.

Lee's career is a model, though a unique one, for the major transition in serious drama from the heroic to the affective action. As we observed in his early plays, Lee's casual neglect of character consistency, his systematic fragmentation of the love-and-honor ideal, and his constitutional allegiance to disaster and gloom all approximate the initial formal steps of the major shift to affective drama. But for Lee, at least in the first half of his career, these steps produce only confusion and formal incoherence. In these respects, The Rival Queens, though one of his later plays, is essentially like Sophonisba and Gloriana: it undermines heroic assessment, but puts nothing in its place. On the other hand, in the second half of his career Lee's formal rejection of aristocratic standards begins to take on the specific ideological content that we have seen in the analogical form of The Rival Queens and that rationalizes the undirected incoherence of his earlier dramatic experimentation. Thus, while The Rival Queens remains a problematic work, it unites a formal fragmentation of the heroic hierarchy with an ideological criticism of tyranny in such a way as to suggest the precise direction of Lee's desultory progress toward formal coherence.

From this perspective Lee's least imperfect and in many ways most successful play, Lucius Junius Brutus, is the natural conclusion to the growing ideological self-consciousness of his dramatic experimentation. Lee begins by taking the heroic action apart with every formal tool at his command. With The Rival Queens he discovers meaning in the disassembled pieces, specifically in the rejection of judgment embodied in the fragmented, suicidal choice of love over honor. In welding that formal rejection to an ideological rejection of political tyranny, Lee begins the reassembly completed in Lucius Junius Brutus. That play attains formal coherence through its alignment of pathetic effect and republican ideology. Significantly, this alignment, achieved with such difficulty by Lee, later becomes the trademark of the eighteenth-century moral action.

Lee's career reveals, with unique formal and ideological explicitness, the particular place of affective tragedy in the evolution of serious drama in this period. To the extent that affective form simply eliminates assessment, it is an evaluative placeholder between the explicitly aristocratic form of the heroic action and the bourgeois form of eighteenth-century moralized tragedy. The rejection of heroic evaluation, then, is the necessary prerequisite of formal pathos, and it links the early depoliticized affective tragedy with the later middle-class drama. Lee's precocious advocacy of the Whig ideals that become formally dominant only in the moral action anticipates the subsequent gradual moralization of affective form, and reveals the ideological dimension of the movement away from character assessment that marks the major serious drama of the late 1670s and early 1680s. That ideological dimension, as Lee's later anti-Whig Constantine the Great (1683) suggests, does not necessarily include the advocacy of a political or social alternative. Alternatives can and inevitably do emerge, but the defining essence of affective tragedy is ideological failure or rejection. The aristocratic and absolutist hierarchies are no longer formally viable for Lee and for the other major dramatists most sensitive to the social and political realities of their time. Even a conservative and a royalist like Dryden chooses in his best play to depict Herculean values with nostalgic recollection. All for Love is in this sense, like The Rival Queens, an elegy for absolutism.


  1. See Eric Rothstein's suggestive analysis of the nature of pathetic tragedy. His description of the affective form of this drama and of its lack of “self-sufficiency” (Restoration Tragedy: Form and the Process of Change (Madison: Univ. Wisconsin Press, 1967), p. 122) anticipates mine. His conclusions about the evolution of the drama in this period, however, differ fundamentally from my own, since he denies the significance of the historical context or the ideological content of the form (pp. 45-47).

  2. Rothstein, Restoration Tragedy, p. 96. An admirably appropriate coinage.

  3. The Rival Queens, ed. P. F. Vernon (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1970), II.95. Subsequent references will be noted in the text.

  4. Statira is also described as a child (II.351-54), and pathetic children appear throughout this drama. For the significance of this motif, see Arthur Sherbo, English Sentimental Drama (East Lansing, Michigan: Michigan State Univ. Press, 1957), pp. 53-59; Clifford Leech, “Restoration Tragedy: A Reconsideration,” Durham University Journal 11 (1950): 106-15; and Rothstein, Restoration Tragedy, p. 153.

  5. See Eugene Waith's suggestive discussion of the transference of magnanimity from the heroic protagonist to the pitying audience of the pathetic play in “Tears of Magnanimity in Otway and Racine,” in French and English Drama of the Seventeenth Century, by Waith and Judd D. Hubert (Los Angeles: William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, UCLA, 1972), pp. 1-22.

  6. Vernon, Introduction to The Rival Queens, pp. xxiv-xxv; and Waith, Ideas of Greatness: Heroic Drama in England (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971), pp. 239-40.

  7. Vernon, Introduction to The Rival Queens, p. xxiii; and Robert D. Hume, The Development of English Drama in the Late Seventeenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), p. 205.

  8. George N. Clark, The Later Stuarts 1660-1714, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955), pp. 56-57; Christopher Hill, The Century of Revolution 1603-1714 (Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1961), pp. 230-32; and David Ogg, England in the Reign of Charles II, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956), esp. vol. 1, pp. 204-18 and 314-21, and vol. 2, pp. 450-72 and 485.

  9. John Loftis, Introduction to his edition of Lucius Junius Brutus (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1967), pp. xiii-xix, and The Politics of Drama in Augustan England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), pp. 15-17.

  10. Lucius Junius Brutus, ed. Loftis, II.179-81 and V.ii.42-67 and 197-210. Subsequent references will be noted in the text.

  11. In echoing Almanzor's characteristic “daring,” this passage reveals Lee's transformation of Herculean defiance into loyal service to a republican state. See Waith's description of the fate of the Herculean hero after the emergence of the bourgeois ideal of civic responsibility in the eighteenth century (The Herculean Hero, pp. 200-01).

Richard E. Brown (essay date fall 1983)

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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 vigor of your youthful Muse.(1)

Dryden's remark is one of the earliest indications that from his first three dramas, Nero, Sophonisba, and Gloriana, Lee had already acquired the reputation for bombast, bloodshed and a lack of artistic control which he was unable to shake later in his career, and which persists in our century.2 Any critic wishing to advance a case for Lee as a sometimes conscious satirist of heroic conventions must contemplate the vigor of the two forces that have long sustained the Lee myth. The first has been an energetic riding of the biographical fallacy. Because Lee was confined to Bedlam toward the end of his life (1684-88)—possibly for alcoholism rather than insanity—his plays have long been read in anticipation of an emotional breakdown. John Harold Wilson records, “In 1684, when Lee went violently insane … dour Anthony Wood noted in his Diary, ‘Nathaniel Lee, the playmaker, endeavoring to reach high in expression in his plays, broke his head and fell distracted.’”3 Two hundred and eighty-five years later James Sutherland makes the same connection between passionate poetry and the playwright's mental infirmity. He quotes an outburst from The Rival Queens (written eight years before Lee went to Bedlam) in which Roxana refers to her “hot bleeding heart,” and comments, “The madness is in his characters, but it may also (we begin to feel) be in Lee himself.”4 Besides the interest in demonstrating that Lee was headed for Bedlam from the start, later critics have tended to exploit his most lurid passages as convenient examples of heroic rant and “Jacobean-style” bloodshed, using them as foils for other critical stereotypes of Restoration drama, such as the coolness of Dryden or the pathos of Otway.5

These long-established critical attitudes toward Lee have left a key period in his career under-emphasized. Even though Lucius Junius Brutus stands as his acknowledged masterpiece, Theodosius has received minor notice as his calmest play, and Robert Hume has argued for The Princess of Cleve as a well-executed satire, still his works of 1680-82 have gone unattended as a group, so that the true shape of his career remains impossible to discern. A fairer critical myth about Lee might disregard the fact that he finally went to Bedlam, and stress instead that during his most disciplined period he idealizes heroic control and subjects the clichés of passion to ironic correction. Even among his early plays there is a fairly consistent pattern of criticizing madness and passionate excess: J. M. Armistead's interpretation of Sophonisba argues for both Massinissa and Hannibal as partial critiques of an older form of heroism, and proposes that in Lee's plays of 1677-80, monarchs are repeatedly exposed for their tendency to tyrannize.6 Four of Lee's early works, from Nero (1674) to Caesar Borgia (1679), strongly disapprove of the madness and lack of self-control exhibited by their central characters.7 But in Lee's earlier plays he does not specifically direct his criticism against the stereotypes of heroic behavior and language; with Theodosius Lee, now a master of the heroic tradition, enters a period of deliberate generic satire.

The problem of dating Lee's plays during the period in question has been solved by Hume, who argues for the following order: Theodosius, produced early in the summer of 1680; Brutus, produced December, 1680; The Massacre of Paris, written early in 1681; The Princess of Cleve, written late 1681-early 1682.8 One other fact is important for understanding Lee's career during these years: Brutus and The Massacre were suppressed for their political implications, deeply affecting the content of his subsequent work. In the Dedications to both Theodosius and Brutus, Lee sounds confident of his powers. Introducing Theodosius, he congratulates himself on his sensitive portrayal of the pathetic lovers in a recent play, Mithridates, and then goes on to defend himself against the charge of poetic wildness: “It has been often observed against me, That I abound in ungovern'd Fancy; but I hope the World will pardon the Sallies of Youth: Age, Despondence, and Dulness come too fast of themselves” (2:238). Of Brutus' noble Roman tone, he sounds unabashedly proud: “In such a Writing” about antique heroism, “there must be Greatness of Thought without Bombast, Remoteness without Monstrousness, Virtue arm'd with Severity, not in Iron Bodies, Solid Wit without modern Affectation, Smoothness without Gloss, Speaking out without cracking the Voice or straining the Lungs. … I must acknowledge however I have behav'd my self in drawing, nothing ever presented it self to my Fancy with that solid pleasure as Brutus did in sacrificing his Sons” (2:321). The confidence with which Lee describes his composition of Brutus is unprecedented in the few earlier passages where he discusses his career, and it suggests he felt himself entering his artistic majority. But he soon had new reason for discouragement. After Brutus was banned for its republicanism, as Hume argues, he tried to redeem himself by composing in The Massacre a blatantly anti-Catholic play; but the political leanings of Charles II were more complicated than Lee knew, and it was banned too. By mid-1681 his career was dead in its tracks. His lingering bitterness over this disappointment is reflected in the Dedication (1689) of The Princess: “this Farce, Comedy, Tragedy or meer Play, was a Revenge for the Refusal of the other [The Massacre]; for when they expected the most polish'd Hero in Nemours, I gave 'em a Ruffian reeking from Whetstone's-Park” (2:153). Thus of the four plays written while Lee was most inclined to scrutinize heroic conventions, the first two apparently centered on this subject as a natural creative development from his earlier heroic plays. The third, however, subordinates its investigation of heroic behavior to topical issues, as Lee tries to prove his loyalty to the crown. The Princess, written as a “Revenge” upon the town that spurned him, deals with heroism in the debasing context of a city sex comedy; it is splenetic and its satire of theatrical heroics is Lee's most devastating.

Theodosius is the first of Lee's plays to concentrate on the opposition of passionate heroic excess versus self-discipline. Armistead views the play's conclusion as proving (through the marriage of Marcian and Pulcheria) that an integration of pagan and Christian strengths is possible9; without entirely disputing that reading, I wish to stress that the play also insists upon testing the traditional heroic language and motives of its central characters—which the play associates with their pagan backgrounds—in order to show that such heroics are actually self-defeating. Only those who discipline their passions and resist the self-deceptions which heroic behavior encourages can survive or prosper, whether they be Christians or pagans. Lee's method here is not simply comparative, but satiric: his critique of heroics involves witty (not to say comic) manipulations of language, devastating exposés of corrupt psychology, and the remarkable disapproval of a hero's stage-managed suicide.

Marcian, the general whom Armistead calls the play's only worthy hero, actually begins by being satirized for his intemperate militaristic outbursts. At his first entrance he huffs about effeminate courtiers who have mocked him, and reports that he drew his sword on them in a rage (2.1). He speaks in ungovernable exclamations: contemplating the weakness of his emperor, he declares, “Who can be temperate, / That thinks as I do”; “oh Gods! forgive my blood this Transport!” and “I almost weep with bursting rage” (2.1.60, 61, 157, 166). No wonder Pulcheria, though she loves him, calls him an embodiment of “Old [i.e., pre-Christian] Rome” and wishes that some fire had been left out of his temper (2.1.12-18). She suspects his charges against Theodosius arise from opportunistic posturing rather than greatness of soul; she refuses to believe anyone who rants so much can be plaindealing or loyal. Finally she strips him of his command and taunts him, “Now rage! now rail and Curse the Court; / Sawcily dare to abuse the best of Princes, / And let thy lawless Tongue lash all it can; / Do, like a madman rave! deplore thy Fortune, / While Pages laugh at thee” (2.1.222-26). Lee's unusual effect is to submit the hero to criticism about his violent manner, to force him into self-restraint as proof that his charges against the emperor have been patriotically motivated. The first encouraging sign that Marcian may be able to control his heroics comes just after Pulcheria dismisses him, when his lieutenant offers to raise a rebel army on his behalf. Even as he fears madness if he broods on Pulcheria's accusations, he refuses the offer, insisting he remains “loyal, plain-dealing, honest” (2.1.259).

Marcian's heroics are further disciplined when he tries to stir Theodosius from his “sloth and backward ease” into martial fury. Among others, Marcian raises up Nero's example, bloody and cruel, for Theodosius to emulate; Nero, he proclaims, “shew'd he had a spirit, / However fierce, avenging, and pernicious, / That savour'd of a Roman” (4.2.92-94). Lee is perhaps recalling through Marcian's tirade his own violent theatrical beginning, now identifying the subject of Nero with Marcian's intemperance. When Theodosius protests, Marcian disarms his emperor and blusters about the army he can lead in revolt. But where many a huffing hero would complete his grab for power, Marcian displays his essential virtue by reining himself in: “O temper! temper me! ye gracious Gods!” he cries, “Give to my hand forbearance; to my heart / Its constant Loyalty! I would but shake him [Theodosius], / Rouze him a little from this death of Honour” (4.2.164-67). To complete his attempt to stir the emperor, Marcian tells an invented story that Theodosius' beloved, Athenais, has been executed by Pulcheria. When Theodosius faints at the tale, Marcian at last comprehends his own presumption and urges in a panic, “Droop not because I utter'd some rash words, / And was a Mad man” (4.2.235-36).

Marcian is not further humiliated; indeed, he finally receives from Theodosius both Pulcheria's hand and the empire. But his stormy manner is subdued in the process—he is so joyed that the emperor at last trusts his loyalty, and so touched at receiving Pulcheria, that he becomes domesticated. He comforts his weeping bride: “Nay, weep not Madam, though my outside's rough, / Yet by those eyes your souldier has a heart / Compassionate and tender as a Virgins, / Ev'n now it bleeds to see those falling sorrows” (5.3.91-94). Marcian moves from an intemperate pagan warrior to an approved husband and the emperor's worthy replacement. His example finally validates a mean between the extremes of Theodosius' passivity and his own early rages.

Theodosius' childhood friend, Varanes, and the woman they both love, Athenais, are satirized for amorous, rather than military, heroics. Varanes begins as an apparently model youth, more vigorous than Theodosius, yet sensitive to Athenais' beauty. If, in the manner of stage lovers, he protests his love excessively, the reprimands he receives are at first gentle (2.1.359-61). But his apparent sincerity is only a build-up, preparing for his exposure as an irresponsible proclaimer of vows not deeply considered. Once Athenais discovers that he wants her as a concubine, not bride, his “O let me be a mere villager, so long as she loves me,” or, “I now loathe all human greatness,” are revealed as the empty clichés of love talk. In Varanes, as with Marcian, Lee calls attention to stereotypes of dramatic speech and insists on testing the real man against them.

Athenais now disdainfully perceives the falsehood of Varanes' extravagant speech: “his glory / Scorns to be mov'd by the weak breath of Woman; / He is all Heroe, bent for higher game,” she sneers (3.2.284-86). But next comes Athenais' turn to be tested on the issue of self-control versus emotional abandonment. Varanes regrets losing her, and Theodosius, who also loves her, offers her a free choice between them. Athenais rationally wishes to choose the emperior, but, forced to hear Varanes' pleas, she fears that his passionate language will undermine her resolve. Her dilemma—the desire to choose temperately, but the fear that passion will sweep her away—is framed in terms of her Christian commitment: to prefer Theodosius is consistent with her vows of restraint (4.2.300-327). Tellingly, Varanes' pose of heroic forbearance cracks her resolve, while she was determined to resist his emotional outbursts: “let the Gods now Judge / By my last wish,” he tells her, “if ever patient man / Did calmely bear so great a loss as mine” (4.2.466-68). At last she succumbs, recalling the passion of a host of other stage lovers:

I rage! I burn! I bleed! I dye for love:
I am distracted with this world of passion.
.....                    [I] cannot curb
This Fury in; therefore I let it loose;
Spite of my rigid duty, I will speak
With all the dearness of a dying Lover.


Because Athenais feels bound by honor to marry Theodosius, she and Varanes independently resolve upon suicide. In a more straightforward heroic romance, their motives and gestures might not be questioned, but here they are evaluated critically. Varanes is depicted as indulging himself in an impersonal catalog of poetic images denoting grief—wolves and dogs barking at the moon, ghosts, ravens, owls, and thoughts of his grave (5.2.1-23)—and planning his suicide as a lurid attention-getter. He instructs his servant: “bear me with my blood distilling down / Straight to the Temple, lay me! O Aranthes! / Lay my cold Coarse at Athenais Feet, / And say, O why, why do my eyes run o're! / Say with my latest gasp I groan'd for pardon” (5.2.65-69). Athenais' death, which follows immediately upon the arrival of Varanes' corpse, is the second, greater blow to the shocked Theodosius. But his benign presence amid the suicides offers a clear statement that the lovers have killed themselves over a pointless refinement of honor; as he points out, he offered to allow them to marry if Athenais wished (5.4.61-63). The usual heroic action of lovers killing themselves because they find themselves caught in some tyrant's web is here replaced by a young man rushing to death as a typical expression of his self-dramatizing ego, and a maiden following him because she insists on hair-splitting about her moral commitments.

By contrast, Theodosius keeps himself from suicide by remembering what Athenias forgot—the Christian God's command against it. Armistead finds Theodosius' dabbling in Christianity a melancholy self-indulgence, and in early acts this charge seems correct, since he postpones retiring to a monastery because of Athenais. But as Varanes' irresponsible heroics are exposed, Theodosius appears more admirable; his treatment of Athenais is always generous, and he is less given to the exclamations or morbid similitudes in which Varanes finally drowns. His last speech, after witnessing the two suicides, is a reasoned disposition of the empire, as he seeks to live beyond his grief (5.4.85-97). Theodosius is no man of action like Marcian, so it is appropriate for the general to replace him on the throne; but Theodosius remains the only admirable figure in the play's love triangle, because he behaves with Christian restraint and candor, while Varanes and Athenais abandon themselves to the irresponsibility of heroic paganism. He is the real subject of an audience's tears in the last scene.

Despite its convincing critique of heroic manners, Theodosius remains unsatisfying. The problem may be that Marcian and Theodosius split the role of protagonist, leaving neither character with enough to do. In Marcian's greatest scene, he simply refuses to lead an uprising against the emperor; Theodosius, representing restraint in love and distinterestedness in affairs of state, appears so passive that he cannot even govern his empire. In satirizing heroic excess, Lee has not yet found a way to make self-control a vigorous dramatic force—a problem he will solve in Brutus.

Lee's remarks in the Dedication to Brutus about striving for the proper Roman tone (cited above) should alert the reader that tonal control is at the heart of Lee's approach to his subject. Lee is concerned here not only with a republican alternative to tyranny—long the common interpretation of the play's theme10—but with the kind of heroic behavior necessary for success in moments critical to national destiny. Brutus achieves his goals through a strength that includes massive self-control; he is a master of appropriate public gestures, regardless of what they cost him as a private individual, and he possesses a fine ear for nuances of diction that create a proper disposition of soul. As a private man Brutus may be flawed—unyielding, doctrinaire11—but he is nonetheless the right hero for the crisis he confronts. Contrasting with him are some characters whose lack of self-discipline and insensitivity to the powers of speech and gesture Lee satirizes, in order to demonstrate the essential rightness of Brutus' stance.

Brutus begins the play as the apparent idiot jester of Rome, who speaks in harsh prose and scourges public enemies with rough satire, himself enduring “follies, scoffs, reproaches, pities, scorns, / Indignities almost to blows” (1.1.115-16) for the sake of his disguise. Once the opportune moment arrives for overthrowing Tarquin, he discards this cover and rises to the necessary pitch of ferocity to lead a revolution, embodying “glory and revenge, / A blood-shot anger, and a burst of Fury” (1.2.233-34). His son Titus is amazed at the apparent change: “No part of him / The same; nor eyes, nor mien, nor voice, nor gesture!” (1.2.224-25) While Brutus' new heroic manner is convincing enough, there are also hints that it is a sort of magnificent pose which he rouses himself to: he acknowledges the possibility that Titus may yet see a “woman's tear come o'er [his] resolution,” as nature may undermine his Roman behavior (1.2.238-41). Heroism is, then, a mode of behavior which one puts on, and it may sometimes war with one's private inclinations.

Brutus' ability to adopt the necessary level of speech and manner is supported by his repeated mockery of others when they display the wrong tone at a critical moment. In act 1 he scorns the “laments” and “puling sighs” of Collatinus over Lucrece, vowing instead a vigorous Roman revenge, and contrasting the Roman with the sentimental way of facing life (1.2.423-29). And he reprimands his son, Titus:

O, sir!
O, sir! That exclamation was too high.
Such raptures ill become the troubled times;
No more of 'em.


Later, he elects to use Titus' membership in the pro-Tarquin conspiracy as an opportunity to set a stiff example, not because he is a “constitutional enthusiast … who sacrifices humanity to satisfy law,” as Armistead would have it, but because he remains supremely committed to creating the right impression about the nature of republican government. For that public boon, he is willing to suffer his private grief as a father. As he tells Titus,

I will take th'advantage
Of thy important fate, cement Rome's flaws,
And heal her wounded freedom with thy blood …
.....Without one groan, without one pitying tear,
If that the gods can hold me to my purpose,
To make my justice quite transcend example.

[4.1.522-33; emphasis mine]

Brutus' heroism is ultimately founded not upon his rage, but upon his self-discipline, which allows him to sacrifice his personal interests for the public good.

By contrast, Titus cannot follow his father's command and master his emotions about Teraminta, Tarquin's daughter. He succumbs to the conspirators' temptation precisely because, after he tries to renounce her, he indulges in excessive grief, soliloquizing, “O Teraminta! I will groan thy name / Till the tired echo faint with repetition, / Till all the breathless grove and quiet myrtles / Shake with my sighs as if a tempest bowed 'em” (3.3.44-47). When she enters and tells him he can't bed her until he swears to fight on Tarquin's side, he is in no condition to resist. Thus there is justification for the mawkish language of the play, which Loftis has criticized: it is intended to characterize Titus' emotional immaturity, and to prove here, just as Lee did with Varanes and Athenais, that the excessive language of stage lovers can actually be debilitating, undermining their self-command.12 Although Laura Brown is right to argue that Lee divides the role of protagonist between Brutus and his son, so that one of them may exemplify Roman virtue while the other arouses pathos, still the dynamic between these two is complicated by the fact that until the end of act 4 Titus is not a real hero, but the object of Brutus' scorn for his amorous weakness.13 Armistead mistakenly finds Titus and Teraminta “in every way attractive and natural,” the virtuous victims which Brutus cruelly sacrifices to his principles. Brutus' expectation that his son give up Teraminta is a hard command, but no harder than the role Brutus has imposed upon himself for the past twenty years as jester and apparent madman. Titus' fate is hard simply because his position as a public figure requires him to make suitable public gestures. This is not purely Brutus' whim, but an imperative that accompanies public prominence. Once more, the play defines heroism as the ability to live up to the role fate has thrust upon one, and Titus is the negative example of this behavior, as Brutus is the positive example.

The play's interest in methods of controlling tone also extends to Lee's use of certain minor characters who balance the prevailing Roman nobility and prevent it from becoming too pompous or self-absorbed. Especially prominent is Vinditius, who provides a commentary on Brutus' great address rousing the citizens in act 2. Vinditius' crude cries of approval comically draw attention to Brutus' eloquence and almost, but not quite, mock it through the contrast. Vinditius interrupts Brutus' pathetic reference to Lucrece, crying, “O, neighbors, O! I buried seven wives without crying, / Nay, I never wept before in all my life” (3.2.164-65); he undercuts Brutus' noble diction with low phrases (3.1.188); and he adds intensifiers at Brutus' pauses (3.2.204, 222). In act 4 Vinditius performs a similar role, commenting on the grisly human sacrifices of the pro-monarchical priesthood, this time preventing the scene from degenerating into a mere bloodbath. His words strike the horror of black comedy: “Roast him and eat him alive! A whole man roasted! Would not an ox serve the turn? … No; if a man can't go to heaven unless your priests eat him and drink him and roast him alive, I'll be for the broad way, and the devil shall have me at a venture” (4.1.124-29). Vinditius chatters about what the priests might do to him if they found him spying, and later congratulates himself on having discovered the ceremonies, for when he alerts the republicans, “They'll make me a senator at least, / And then a consul … Well, I am made forever!” (4.2.218-22). If the play possesses any Shakespearian quality (for it has been compared to Shakespeare), it lies in such management of tone, controlling our revulsion by means of a figure like Vinditius.

Brutus and Theodosius are not anti-heroic, but they define heroism as a quality antithetical to the diction and feelings usually associated with it: haltingly in Marcian, and more clearly in Brutus, Lee shows that worthiness to command depends upon self-mastery. In Titus, as in Varanes and Athenais, the self-indulgence of a lover's grief is not simply milked for its pathos, but is criticized as a weakness. But while Theodosius' critique of heroic manner is entirely serious, in some scenes of Brutus Lee calculates his pitch for a comic balancing of noble speech or hideous gore, extending the point that rhetorical poise now stands at the center of his thematic conception.

Roman Catholic villainy is Lee's main subject in The Massacre of Paris; still, his interest in emotional self-control and the vulnerability of passionate lovers appear prominently again, this time as a means of heightening the religious theme. The play's hero, the Huguenot Admiral, possesses credentials of military courage and political perceptiveness. He is astute enough that when the King invites the Huguenot party to Paris, he suspects a trick. But as Marcian is faithful to Theodosius, Brutus to his republican ideals, so the Admiral is utterly loyal to the Queen of Navarre; when she pronounces that she will go to Paris, he displays a noble resignation: “'Twas for your sake, and in the Prince's cause, / For Liberty of Conscience and Religion, / That I thus long did propagate the War; / And shall I now not follow where you lead me?” (2.1.106-9). The Admiral does not resign himself to martyrdom immediately; he embroils one of the Parisian King's enemies in war, so that his prowess may be required to save the realm—an attempt to guarantee his safety in Paris. Once he arrives there, however, decisive action becomes an honorable impossibility, for he is caught in a web of false protestations. In acts 3-4, his spiritual nobility does not allow him to believe that the King and Queen Mother can be such bold-faced liars as they are; he will not stoop to suspect once he has received assurances which should be valid. His only choice is to rely on a determined faith which teaches him self-control:

          if the Will of Heav'n has set it down,
That all this trust is deep dissimulation,
That there's no Faith nor Credit to be given
To the inviolable Royal Word;
.....[Then] I am contented for the Protestant Faith
Here to be hewn into a thousand pieces,
And made the Martyr of so good a Cause.


At the hour of martyrdom, the Admiral exhorts a fellow Huguenot: “see, they come: stand fixt, and look on Death / With such Contempt, so Masterly an Eye, / As if he were thy Slave” (5.4.23-25). Though his role is more passive than Brutus', the Admiral exemplifies a similar self-possession. He translates into Christian obedience the same strength of character which Brutus exhibits in Roman command.

Lee explores the excesses of love in Marguerite, who is betrothed by the King to a Huguenot prince. She loves the Duke of Guise ferociously. She admits, “this Fever of my furious passion / Burns me to Madness”; she cannot stay to converse with Guise because “I rave again, my Fits return: / Yet pity me, for oh, I burn, I burn” (1.1.47-48, 61-62). To the Queen Mother she morbidly vows,

                                                                                I could burn
Piece-Meal away, or bleed to Death by drops,
Be flead alive, then broke upon the Wheel,
Yet with a Smile endure it all for Guise:
And when let loose from Torments, all one wound,
Run with my mangled Arms, and crush him dead.


The Queen Mother replies, “thou'rt mad indeed.” Marguerite appears all the more neurotic because, as in this scene, she is pitted against calmer interlocutors who point out her excesses. As the play opens, Guise stiffly declares his love to her, and she lashes out in a frenzy of distrust. After she departs, Guise and the Cardinal coolly analyze her malady: the Cardinal remarks that he has never seen “so fierce a Passion,” while Guise observes that the idlest accident can stir a lover's blood.

As in Theodosius and Brutus, passion renders the lover vulnerable. Guise hopes to advance himself at court by marrying Marguerite, and if the King did not intervene, this use of her would be inevitable. When the King wishes her to marry a Huguenot prince instead, he shows her Guise tearing up the marriage contract between them; predictably she vows to wed the King's choice for revenge. Love makes her anybody's dupe. But in a scene offering great proof of Lee's ability to arrange emotional reversals, she suddenly controls her passion for Guise when he tells her of the plot to massacre the Huguenots. She turns away, horrified, and gains new dignity in pleading that the life of her young Huguenot husband be spared. Thus she takes on some of the Admiral's masterful restraint, even as she admits that her love for Guise perseveres (5.1.205-7). The exposé of her amorous passion not only allows Lee to illustrate the duplicitous workings of the Catholic court around her, but at last gives him the chance to arrange a powerful emotional effect, by showing that even her extreme love is subdued by her natural revulsion at the Catholic villainy.

The play's emphasis on self-control may seem compromised by the “Jacobean” tone of its conclusion, in which Huguenots are murdered onstage. This scene is not gratuitous, however, since Lee is obviously calculating that such violence will be interpreted as spiritual wickedness, just as the Admiral's submission and the shock of calm which falls over Marguerite are to be taken as signs of corresponding virtue.

The Princess of Cleve has long been regarded as a central proof of Lee's emotional degeneracy, a tasteless sex comedy in which Nemours exhibits an amorality more extreme and heartless than Horner's. Hume has shown, however, that this lubricious, hypocritical protagonist is not Lee's alter ego, but a satiric figure in a play which lambastes the morals of its audience.14 Following his argument, one can demonstrate The Princess' thematic continuity with the three plays just discussed. While it satirizes the Restoration rake and the carnal world he traditionally inhabits, it also debunks heroic language and behavior—first in Nemours' relationship with the refined Cleves, and second through structural parallels which unite the play's two plots.

The same protagonist does not usually occupy a central role in both serious and comic parts of a split plot tragicomedy, but Nemours pursues sexual intrigues among the rough and tumble Parisian middle class, while also nearly seducing the virtuous Princess of Cleve. He can enter her courtly world because of his fine ear—his ability, that is, to mimic heroic speech. Nemours is not simply schizophrenic—a speaker of bawdy prose in one context and a master of blank verse in the other—but rather a conscious parodist and manipulator of the heroic. Once, as he prepares to leave the world of the cits for an assignation with the Princess, he cries, “No more, if I live I'll see her to night, for the Heroick Vein comes upon me.” But he immediately regrets giving up the rendezvous he has planned with another woman, and reverts to the candid tone of the rake: “Hell, can't I be in two places at once?” (4.1.260-64). Seeing the Prince enter, he puts on the form of heroic lover again: “Ha! he comes up but slowly, yet he sees me, / Perhaps he's Jealous, why then I'm jealous too; / Hypocrisie and Softness, with all the Arts of Woman, / Tip my Tongue” (4.1.270-73). To the Prince's reproachful question, whether Nemours loves him (for the Prince has learned Nemours is pursuing his wife), Nemours responds with a mocking protestation that passes from the bounds of friendship into what smells like homosexual interest:

Love thee, my Cleve, by Heav'n, e'er yet I saw thee,
Thus were my Prayers still offer'd to the Fates,
If I must choose a Friend, grant me ye Powers
The Man I love may seize my Heart at once;
Guide him the perfect temper of your selves,
With ev'ry manly Grace and shining Vertue;
Add yet the bloom of Beauty to his Youth,
That I may make a Mistress of him too.
O Heav'n!
                                                                                                    That at first view our Souls may kindle,
And like two Tapers kindly mix their Beams;
I knelt and pray'd, and wept for such a Blessing,
And they return'd me more than I cou'd ask,
All that was Good or Great or Just in thee.


Despite the Prince's exclamation, there is no further indication that he comprehends exactly what Nemours is saying—he evidently takes it merely as the fulsome babble of the upper class. Clearly, if Nemours can parody heroic effusions this cleverly, he can keep a pair of unsuspecting characters like the Cleves dancing his tune. They cannot defend themselves against him because they cannot comprehend his motives. Even when the Prince finds that Nemours is making love to his wife, he assumes Nemours' passion is as noble as his own. But Lee does not present the Prince's credulity in the same light as the heroic trust of the Admiral. Nemours mocks the Prince as devoid of imagination, unable to deal with the world as it is; and, since this is not a heroic drama but a split plot sex comedy, the Prince is given no heroic action by which to prove that his manners or morals lead to superior capacities. Because the Cleves are drawing room creatures rather than rugged soldiers or politicians, it is at first surprising that they lack all sensitivity to tone. Even Brutus, despite his roughness, is an excellent parodist, but in The Princess the fine ear is bestowed on Nemours, who uses it to mock his dupes, pursue his sexual quarry, and finally, to survive at court, when he utters his pseudo-vow of repentance at the end of act 5. Thus by comparison, the Cleves are merely credulous prisoners of a heroic manner, precious butterflies in a degraded world where really capable, admirable heroism proves not to exist.

The heroic romance of the Cleve-plot is further parodied by the farcical sex plot, as Hume in part indicates. Nemours' relationship with the Princess runs alongside both his affair with Marguerite, Princess of Jainville, and his pursuit of the wife of a bourgeois. The connections begin at the end of act 1, when the Princess nobly returns to him a stolen letter intended to make her suspect him of infidelity; at the beginning of act 2 Marguerite is made jealous by the story of Nemours' letter, which is now circulating over Paris. Such parallels repeatedly reduce the Princess of Cleve's dignity by showing her sucked into the same love tangles as loose women about town. Another relationship between the two plots involves masking: Marguerite tests Nemours' faithfulness by wearing a mask in acts 2 and 3; meanwhile Celia and Elianor test their bourgeois husbands the same way. These masking scenes suggest the deceptive nature of the common love game, and oppose the Princess' supposedly heroic candor in telling her husband she loves Nemours. Ironically, the Princess' honesty backfires as a method of handling infidelity. While the Prince finally dies of his grief, the errant cit couples are reconciled. The cits consistently show a greater resiliency; their easy morals allow them to bend, while the Cleves can only break.

The play does not endorse Nemours, any more than it supports the heroic model of the Cleves; in this satire of styles and morals, all examples are proved lacking. But the play is heavily committed to criticizing the heroic ideal as a mode of surviving in an animalistic society. Importantly, the attack is made possible by the playwright's continuing sensitivity to tone—proving that Lee remains the master of his poetry into 1682.

Although Hume implies that Lee's heroic satire in The Princess is a new development, resulting from his disillusionment over censorship and his response to the changing British political climate, criticism of heroics becomes central to the design of Lee's plays as early as Theodosius, and thus began as a natural outcome of his meditations on contemporary drama. Through four plays he repeatedly exposes the dangers of exaggerated speech and emotional self-indulgence, and creates a new kind of hero, self-controlled, sometimes even passive, who exemplifies loyalty and obedience—until this hero is obliterated too in the sour reductionism of The Princess. In Brutus and The Princess, he also discovers a talent for comic mockery. Not that Lee now eschews violence: but this element is not offered for its own shocking interest. It is controlled by the disapproval of Lee's spokesmen and examined through the lens of parody. The single case in which violence is specifically defended, Titus' execution at the end of Brutus, is made to seem a proof of Brutus' self-descipline, not bloodthirstiness.

The twentieth century has discovered that other heroic dramatists sometimes mocked the ambitious or self-satisfied characters in their heroic plays, but an exact measurement of the satiric tone in this genre has proved unusually difficult. Dryden, widely suspected of satirizing at least some of his characters, generally provides no explicit commentator on the egomania and violent passions rampant in his heroic plays; thus Dryden's critics continue to dispute exactly when their poet means to mock heroic sentiments. Lyndaraxa's cry, “I will be constant yet, if Fortune can; / I love the king,—let her but name the man” (Conquest of Granada, 4.2), is probably intended to bring down the house; but though Almanzor's proclamation, “I am king of me” (1.1), may sound equally ludicrous in isolation, it receives no direct evaluation within the play, and so the reader is left to wonder at it, teased by Colley Cibber's remark that audiences regularly greeted such characters with a laughter that did not really compromise their heroism.15 By contrast, the four plays examined are exceptional for the clarity of their exposure of heroic excess, and for their consistent opposition of emotional self-indulgence against a model of ideal control (though in The Princess, this model is only negatively implied). Lee reveals his satiric intent by prominent devices: structural antithesis of wild versus self-disciplined characters, speeches in which characters mimic their own and others' outbursts, and conclusions which glorify self-control (or in Nemours, an ending which shows at least that a rake endures longer than a heroic lover). Indeed it seems reasonable to claim that these works constitute the period's clearest sustained criticism of theatrical heroics, and they surely belie Lee's reputation as an unself-conscious madman committed only to rant and bombast.

However, these four plays seem never to have been perceived as a thematic group during the Restoration. The Massacre was banned from the stage until 1689, while Brutus was never revived in its original form after its officially interrupted first run in 1680. The Princess, a bitter satire against the town, could not be expected to please many: it died after its initial performances (1682). Only Theodosius remained long popular, ironically, for its love scenes. In short, Restoration audiences scarcely had an opportunity to view as a whole the most innovative stage in Lee's treatment of martial and amorous heroics. Furthermore, by the 1680s, the whole issue of that strange creature, the vaunting hero, was passing into theatrical history, and so Lee's critiques of theatrical conventions common to the 1660s and 1670s would become ever less interesting to well-read gentlemen in their studies. Thus one is left to contemplate the unfortunate indifference with which Lee's own generation—as well as every succeeding one—has regarded this crucial period in which he was conceivably attempting to reverse his reputation as a writer of wild and whirling words.


  1. 1.222-26, The Works of Nathaniel Lee, ed. Thomas B. Stroup and Arthur L. Cooke (1954/55; rpt. Metuchen, N. J., 1968). Citations in the text here and below for prologues and dedications refer to volume and page. Quotations from Lee's plays (except Brutus) also follow this edition; citations in the text for plays refer to act, scene and line.

  2. For a summary of critical reactions to individual plays, see the critical introductions to each in Stroup and Cooke, and the introductions to The Rival Queens, ed. P. F. Vernon (Lincoln, Neb., 1970), and Lucius Junius Brutus, ed. John Loftis (Lincoln, Neb., 1967). Or consult the Selected Bibliography in J. M. Armistead, Nathaniel Lee (Boston, 1979), pp. 202-13.

  3. A Preface to Restoration Drama (Boston, 1965), p. 89.

  4. English Literature of the Late Seventeenth Century (New York, 1969), p. 73.

  5. Recent histories of Restoration drama are written from perspectives which do not encourage a re-evaluation of the Lee myth. Robert Hume, The Development of English Drama in the Late Seventeenth Century (Oxford, 1976), who describes what it would have been like to attend every play between 1660 and 1710, naturally finds the “bloodbath” in Nero nearly as memorable as the lofty speeches of Lee's greatest play, Lucius Junius Brutus. Laura Brown, English Dramatic Form 1660-1760 (New Haven, 1981), tracing the evolution of dramatic genres, finds The Rival Queens more interesting for its formal incoherence than plays like Theodosius, which may cohere, but illustrate nothing new about generic development. J. M. Armistead writes of Lee's intellectual and political designs, but intentionally leaves artistic evaluations to others (“Preface,” Nathaniel Lee, n.p.). Wilson, pp. 88-89, and Eugene Waith, Ideas of Greatness (New York, 1971), pp. 241-42, show unusual sympathy for Lee's intense lyrical poetry, but no one has directly challenged the thesis that he consistently exploits extreme passions and violence for their own sake, or that his works commonly run headlong out of control.

  6. Armistead, chap. 3. Laura Brown points out (pp. 71-76) that Alexander in The Rival Queens is sometimes mocked for his passionate excesses, but she concludes that Lee has no clear thematic design in mind, so the critique of the hero is haphazard and inconsistent.

  7. So I argue in an essay, to date unpublished, “Madness and Passion in Four Early Plays by Nat. Lee.” The other plays discussed are Sophonisba and The Rival Queens.

  8. “The Satiric Design of Nat. Lee's The Princess of Cleve,Journal of English and Germanic Philology 75 (1976): 117-38. Armistead (pp. 95-98) argues against Hume, in favor of the more traditional date for The Massacre, placing it in 1678/79. Both critics acknowledge that either date for this play is possible. My argument for a thematic connection among these four plays lends additional support to Hume's more purely historical reasons for dating The Massacre between Brutus and The Princess.

    After The Princess Lee's next work was The Duke of Guise (1682). In an as yet unpublished essay, “The Dryden-Lee Collaboration: Oedipus and The Duke of Guise,” I explore the common conclusion that The Duke contains some of Lee's least excited verse—a point of view which would conform to my present argument that in his late plays he consistently criticizes heroic huffing. However, The Duke's subject—even more than The Massacre's—is confined to politics and religion; when Guise's excessive ambition is attacked, the charge does not reflect on him as hero, but as a rebellious subject (e.g., 2:2.1-38). Thus this play is more properly discussed elsewhere. The embarrassingly unfinished state in which Constantine (1683), Lee's last play, was brought to the stage makes it a poor support for any argument about nuances of poetic style. The play as it stands contains no ironic devices which would imply criticism of the fulsome avowals of its lovers; and its imagery tends to be controlled by Christianity and the spirit world—not heroics—anticipating Constantine's reformation. Thus my present subject best ends with The Princess.

  9. Armistead, chap. 9.

  10. On Brutus' republicanism, see John Loftis, The Politics of Drama in Augustan England (Oxford, 1963), pp. 16-17.

  11. Armistead's reading of his character includes this dimension, pp. 135-38.

  12. Introduction to Lucius Junius Brutus, ed. Loftis, pp. xxii-xxiii. Quotations from Brutus follow this edition.

  13. Brown, pp. 76-80.

  14. “Satiric Design.”

  15. An apology for the Life of Mr. Colley Cibber, ed. Robert W. Lowe, 2 vols. (London, 1889), 1: 123-25. For a discussion of Cibber's remark, see Eric Rothstein, Restoration Tragedy (Madison, Wis., 1967), pp. 99-100.

Richard Brown (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8200

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 Sophocles; The Duke is sometimes called an embarrassing Tory propaganda play, in which Lee abandoned his Whig principles either in despair or under Dryden's domination.2 Still, both works attracted wide notice in the Restoration, Oedipus in part for a reason of permanent interest: the place of such lurid emotionalism in the history of tragedy (recommended, in Dryden's Preface, by a comparison of the play with its Greek, Latin, and French sources).3The Duke's parallels with the 1678-81 Exclusion Crisis make it an important document for assessing the controversy (recently renewed) over Lee's political leanings. These dramas are also central to a major untreated subject of the period, the influence of Dryden on Lee4—a topic especially important to the latter's reputation, since Dryden's standard of cool precision is often used to denigrate Lee's more passionate poetry. Further, the combining of two such different poetic voices raises theoretical questions about dramatic collaboration: what sort of consistency between playwrights is required to create a coherent work of art? and what artistic values may be enhanced or marred by dual authorship?

The origins of the plays offer a neat symmetry: Dryden records that he drew up the plan and wrote Acts I and III of Oedipus, inviting his younger colleague to provide Acts II, IV and V. Lee, according to Dryden, solicited his friend to return the favor, so Dryden contributed The Duke's opening scene, Act IV, and “the first half or a little more” of Act V, while Lee wrote the rest.5 Dryden does not reveal his motive for inviting Lee to collaborate on Oedipus, but his plan allots different subjects to the two authors according to their different proclivities, creating a rhythm of contrasts important to the play's meaning.

Dryden's acts of Oedipus maintain a lower emotional temperature, influenced by blatant ironies, and they develop an explicit Tory theme. Act I begins by treating the political subplot in which Creon and his allies mutter sedition against Oedipus (ll. 1-102), and the Theban mob is incited in Creon's behalf, until the uproar is quieted by Tiresias' reminding them of Oedipus's solid credentials for governing (ll. 207-333). A restless malcontent, Creon lusts for power and despises his brother-in-law Oedipus. His character typifies Dryden's portraits of Whigs who would shake a settled government to advance themselves. In the main plot of Act I, Dryden's touch appears in the arrangement of succeeding ironies, as Jocasta innocently wishes her husband's prayers success, only to find that she repeatedly turns Oedipus' curse against Lajus' murderer back on Oedipus himself and Thebes (ll. 498-558). Dryden's reputation as a dramatic ironist is so well established that it is hardly surprising to find him exploiting the general ignorance of Oedipus' identity for such effects.6

By contrast, Lee's Act II is highly excited, less explicitly political, and less alert to Oedipus' potential for irony. The act opens with a lurid view of heavenly portents: an image representing Oedipus and Jocasta appears, covered in blood and lit by “baleful” stars.

Sure 'tis the end of all things! Fate has torn
The Lock of Time off, and his head is now
The gastly Ball of round Eternity!
Call you these Peals of Thunder, but the yawn
Of bellowing Clouds? By Jove, they seem to me
The World's last groans; and those vast sheets of Flame
Are its last Blaze! The Tapers of the Gods,
The Sun and Moon, run down like waxen-Globes;
The shooting Stars end all in purple Gellies,
And Chaos is at hand.


Dryden's first rendering of portents employed more generalized and commonplace imagery, making it seem less passionate: “Nature shakes / About us; and the Universal Frame / So loose, that it but wants another push / To leap from off its Hindges” (I.i.1-4). To add to the excitement, Lee reconceives the character of Tiresias. No longer Dryden's loyal citizen, he is now seized by prophetic fury as he seeks to discover who killed Lajus: “The rouz'd God … tears my aged Trunk / With holy Fury, my old Arteries burst, / My rivel'd skin, / Like Parchment, crackles at the hallow'd fire” (ll. 137-42). To this scary subject Lee adds Oedipus' troubled sleep-walking and the horrific appearance of a ghost (ll. 337-426). Lee portrays Creon as an ill-tempered lover rather than a political villain: he seeks revenge for Eurydice's refusal of his advances in Act I by now accusing her of murdering Lajus, and her outraged beloved, Adrastus, impetuously draws and wounds Creon (ll. 188-250). The Theban mob is now excited by a hatred of the two lovers rather than by Creon's hopes for the throne (ll. 251-52).

Dryden's Act III lowers emotions again by returning the subject from love and jealousy to politics. The act opens with Creon brooding over his ambition: “'Tis better not to be, than to be Creon. / A thinking soul is punishment enough; / But when 'tis great, like mine, and wretched too, / Then every thought draws blood” (ll. 3-6). Next come the ironies of his attempt to win back Eurydice (“How, Madam, were your thoughts employed!” he asks. “On death, and thee,” she replies icily—ll. 35-36), and the conspirators' sarcastic taunting of Adrastus (ll. 127-201), leading to a duel. This scene of witty speeches is followed by Tiresias's reappearance; as in Act I he is a wise teacher more than a prophet: he chants but never falls into a fit (ll. 231ff.). He succeeds in raising the ghost of Lajus, but the horror of this incident is lessened by the ghost's pained and introspective mood (ll. 356-77); despite his grievance against Oedipus, he attempts to scare no one. Act III concludes with a dialogue between Oedipus and Jocasta, in which he inquires into prophecies and connects them with his own past (ll. 481-594). His passion is disciplined by the process of piecing out riddles, and emotions are complicated, for the audience, by discovering ironic “coincidences” in Oedipus's life. After the passion of Act II, Act III seems designed both to present us with further information and to hold us tensely between the memory of excitement past and the anticipation of greater excitement to come.

In Act IV, Lee begins to mount toward his fiery conclusion. He opens with Creon no longer brooding but vigorously narrating a hypocritical oration he has just delivered against Oedipus:

Here I renounce all tye of Blood and Nature,
For thee, O Thebes, dear Thebes, poor bleeding Thebes.
And there I wept, and then the Rabble howl'd,
And roar'd, and with a thousand Antick mouths
Gabbled revenge, Revenge was all the cry.

(ll. 31-35)

Creon's speech conforms well with Dryden's Tory presentation of the mob and their leaders, but Lee also manages to transform rebellion from a political act into a passion. Later, Oedipus' discovery of his guilt is motivated by a mad drive to ferret out tragic secrets, as he explains in a tortured speech, “Man, the very Monster of the World” (ll. 438-53). His excitement extends to his rage at the shepherd, and once his crimes are known, he explodes in a long series of curses and cries (ll. 561-630).

Lee starts Act V at a point of precarious balance, as Oedipus' self-blinding is described by the anguished Haemon to Creon and his cynical henchmen. But intensity builds as Oedipus shares his pain with Jocasta in a dialogue that stresses their incest by showing them embrace more as husband and wife than as son and mother (ll. 144-226), until the ghost reappears and Jocasta runs off screaming. Then in bloody succession Creon murders Eurydice, Adrastus stabs Creon, an army kills Adrastus, Jocasta slays her children, and the scene draws to reveal her, a suicide, expiring amid other corpses. At last Oedipus “flings himself from the window.”

Some of Dryden's calculation in apportioning these scenes is immediately evident, since he not only reserved most of the irony for himself, but gave Lee the final acts to guarantee an exceptionally violent conclusion. That Dryden would have expected such intensity from Lee is indicated by Dryden's Prologue to Lee's Rival Queens (March, 1676/7), where Lee's “vigour” is contrasted with “colder” poets like Dryden himself.8 Dryden's tribute suggests that two years before Oedipus, Lee's reputation for a distinctive warmth was well established. Dryden described Lee's peculiar genius far less indulgently in 1695, after Lee's imprisonment for madness and subsequent death: “Another [dramatist], who had a great genius for tragedy, following the fury of his natural temper, made every man and woman too in his plays stark raging mad; there was not a sober person to be had for love or money. All was tempestuous and blustering; heaven and earth were coming together at every word; a mere hurricane from the beginning to the end, and every actor seemed to be hastening on the day of judgment” (II, 198).9

To understand why Dryden's plan for Oedipus required Lee's sort of violent poetry, we must begin by investigating Dryden's view of Greek tragedy—a large subject which I can only sketch. In the near-contemporary “Heads of an Answer to Rymer” (1677), Dryden mentions that in the Greek plays, “innocence is unhappy often, and the offender escapes” (I, 218); in “Grounds of Criticism in Tragedy” (1679), he again notes a moral imbalance: “Euripides was censured by the critics of his time for making his chief characters too wicked” (I, 246). Later he goes at the Greeks from another direction: Aeschylus “writ nothing in cold blood, but was always in a rapture, and in a fury with his audience: the inspiration was still on him, he was ever tearing it upon the tripos; or (to run off madly as he does, from one similitude to another) he was always at the high flood of passion, even in the dead ebb and low water mark of the scene” (I, 254). These remarks recall a passage from Of Dramatic Poesy (1668) in which Eugenius is proving that the Greeks were not superior to the English dramatists: as the Greeks

have failed both in laying of their plots, and managing of them, swerving from the rules of their own art by misrepresenting nature to us, in which they have ill satisfied one intention of a play, which was delight; so in the instructive part they have erred worse: instead of punishing vice and rewarding virtue, they have often shown a prosperous wickedness, and an unhappy piety; they have set before us a bloody image of revenge in Medea, and given her dragons to convey her safe from punishment; a Priam and Astyanax murdered, and Cassandra ravished, and the lust and murder ending in the victory of him that acted them: in short, there is no indecorum in any of our modern plays which, if I would excuse, I could not shadow with some authority from the Ancients.

(I, 38)

While these passages lean heavily on Aeschylus and Euripides, Sophocles bears the weight of the general argument.

Dryden was not alone in believing that Greek tragedies were full of shocking injustices and cruelties. The Abbé d'Aubignac comments that their “Tragedy represented the Life of Princes and great People full of disquiets, suspicions, troubles, rebellions, wars, murders, and all sorts of violent passions, and mighty adventures.”10 This opinion may seem a far cry from what we should expect of neoclassical theorists to whom Aristotle was father of the “rules,” but Greek plays were not always assumed to follow Aristotle, as Dryden argues through Eugenius, above. At other times, the Greeks' intense passion might be invoked to prove how effective the ancient “rules” were in producing a tragic effect. John Dennis contends: “If any of the Enemies to Regularity, will give themselves the Trouble to peruse the Oedipus of Sophocles, with an impartial Eye, he will easily discern, how instrumental the Poetical Art is in leading him from Surprize to Surprize, from Compassion to Terror, and from Terror to Compassion again, without giving him so much as a Time to breathe. …”11

If Greek drama was often viewed along these lines, it is not surprising to find the Dryden-Lee Oedipus such a passionate, bloody work. But it is further useful, in explaining this play's atmosphere, to consider Dryden and Lee's heavy reliance on Seneca's Oedipus. It has been pointed out that they owe to Seneca not only the incantation scene and the ghost, which Dryden concedes in his Preface, but other elements which enhance the gloom and violence.12 The reliance of Seneca arises, first, because his grim, bloody play somewhat resembles the excited tragedy Dryden identifies with the Greeks. But more decisively, Dryden's criticism abounds with praise for the Elizabethans, and Seneca was an important formative influence on Elizabethan tragedy. Dryden was perhaps ignorant of this now well-proven historical link, but it is still easy to suppose his response of familiarity upon picking up a Senecan tragedy like Oedipus. Most of the Elizabethan traits are here: revenge “exacted on the closest consanguinity,” fate's inevitability, “horror piling on horror,” ghosts and “foreboding dreams,” cruel murder, “morbid introspective self-pity and self-reliance,” poetic extravagance, sexual motives mingled with crime, proverbs and stichomythia.13 Seneca, I believe, provides a bridge between ancient drama as Dryden envisioned it and Elizabethan tragedy as he intimately knew it. One can imagine him thinking of Seneca's version, this is what Oedipus must feel like, at least for Englishmen. The combination of the Greek tragedians' reputation and the Senecan text, I would argue, explains much of the tragic effect Dryden sought in his play.14

Lee's three acts often follow the Senecan model to achieve violence and horror. Lee's ghastly mood of nature despoiling herself (as in the Act II opening, quoted above) is anticipated by such Senecan descriptions as that of priests dissecting a heifer in search of omens: an embryo calf twitches amid the nervous entrails and tries to butt the human hands (p. 686);15 later Seneca renders Oedipus' self-blinding in cruel detail: “Deep in with hooked fingers he explores, / And rends his eyeballs from their deepest roots” (p. 706); when Seneca's Jocasta kills herself, “spouting streams of blood drive out the sword” from her wound (p. 709). Seneca's handling of Oedipus and Jocasta's relationship after the discovery of Oedipus' crime may have suggested the incestuous embrace in Lee's Act V. Seneca has Jocasta become confused about Oedipus' identity; she asks him, what shall I call you, husband or son? Oedipus would avoid meeting her, but she insists there has been no sin, since they did not intend it. Lee's observance of Seneca suggests that if he did not share in the planning, at least he thoroughly understood his role in fulfilling Dryden's conception.

While Dryden depended on Lee to supply certain effects, the elder playwright had reasons of his own for wishing to compose an Oedipus. First, during 1677-79 he was preoccupied with the theory of classical tragedy and its relevance to the English stage. Remarkably, this investigation left nearly untouched Dryden's view of Greek tragic emotions and morals (just discussed); the issues on which he changed his mind are chiefly structural and technical. In late 1677, stimulated by Thomas Rymer's new Tragedies of the Last Age, he sketched his “Heads of an Answer to Rymer,” while still working on All for Love (adapted from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra and other sources). The accident of Rymer's book appearing while he was reworking a Renaissance tragedy perhaps pushed Dryden to think more theoretically about the genre. The experimental “Heads” are repetitive and partly contradictory,16 but the entries show Dryden developing certain distinctions to which he will return over the next two years. Fundamental are the differences between Greek and Renaissance tragedy: the Greek plots lack variety, the characters are too few, the Greek playwrights did only “what it was very easy to do,” while the English tradition added structural diversity and new passions such as love (I, 212).

The Preface to All for Love (March, 1678) contrasts Shakespeare with Sophocles while discussing alternate ways of writing tragedy (the Greeks, Dryden iterates, offer models “too little for English tragedy”) and promises that Dryden will have more occasion to speak of Sophocles later—anticipating the collaboration with Lee (I, 231). He considers the propriety of French tragedies, pronouncing their correctness boring and unsuited to the energy of the English theatre. His preference for “the divine Shakespeare” and his contemporaries appears unshakable.

Nevertheless, Dryden was systematic enough that when he finished All for Love, he turned to the logical alternative, Sophocles' Oedipus, in part to discover what was required to adapt the most perfect Greek tragedy for the English stage. The differences between Greek tragedy and English taste, he repeats in the Preface of Oedipus, are great: the Athenian drama features fewer scenes interrupted by a chorus, the protagonist is almost always onstage, minor characters can appear briefly as needed and then vanish, the plots are not complex (I, 234). Yet the experience of writing Oedipus affected certain attitudes, for Dryden no longer deprecates Sophocles. If he is not entirely imitable, yet he “is admirable everywhere” (and the praise is even more lavish in the puffing prologue and epilogue). Dryden has also begun to change his mind about simple versus multiple plotting: “Perhaps, if we could think so, the ancient method, as 'tis the easiest, is also the most natural and best. For variety, as 'tis managed, is too often subject to breed distraction” (I, 234). This statement amounts to a remarkable disclaimer of the diverse emotional experience offered by the Dryden-Lee Oedipus (a subject to which I shall return) and shows that Dryden's opinions about tragic theory could be held quite independent of practice.

After Oedipus, Dryden's final adaptation in this series was of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida. The Preface and “Grounds of Criticism in Tragedy” prefixed to Troilus are a summing up of two years' thought about the genre.17 Here the work on Oedipus seems to have modified his opinions further. On the issue of plotting, he now thinks it important to argue that his Oedipus contains only a single action, like ancient tragedies, since “the love of Adrastus and Eurydice has a necessary dependence on the principal design, into which it is woven” (I, 244). In the Preface to Oedipus a year earlier he was content to call the Adrastus-Eurydice complication an “underplot.” (His return to tragedy in Don Sebastian [1690] will, however, feature a multiple plot.) And if his highest standards for tragic practice are still Shakespeare and “Fletcher,” he now makes a further concession to the Greeks: fear and pity (but no longer love) are the proper tragic emotions (I, 246).

One explanation for the differences between the “Grounds of Criticism” and the “Heads” is that the earlier document represents Dryden's real opinions, but when he came to publish he feared to sound disrespectful of Rymer, so in the later piece he concedes more to the Greeks whom Rymer praised. But critics of Dryden's prose have until recently ignored the influence of his plays on his criticism, and the hints which his intervening prefaces offer about the way his opinions evolved between major critical statements. It is likely that both “Heads” and “Grounds of Criticism” represent Dryden's views when they were composed—with the intervening work on Oedipus one obvious cause for such changes in emphasis as exist between them.

In addition to Dryden's strictly theoretical interest in reconceiving Oedipus for the English stage, the subject challenged him in another way, more closely related to his understanding of the Greek tragedians' passionate excitability. For despite the structural emphasis of his criticism during the late 1670s, as a practicing dramatist he was also deeply affected by the new public appetite for pathetic drama. As Arthur C. Kirsch observes, Dryden's progress from heroic couples to blank verse accompanies a new emphasis on the passions and on characters' passive suffering.18 Oedipus (whom Sophocles elevated into an archetype of tragic suffering) is thus a logical subject following Aureng-Zebe and All for Love; Eric Rothstein points to the play's opening tableau, in which the audience hears “a plaintive Tune, representing the present condition of Thebes; Dead Bodies appear at a distance in the Streets; Some faintly go over the Stage, others drop.”19 Though the pathetic emphasis is not constant, Dryden characteristically returns to the Thebans' suffering later in Act I, as Oedipus greets them, “Alas, my People! / What means this speechless sorrow, down cast eyes, / And lifted hands! if there be one among you / Whom grief has left a tongue, speak for the rest” (ll. 401-4), inviting a catalogue of complaints in reply.

As Rothstein argues, Oedipus also comes as a natural climax in Lee's evolution, from composing dramas of action and conflict, toward the exploitation of pathetic situations. Typically, the bombast of his portentous opening to Act II (quoted above) modulates into an expression of suffering, as Oedipus prays, “Hear me, hear me, Gods! / Hear me thus prostrate: spare this groaning Land, / Save innocent Thebes, stop the Tyrant Death” (ll. 57-59). The fact that Dryden invited Lee to help compose the tragedy seems appropriate, then, not only because of Lee's gift for violent intensity, but also (as Kirsch observes) because Lee's Sophonisba (1675) and The Rival Queens (1676/7, in blank verse) were critical in showing Dryden the box office potential of pathos. This shared interest is a major force bridging the tonal contrasts between Dryden's and Lee's acts of Oedipus, making the work feel something like an emotional whole.

Now it would be easy to criticize the pot pourri of themes and emotional effects Dryden and Lee have substituted for Sophocles' grave and simple tragedy. Dryden's statement of Sophocles' moral, that “no man is to be accounted happy before his death” (I, 248), indicates how little he either understood or sympathized with the ancient play (as the twentieth century views it). But the Dryden-Lee play's emotional and thematic range reflects Dryden's oft-stated conviction that (whatever his personal theoretical convictions) the English stage required variety; thus Dryden arranges his plot into alternating reappearances of small groups of characters, whose lines of action advance by brief increments, as irony blends into pathos, or political debate succeeds supernatural horror.20

Yet Oedipus differs from many Restoration multi-plotted plays in its diminished action—a fact which can be only partly explained by the slower pace required for its pathos. The Oedipus premise does not permit Creon to launch an uprising, since that would distract the protagonist from the issue of his identity. Nor can there be any advance in the romantic subplot until Act V; as Dryden remarks, if Adrastus and Eurydice had been more prominent, “then the pity had been divided, and lessened on the part of Oedipus” (I, 250). The resulting atmosphere of stasis is reinforced by an insistent repetition in subjects and scenes. Creon and his conspirators open each of the five acts. Their topics remain similar until Act V: the observation of portents and expressions of discontent. Likewise, Oedipus and Jocasta appear in private discussions at the ends of Acts I, II and III, and near the ends of IV and V. Their dialogues in the first four acts cover similar ground, with the greatest advance in Oedipus' knowledge coming in Act III; but only in Act V do they develop entirely new material. In addition, the ghost reappears, Creon repeatedly confronts Eurydice or Adrastus, and more than once he appeals to the mob against Oedipus.

These repetitions result in tone becoming more important than subject matter, as Dryden's and Lee's distinctive poetic voices play against one another in the treatment of similar material. It is as if Dryden planned the play as a means of extending his investigation into the varieties of tragedy, arranging a side-by-side comparison of Oedipus' irony and pathos with the wildness of his passion. Listening to Dryden and Lee treat Oedipus' repeatedly similar scenes in their related yet different ways, we may still discover a convincing truth. In place of a man starkly confronting his character and pitiless fate, Dryden-Lee offer a man surrounded by a teeming society that rides an emotional roller coaster: the result is a volatile and populous tragic experience.

The authors' contrasting tones also enlarge the play's characterizations. All the voices do sound at least slightly different in Dryden's and Lee's poetry, the lovers Adrastus and Eurydice least so, Tiresias, who alternates between wise old leader and frenzied prophet, the most. Oedipus and Creon shift between an ironically tinged introspection and great excitement. To call these characters inconsistent, however, would be to overlook the (probably) convincing amplitude of such portrayals onstage. Creon may remind us of a mercurial character like Hamlet. Danish melancholy lies thick over his opening monologue in Act III, while elsewhere his bustling ambition, his cunning, his passion for Eurydice and quest for vengeance when she rebuffs him, all suggest a manic neurosis. Oedipus' range stretches from intelligent questioning of Jocasta to wild outcries once he discovers his fate, and his civic respectability shades into an incestuous embrace.

Ultimately, then, the work appears to have had two distinct significances for Dryden: it allowed him to consider the contrast between Greek and English tragic form, but it also gave him a vehicle for exploiting a particular complex of passions which the Restoration had come to think of as tragic. The deep split between these two motives—one private, one public—is consistent with Dryden's increasing disenchantment with the stage during the later 1670s, since he felt unable to take advantage of the most important formal discoveries he made by studying Sophocles.

Written to Dryden's specification and gratifying his theoretical interests, Oedipus reveals less about Lee, though it makes clear that the younger poet was under no pressure to restrain his poetic fire. The tonal extremes of his plays during this period, from the mad speeches of The Rival Queens through the pathos of Theodosius (1680) to the nobility of Lucius Junius Brutus (December, 1680), suggest that Lee could turn various effects on or off, depending on the demands of his subject. In Oedipus, Dryden's supposed dominance manifested itself in his simply encouraging Lee to write as extravagantly as he could. A second point (to which I shall return) is that four years before The Duke of Guise Lee was already capable of laboring on scenes compatible with Dryden's Toryism.

In “The Vindication of The Duke of Guise” Dryden asserts: “it was at [Lee's] earnest desire … that this play was produced between us.” However, both men had reason to welcome the project, since both had on hand materials which could be incorporated in a play about Guise's abortive attempt to displace Henry III of France. Lee's Massacre of Paris (1679 or 1681), based on the same epoch in French history and treating a few of the same characters (notably Guise and the Queen-Mother, Marie de Medici), had been written to capitalize on the contemporary Popish Plot and English court politics. But that play had been banned for its virulent anti-Catholicism. Thus Lee was able to pillage it for about 150 lines of unperformed political speeches, which he gave to new characters in The Duke.21 Dryden admits that he too had begun a play about the Duke of Guise in 1660, intending a parallel between Guise's Holy League and the English Puritans' Solemn League and Covenant; his scene depicting Guise's return to Paris (IV.i) was taken almost verbatim from that earlier work.

Henry III's struggle against Guise offered a precedent through which Lee and Dryden could interpret the upheavals England had just survived during the Exclusion Crisis.22 Their portrait of Henry, a mixture of vacillation and anger, generosity and calculation, provides a not wholly flattering type for Charles II. Guise, who wishes to rule while retaining the king as his puppet, signifies the ambitious Duke of Monmouth. Guise's Council of Sixteen, their brains seething with sedition, recall “the sixteen Whig peers who petitioned Charles in February 1680/1 not to hold a Parliament at Oxford.”23 Malicorne, Guise's advisor in the play, who has sold his soul to the devil, is thought to resemble Monmouth's prominent Whig supporter, the Earl of Shaftesbury.24 Lee and Dryden allude to Monmouth's opportunistic return to London in 1679 against Charles's will (Guise enters Paris despite Henry III's command) and Charles's summoning of the new Parliament to Oxford (Henry calls the Estates General to Blois).

Lee and Dryden use Henry's resolve to execute Guise as an emotional model for the English Charles's unexpectedly decisive performance in resolving the Exclusion Crisis. In his long tolerance of near-rebellion, followed by heaven-supported action, Henry recalls Dryden's portrayal of an idealized Charles II through the model of King David (Absalom and Achitophel) the year before.25

HENRY III Of France:
'Tis time to push my slack'nd vengeance home,
To be a King, or not to be at all;
The Vow that manacled my Rage is loos'd,
Even Heaven is wearied with repeated Crimes,
Till lightning flashes round to guard the Throne,
And the curb'd Thunder grumbles to be gone.

(Dryden: V.i.250-55)

Be witness, Heaven, I gave him [Guise] treble warning, …
Nought shall atone the Vows of speedy Justice,
Till Fate to Ruine every Traytor brings,
That dares the Vengeance of indulgent Kings.

(Lee: V.iv.54-60)

KING David:
“Thus long have I, by native mercy sway'd,
My wrongs dissembled, my revenge delay'd:


But O that yet he [Absalom] would repent and live!
How easy 't is for parents to forgive!


Must I at length the sword of justice draw?
O curst effects of necessary law!


For lawful pow'r is still superior found;
When long driv'n back, at length it stands the ground.”
He said. Th'Almighty, nodding, gave consent;
And peals of thunder shook the firmament.

(ll. 939-1027)

Thus despite the murder of Guise and the descent of Malicorne to Hell in V.ii, The Duke ends on a note of satisfaction, since Henry, at last free of his opponent, lives to fulfill the devil's prophecy: “France ne're shall boast / A greater King than he” (IV.ii.44-45).

As a political parallel play, The Duke's chief point lies in political argumentation and portraiture. Indeed, the play's most prominent structural feature is its arrangement of repeated confrontations between members of the pro- and anti-monarchist camps, to display the sorts of personalities attracted to a rightful king or a would-be usurper. In three long scenes, Guise's lover, Marmoutier, begs him to abandon his ambition, and each time he refuses (I.i, II.ii, IV.ii). Malicorne is twice advised by the devil Melanax (I.i, IV.ii) and relays the advice from Hell to Guise. The king's loyal soldier Grillon confronts Guise three times and trades fiery insults (II.ii, IV.ii, V.iii). The rebel council meets twice to confirm one another in sedition (I.i, IV.ii), and the pro-monarchists repeatedly register their anger or disdain (esp. III.i, V.i). Even the mob is called back for an encore confrontation with Grillon, who sneers at their gullibility and proclaims the king (III.i, IV.ii).

Since the play focuses on political argument, its characters must remain cool enough to make some sense. And because the plot concerns the long postponement of Guise's punishment, the poetry must be subdued enough to convey an atmosphere of frustrated inaction. These factors explain why, as several critics have observed, Lee writes less extravagantly in The Duke than his reputation might lead us to expect. With surprising effectiveness he joins Dryden in attacking the rebels through shafts of irony, rather than in exclamatory rages or violent activity. His spokesman in III.i, the rough soldier Grillon, is a master of sarcasm, who refers disdainfully to Guise's “Pious Council of Sixteen” (l. 1) and later curses the Parisian mob: “Good Rats, my precious Vermin, / You moving Dirt, you rank stark Muck o'th'World” (ll. 78-79). Later, facing Malicorne's accusation that his niece, Marmoutier, has become the king's whore, Grillon explodes: “I will crumble thee, / Thou bottl'd spider, into thy Primitive Earth, / Unless thou swear thy very Thought's a Lye” (ll. 132-34). Grillon's vigorous name-calling should qualify the notion that Lee's verses lack spirit; but Grillon's speeches arise so naturally from his character that they do not sound overwritten, as Lee's violent descriptions of portents in Oedipus may.

By contrast, Dryden's ironic attack against the Council of Sixteen employs brittle argumentation and blatant inconsistencies, making the speakers exaggerate their positions so far they scarcely seem to believe their own words.

'Tis a plain Case; the King's included in the Punishment,
In case he rebell against the People.
But how can he rebell?
CUR(ATE Of St. Eustace).
I'll make it out: Rebellion is an Insurrection against the
Government; but they that have the Power are actually the Government: Therefore if the
People have the Power, the Rebellion is in the King.
A most convincing Argument for Faction.
For Arming, if you please; but not for Faction.
For still the Faction is the fewest number;
So, what they call the Lawful Government,
Is now the Faction; for the most are ours.


Dryden's great contribution to The Duke lies in his ability to impose thematic unity on his scenes. He is always after some political point to which he willingly subordinates characterization. Just as he regards Guise and his Council as oily-tongued hypocrites, so his handling of an interview between Guise and Marmoutier stresses their political quarrel rather than the love they are suppressing (IV.ii.101-237). His portrayal of the devil Melanax concentrates on issues instead of infernal atmospherics: Dryden has the character describe his methods for stirring rebellion (IV.ii.1-100) or stand at the head of a mob to defy Grillon (IV.ii.258-337). His insistence on thematic attitudes usefully balances Lee's usually richer sense of character—though the interplay between authors here is less precise than in Oedipus, since their contributions in The Duke do not observe such a neat alternation of acts and subjects.

While The Duke is politically consistent with opinions Dryden expressed elsewhere, Lee's participation in the project has sometimes been taken as proof that he underwent a wrenching political conversion from Whig to Tory in 1682, influenced by Charles's victory over his opponents in the Exclusion Crisis, and motivated by the banning of two politically sensitive plays, The Massacre of Paris and Lucius Junius Brutus.26 But other readers view Lee's output before 1682 as politically ambiguous or even as expressing pro-monarchist views.27 We have just seen that in Oedipus, written four years earlier, Lee joined Dryden in portraying a sitting monarch as a decent, kingly fellow (as even the bitter ghost of Lajus admits), and Creon, the would-be usurper, as an instinctive tyrant who strives for power by manipulating the fickle mob (Dryden: I.212-401; Lee: IV.19-35).

In fact, Lee's supposedly Whiggish sentiments through the end of 1680 did not prevent him from expressing sympathy with Dryden's Tory projects as early as 1677, when he urged his elder colleague:

The troubles of Majestick CHARLES set down,
Not David vanquish'd more to reach a Crown,
Praise him, as Cowly did that Hebrew King,
The Theam's as great, do thou as greatly sing.

(ll. 48-51)28

Lee envisions Dryden ascending, upon completion of such a work, while the evil serpent hisses below and only treasonous critics complain. Lee followed this uncanny prediction of Absalom and Achitophel, four years before that poem appeared, with a poetic tribute to the supposedly “Unknown Author of this Excellent Poem” (1681), who had carried out Lee's suggestion.

David Vieth makes a strong (if brief) case for the political ambiguity of Lucius Junius Brutus (written when the Exclusion Crisis was at its height): on the Whiggish side, Brutus articulates the “program of Shaftesbury and his adherents for a limited monarchy, constitutionalism, the rule of law, and some measure of representative government”; Vinditius is “a transparent, surprisingly positive counterpart to Titus Oates,” and the play devastatingly parodies the Roman Catholic Mass to capitalize on excitement aroused by the Popish Plot. Nevertheless, Brutus exercises absolute authority over his sons, for which he is called a tyrant; when Collatine is chosen consul, Brutus banishes him, saying he is rectifying an error of popular election; and not all the lines discussing kings are unfavorable (e.g., III.ii.139-46). J. M. Armistead finds the plays preceding Brutus treat the issues of the Whig-Tory conflict even-handedly or with a slight Tory leaning: “if earlier plays criticize monarchy, they offer no viable alternatives, and Sophonisba and Theodosius are, if anything, pro-monarchy, on the condition that the current sovereign is worthy.”29

The Massacre of Paris (1679 or 1681) is especially pertinent to The Duke's political content, since this earlier play treats a historical subject continuous with that of The Duke (Guise's loyalty to a French king, Charles IX, during the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in 1572, was followed by Guise's near-rebellion under Henry III a few years later), and both plays contain overlapping parallels with English politics 1678-81. The Massacre might well be called Whiggish, since it takes the Whig attitude toward Catholicism during the Popish Plot era. The Huguenot Admiral of France, Gaspard de Coligny, a sometime rebel against the crown, is martyred at the order of a weak Catholic king, influenced by his wicked, foreign-born Queen-Mother.30 The French king may be taken as a composite model for Charles II's weakness under the domination of foreign women and for the danger posed by his Catholic brother and heir, James; the Admiral then corresponds to some prominent Whig like Shaftesbury, as a warning against allowing James ever to reach the throne. But in light of such parallels, it seems remarkable that the French Admiral is also portrayed as heroically devoted to the Protestant monarch whom he chiefly recognizes, the Queen of Navarre. When she commands him to Paris, where he will stand in danger from the Catholic court, the Admiral bows to her will in terms suggesting that loyalty is a higher good than liberty: “'Twas for your sake, and in the Prince [of Navarre]'s cause, / For Liberty of Conscience and Religion, / That I thus long did propagate the War [against Charles IX]; / And shall I now not follow where you lead me?” (II.i.106-9) Further, the French king is not a complete portrait of Catholic villainy, since he does not originate the massacre plot and at last pronounces a divinely inspired judgment against it (V.v.9-29), ending the play as the one remaining sympathetic figure. The Massacre is thus clearly anti-Catholic, but not so clearly anti-monarchist.

Moreover, The Massacre condemns the Duke of Guise's opportunism and ambition just as The Duke does; in both plays his ugly plotting causes him to lose passionate but honorable lovers (Marguerite in The Massacre, Marmoutier in The Duke). The French kings in both works condemn the scheming atmospheres of their courts, which harm the nation (Charles IX in The Massacre: I.ii.15-81; Henry III in The Duke: II.i.46-74), in almost identical phrases. Thus both dramas suggest one conclusion already implied by Dryden-Lee's depiction of the ambitious Creon: a settled state is best, and disruption only causes torment.

It must be granted that on a few points The Duke is more explicitly Tory than The Massacre. As we have seen, The Duke insists on Guise's rebellion against his sovereign as a crime inspired by a devil, made possible by the mob's gullibility, and engineered by hypocrites. Further, The Duke grinds no religious axes, permitting the assumption that there is nothing objectionable about Henry III's Catholicism. But in light of the two plays' similarities, these differences of emphasis are insufficient to prove that The Duke reflects Lee's desertion of one political camp in favor of the other.

A more likely explanation, implied by J. M. Armistead, is that The Massacre and The Duke simply reflect changing observations of English political reality. If The Massacre reflects England's political situation in 1679, there had been many changes by 1682 when The Duke was composed: Charles II had proven himself a potent monarch by dismissing the Oxford parliament in order to govern on his own, and the supposed Popish Plot was now seen in truer light. Consequently, a different sort of political parallel play was called for. In this view, Lee is more a disinterested reporter of the English scene than a propagandist for either side.

Indeed, the labels Whig and Tory may be too rigid to define much of Lee's work, since he seems mainly influenced by the dramatic potential of his plots and characterizations, to which he is more likely than Dryden to sacrifice political consistency. Still, his most settled political longings involve social order and self-discipline; some recurrent political crimes in his plays (as in Dryden's) are ambition and deceit. In short, while The Duke sounds more overtly partisan than usual for Lee (perhaps under Dryden's influence), it hardly supports the conclusion that all his convictions were murdered by Dryden's presence and the pressure of having two plays banned.

Though Oedipus and The Duke fall into different genres and were written at quite distinct points in their authors careers, still the plays justify some common conclusions. Preeminently, they prove Lee's poetic versatility. While Oedipus suggests that his bloody, exclamatory style could be put on for an occasion, The Duke indicates that, despite the mad genius theory which has plagued his reputation, he could adapt himself more or less to Dryden's customary level when required. It would be useless to make unflattering comparisons at Dryden's expense, though I believe Lee's verses in both plays are more energetic and richer in characterization. Dryden's scenes merely show that his inclination did not lie in the direction of tragic horror, and that when he wrote propaganda he saw little reason to magnify it with other interests. In both plays, his major contribution involves form and theme.

The supposition that Dryden dominated Lee is logical enough: Dryden was the older, more respected poet; all we know of theory and intention about their collaboration comes from his essays, so his viewpoint appears to control them. But Dryden's plan and his two acts of Oedipus are in a sense subservient to Lee's poetry, which gives the play most of its tragic intensity. And in the chemistry which enriches The Duke, Lee's artistic contribution is at least equal to Dryden's. Perhaps Dryden's control is discernible in the overt political bias of both plays, but as we have seen, Lee's views were probably not compromised.

These two works also illustrate that two authors need not sound alike—or even have quite the same thematic goals—for a dramatic collaboration to succeed. The rhythm of tonal contrast in Oedipus was evidently encouraged by Dryden's plan, while in The Duke we may suspect that the differences were largely accidental, though they do nevertheless enhance characterization and extend the emotional range of that play as well.


  1. Martin Brunkhorst, “Aspekte der ‘Oedipus’—Adaption bei Dryden und Lee,” Germanish-Romanishe Monatsschrift, 26 (1976), 386-406, comes closest to a reading of the play as tragedy, comparing it with Sophocles' version on the issues of Oedipus's character, tragic irony, and regularity of form. See also Roswell Gray Ham, Otway and Lee: Biography from a Baroque Age (1931; rpt. New York: Greenwood Press, 1969), and William Van Lennep, “The Life and Works of Nathaniel Lee, Dramatist: A Study of Sources,” Diss. Harvard 1933. Among recent critics, J. M. Armistead, Nathaniel Lee (Boston: Twayne, 1979) and Bruce King, Dryden's Major Plays (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1966) do not discuss the collaborations. Robert Hume, The Development of English Drama in the Late Seventeenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon, 1976), briefly discusses Oedipus (pp. 324-25); on The Duke he offers no real evaluation. Laura Brown, English Dramatic Form: An Essay in Generic History (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1981), mentions neither play.

  2. On Oedipus, see Martin Kallick, “Oedipus from Man to Archetype,” CLS, 3 (1966), 36-37, and Charles E. Ward, The Life of John Dryden (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1961), pp. 133-34. On Lee's change of parties in The Duke, see Ham, pp. 172-73, and Robert Hume, “The Satiric Design of Nat. Lee's The Princess of Cleve,” JEGP, 75 (1976), 117-38.

  3. Of Dramatic Poesy and Other Essays, ed. George Watson (London: Dent, 1962), I, 232-34. Except where noted, later quotations from Dryden's essays follow this edition.

  4. As identified by Hume, Development of English Drama, pp. 322-23.

  5. “The Vindication of The Duke of Guise,” in The Works of John Dryden, ed. Scott, rev. Saintsbury (Edinburgh, 1883), VII, 148-49.

  6. Bruce King, Dryden's Major Plays, was for long the most conspicuous exponent of an ironic reading of Dryden's heroic plays. Derek Hughes, Dryden's Heroic Plays (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1981), offers a far subtler reading of the works' ironic qualities.

  7. Quotations from both plays follow The Works of Nathaniel Lee, ed. Stroup and Cooke (1954/55; rpt. Metuchen, N. J.: Scarecrow, 1968), 2 vols.

  8. We only warm the Head, but you the Heart.
    Alwayes you warm. and if the rising Year,
    As in hot Regions, bring the Sun too near,
    Tis but to make your Fragrant Spices blow,
    Which in our colder Climates will not grow.
    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 vigour of your youthful Muse:

    (ll. 36-46)

  9. “A Parallel of Poetry and Painting.” Brunkhorst, pp. 397-98, points out that the difference in tone between the two authors' acts was recognized by Addison, who strongly preferred Dryden's parts.

  10. François Hédelin, Abbé d'Aubignac, The Whole Art of the Stage, trans. anon. (London, 1684), IV, 140. Originally written in 1659. See Clarence C. Green, The Neo-Classic Theory of Tragedy in England during the Eighteenth Century (1934; rpt. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1966), p. 37.

  11. “The Advancement and Reformation of Modern Poetry” (1701) in The Critical Works of John Dennis, ed. Hooker (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1939), I, 200-1. It is equally true that other critics associated Greek tragedy with perfect discretion and tonal control, as Thomas Rymer interprets Euripides' Phedre in The Tragedies of the Last Age, in The Critical Works of Thomas Rymer, ed. Zimansky (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1956), pp. 50-59.

  12. See Stroup and Cooke, I, 369-70. Van Lennep, I, 259, also attributes Oedipus's supposed gloom to Seneca, but (as Brunkhorst observes) Dryden-Lee actually make him a sterling fellow and talented ruler, not very similar to Seneca's character.

  13. H. B. Charlton, The Senecan Tradition in Renaissance Tragedy (Manchester: Manchester Univ., 1921, rpt. 1946), pp. 169-70.

  14. Dryden also admits that Corneille's Oedipus was useful in showing that a romantic subplot might be grafted onto the story. Though Dryden surely felt confident about depicting this subject, Lee was an expert here as well, the other half of his reputation being based on his “soft” or amorous scenes. See Gerard Langbaine, An Account of the English Dramatick Poets (London, 1691), p. 321.

  15. Trans. by Frank Justus Miller, in The Complete Roman Drama, ed. Duckworth (New York: Random House, 1942).

  16. Robert Hume, Dryden's Criticism (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1970), p. 108.

  17. Differences between “Heads” and “Grounds of Criticism” form a complex subject. Cf. Watson's introduction to the individual essays, rebutted by Hume, Dryden's Criticism, pp. 103-23; also Earl Miner, “Mr. Dryden and Mr. Rymer, Philological Quarterly, 54 (1975), 137-51, and Edward Silling, “Heads of an Answer to Rymer and the Development of Dryden's Critical Theory,” Diss. Univ. North Dakota 1977.

  18. Dryden's Heroic Drama (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1965). For Lee's influence on Dryden in developing pathetic subjects, see pp. 136-41.

  19. Restoration Tragedy (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1966), p. 91. Curiously, Rothstein associates this passage with Lee, though it was written by Dryden.

  20. The structure's Renaissance origins are described by Eugene M. Waith, The Pattern of Tragicomedy in Beaumont and Fletcher (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1952). For an application of the pattern in the Restoration, see my “Dryden's Tragicomedies,” Restoration, 5 (1981), 76-87.

  21. For a list of these passages, see Stroup and Cooke, II, 596.

  22. For fuller lists of parallels, see J. M. Armistead, Nathaniel Lee, p. 98; Stroup and Cooke, II, 390-91; and Charles H. Hinnant, “The Background of the Early Version of Dryden's Duke of Guise,” ELN, 6 (1968), 102-6. Hinnant is answered by Lawrence L. Bachorik, 10 (1973), 208-12. For a larger view, see J. H. M. Salmon, The French Religious Wars in English Political Thought (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959).

  23. Stroup and Cooke, II, 391.

  24. Rachael A. Miller, “Political Satire in the Malicorne-Melanax Scenes of The Duke of Guise,” ELN, 16 (1979), 212-18.

  25. John Loftis, The Politics of Drama in Augustan England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), pp. 17-18, notes a parallel between the poem and the play.

  26. Frances Barbour, “The Unconventional Heroic Plays of Nathaniel Lee,” Univ. of Texas Studies in English, 20 (1940), 109-16, discusses Lee's repeated portrayals of tyrannical monarchs and argues for a Whiggish bias throughout his career. See also Ham and Hume, “Satiric Design” (note 2), and Loftis, p. 17.

  27. Armistead, pp. 136-39, and David M. Vieth, “Psychological Myth as Tragedy: Nathaniel Lee's Lucius Junius Brutus,” HLQ, 39 (1975-76), 57-76.

  28. “To Mr. Dryden, on his Poem of Paradice,” Stroup and Cooke, II, 558.

  29. Vieth, pp. 58-59; Armistead, p. 138.

  30. More complete parallels between The Massacre and England in 1679 are argued by Armistead, pp. 97-98.

Harold C. Knutson (essay date 1988)

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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 in 1679, only one year after its publication in France, and two years later, a minor Restoration playwright, Nathaniel Lee,1 drew upon this translation for the basis of his play, The Princess of Cleve.2 Admirers of the French narrative would call the work a travesty, so brazenly altered is the content and spirit of the original. Indeed, had Madame de la Fayette found the occasion to see or read the drama (there is no evidence that she did), she would have been horrified beyond measure; for her stately, decorous account of princely woes becomes in Lee's hands a roistering Restoration tragi-comedy, partly in verse, mainly in prose, displaying wildly alternating levels of conduct and diction.

Sensitive to the unabashed ribaldry of a play supposedly derived from a respectable novel, the few scholars who have dealt with Lee have been particularly harsh in their assessment of The Princess of Cleve; for Allardyce Nicoll, the play is but “a rotting dung-heap.”3 Yet, Lee's play, whatever its faults, deserves a fresh, less morally biased look; it is a particularly good indicator of the wide gap in standards of propriety between the two countries and an intriguing example of how Restoration comedy transformed literary works from abroad.

The play is remarkable not for what Lee retained in his source material but in what he added. Nonetheless, the basic love triangle is there, and many of the plot features are carried over. As befits dramatic adaptation, Lee compresses the events of Madame de la Fayette's novel and relegates many episodes to the past. The Princess' mother is dead as the play opens, although, as in the novel, she remains a ghostly and reproving presence. Already married to Cleve, already in love with Nemours, the Princess is torn from the outset between duty and passion.

Lee concentrates on the successive discoveries by which the perceptions within the main characters and the conflicts within and among them are heightened, not without making significant changes in their import. Thus, he keeps Madame de la Fayette's episode of the lost letter, so instrumental in crystallizing Madame de Clèves' passion through the jealousy it arouses, but empties it largely of its vital psychological function. Lee makes Nemours himself the addressee of the letter, and it is Nemours who asks the Vidam4 to claim it as his own. As a consequence of this turnabout, when Nemours denies flatly to the Princess that the missive concerns him, he is brazenly lying. This change is emblematic, as we shall see, of the degradation which Nemours undergoes in Lee's hands. While disappointed at Nemours' philandering nature, the Princess experiences no particular jealousy; she hopes on the contrary that Nemours' infidelities will cure her of her passion for him.

Lee takes care to dramatize certain episodes in the novel which lend themselves particularly well to the stage, as they include an unusual amount of dialogue and present especially forceful situations. Such is the famous “scène de l'aveu” in which the Princess confesses her love for another to her husband, while overheard by that very “other.” No doubt the Restoration audience was just as sensitive as Madame de la Fayette's readers to the exquisite paradoxes developed in the novel: a wife confessing illicit love to the man who, in the norms of her society, would be the last to hear of it, and thereby causing agony by an ultimate proof of virtue. Echoing Madame de la Fayette's text (“vous me rendez malheureux par la plus grande marque de fidélité que jamais une femme ait donnée à son mari”5), the Prince comments sadly, “Thou hast made me wretched by the clearest proof / Of perfect honour that e'er flow'd from Woman.”6

The French author's sober narrative becomes in Lee's hands a conjugal drama laced with sentimentality. Thus, faced with his wife's admission, the Prince, instead of falling into the malaise so powerfully evoked in the novel, regains his esteem of his spouse. A mawkish reconciliation ensues:

Yet, thou shalt give me leave to fold thy hand,
To press it with my lips, to sigh upon it,
An wash it with my tears—
I cannot bear this kindness without dying.
Nay, we will walk and talk sometimes together,
Like age we'll call to mind the pleasures past …

(p. 182)

As in the novel, Nemours has overheard everything from a hiding place; he tells all to the Vidam and reports (with obvious contempt) the reconciliation which he has just witnessed: “Why, after a tedious passionate discourse, [he] approved her carriage, and swore he lov'd her more than ever; so they cry'd and kiss'd, and went away most lovingly together” (p. 183).

The relationship between husband and wife worsens shortly, however, and for the same reasons as in the novel. The Prince is desperate to know the name of his rival and learns it by the same demeaning trick that Madame de la Fayette depicts: he pretends that Nemours is to accompany the couple on a trip, and the Princess' consternation erases all doubt. At the same time, the news of the unorthodox confession has spread about the Court; unaware of course that they were overheard, husband and wife accuse one another of betraying their painful secret. Finally, in a bland counterpart to the memorable nocturnal episode at Coulommiers, the Prince, forewarned by a spy he has engaged, surprises a conversation between Nemours and the Princess. Convinced of his wife's infidelity (although without the plausible circumstantial evidence which convicts Madame de la Fayette's Princesse in her husband's eyes), the disconsolate Cleve falls mortally ill. Before the Prince dies, however, Lee adds an unexpected and discordant scene between husband and lover (who in the novel preserve decorum at all times):

In the English version, there is already a bond between them, for Nemours had saved Cleve's life at some time in the past (p. 203). Yet, Cleve, unable to repress his anger and humiliation, challenges his rival to a duel: “Say thou hast whor'd my wife, Damnation on me, / Pronounce me cuckold” (IV, i, 205). The Prince is defeated and disarmed, and in an extravagant change of emotional register, the two men are reconciled in tearful dialogue: Nemours says, “weeping,” “You make a woman of me” (p. 206).

This scene is the only one involving the central triangle which Lee contrived himself. The last episode, the final meeting between Nemours and the widowed Princess, is drawn directly from the novel and dramatized rather faithfully. As with Madame de la Fayette, the Princess finally admits her love for Nemours but rejects him for the same complex of reasons:

For 'tis too true, you were the cause
Of Cleve's untimely death, I swear I think
No less than you if you had stabb'd him through the heart. …
I know it, Sir, you have the well-bred cast
Of gallantry and parts to gain success;
And do but think when various forms have charm'd you
How I shou'd bear the cross returns of love?

(pp. 222-223)

As we shall presently see, the question of Nemours' fidelity is much more problematic in the play than in the novel.

In adapting his source, Lee heightens the sober tone of Madame de la Fayette's story. The language is lofty, even grandiloquent. The Princess speaks only in verse, as do husband and wife almost invariably; when Nemours converses with either or both of them, verse, too, is almost always his medium of expression. Consequently, a distinct, cloying sentimentality hangs over this part of Lee's play; he clearly anticipates the emotionalism of eighteenth-century English comedy and the larmoyant tendencies present in France during the Enlightenment.

Lee could well have adapted yet another scene: for example, the spectacular ball where Nemours and the Princess see each other for the first time, or the episode in which Nemours steals the portrait of his beloved—a scene full of visual, wordless communication. Yet, to remain true to the general spirit of Restoration comedy, Lee needed to encompass this plot in a larger comic frame conveyed traditionally in prose. (Indeed, most of the Restoration comic masterpieces are entirely in prose.) The effusive emotion and relative decorum of the love triangle are set in jarring contrast with a typical Restoration portrayal of the “Town.” To carry out this dramatic amalgamation, Lee moved the action of his story from the rarefied atmosphere of the Court and the idyllic setting of Coulommiers to the fashionable urban centre of Restoration comedy.

Consequently, the elements of the action drawn from the French novel are pulled away from their setting in history to become relatively generalized. The King is never named, and references to the royal family could well be from any era. The character who fixes perhaps as much as any other from the moment in time of Madame de la Fayette's story, Diane de Poitiers, is not even mentioned. True, vestiges of Henry the Second's reign do remain: “Francis the Dauphin” (the future François II) is evoked (p. 172), as is his “Florentine mother” (Catherine de Médicis) (p. 218); Cleve is given the task of conducting Henry's newly married daughter into Spain (p. 192). But there is no real sense of mid-sixteenth century France, probably because the royal setting is well off-stage, and climatic events like the King's accidental death are not evoked.

While the off-stage courtly setting is quite vague, the actual locale of the play is the “Town,” a transparent representation of contemporary Restoration London (even though the scene is nominally Paris). A fashionable haunt like the Luxemburg Garden (mentioned twice—pp. 161 and 171) carries the same topicality as the Mulberry Garden or the New Exchange often evokes in plays set in the English capital. To establish yet more clearly the impression of a social here-and-now, Lee makes a precise reference to the death of the notorious courtier the Earl of Rochester (“Rosidore” in the text), who died in July, 1680, a few months before The Princess of Cleve was staged.

Yet, what provides the Restoration atmosphere is less the setting than the activities of the principals. While the Princess and her husband abide by a code of high virtue and respectability, all the others, including characters carried over from the novel—Nemours, St. André, the Vidam of Chartres, Madame de Tournon—participate frenetically in the riotous hedonism of unbridled sexual adventure. Indeed, so totally transformed are some of Madame de la Fayette's characters that they have only a name in common with those depicted by Lee. For example, St. André, portrayed by Madame de la Fayette as Henry the Second's trusted favourite, skillful enough to avoid all the dangerous entanglements of the Court, is given the following dialogue in his first appearance:

ST. A.:
How many bottles last night?
Five my lord.
ST. A.:
My lord—
ST. A.:
How many whores?
Six my lord.
ST. A.:
My lord—
ST. A.:
How many quarrels? How many did I kill?
Not one, my lord—but the night before you
hamstrung a beadle and run a link man in the back …

(p. 159)

Subsequently, St. André is presented as an abject fool married to a high-spirited wife who cuckolds him while he is ludicrously sleep-walking.

The Vidam is truer to the original, as his capacity for amorous adventure is clearly, if decorously suggested by Madame de la Fayette. Similarly, Madame de Tournon, reported in the inserted story devoted to her as no paragon of virtue, is in Lee's play not only Nemours' occasional mistress but his “bawd” (to use her own word—p. 158) as well. As for Nemours, he is the Restoration voluptuary personified. Totally given to pleasure, he utters a memorable rake's creed attributed to “Rosidore” (Rochester): “The two nearest ways to enter the closet of the gods, and lie even with the fates themselves, are Fury and Sleep—Therefore the fury of wine and the fury of women possess me waking and sleeping; let me dream of nothing but dimpl'd cheeks and laughing lips, and flowing bowls. Venus be my star, and Whoring my house, and Death I defy thee …” (p. 188).

The clearest indication of Nemours' amoral nature is given in his references to the Princess, unthinkable in the mood of the novel; in his first major speech he professes his eagerness to “leap” her (p. 157), and his final remarks, after she has definitely rejected him, are: “She lies, I'll wager my state, I bed her in eighteen months three weeks hence, at half an hour past two in the morning” (p. 225). The Princess is one possible adventure among scores, not the singular passion depicted by Madame de la Fayette.

Invented characters round out the picture. The most important is Marguerite, the Princess of Jainville, who has a dual function. She is at once the focus for the little true plot there is in the play, and a female figure intended to be a foil for the Princess of Cleve. We are told by Madame de Tournon that the Dauphin is in love with Jainville who is in turn passionately attached to Nemours. To detach Jainville from the latter, the Queen has engaged Tournon to be a “bawd,” to recruit for Nemours a series of mistresses so that either he will lose interest in Jainville or she will break with him out of jealousy. Her raging outbursts season the play, and to give intensity to her feelings, Lee puts her imprecations in verse. This termagant, the counterpart to the many deceived mature women in Restoration comedy, forms an effective contrast to the gentle, passive victim figure that Lee portrays in the Princess of Cleve. For the jealousy so powerfully evoked by the French author in her main character, the more telling that it must be subdued by a strong sense of propriety, virtually disappears in the adaptation. This unreasoned, impassioned side of the Princesse de Clèves is shifted to another, two-dimensional personage, Jainville. Lee simplifies yet again Madame de la Fayette's subtle narrative; small wonder the maudlin lamentations of Lee's heroine leave us cold.

To cater to Restoration cynicism about the marriage bond, Lee gives St. André a wife, Elianor, and adds a similar couple, the fop Poltrot (“a finish'd fool,” according to Nemours—p. 162) and his spouse Celia. Much of the play is taken up with their brawling, the efforts of the two wives to seek consolation elsewhere (with Tournon's connivance), and the tasteless tomfoolery of the two men.

Lee develops, then, three plot-threads in his play and spins them out in roughly equal proportion. Madame de la Fayette's story is segmented into a number of verse scenes in the elevated discourse of tragedy. Nemours joins this level in his interaction with the Cleve couple; but when he is pursuing his amours he banters continually in prose laced with sexual innuendo and provocative epigrams. Finally, the two married couples—St. André and Poltrot—appear together and individually at various intervals in the play and sustain a farcical tone. The hybrid nature of his drama—“This farce, comedy, tragedy or mere play” (p. 53)—Lee himself seems to acknowledge in his Epistle Dedicatory to the Earl of Dorset.

However multi-leveled, a dramatic action must be resolved, and the playwright's denouement tells much not only about his skill but about the tastes of his audience. Lee avoids the temptation of a fairy-tale ending that would make a final mockery of Madame de la Fayette's narrative: Nemours is not made to marry the widowed Princess after abjuring his debauched ways, nor is Cleve kept alive to insure a conjugal reconciliation in aeternam. Nonetheless, Lee does give in partly to sentiment and convention. Belatedly affected by Cleve's death, Nemours in his last speech renounces his previous life (“I see and loathe my debaucheries”) and resolves to make amends to all the women he has wronged, “and first to this lady [Marguerite of Jainville] whom I will make my wife before all this company e'er we part” (p. 226). The rake reforms, a favourite theme of sentimental comedy, and moves with blithe unconcern into the wedlock he had so provocatively derided before. The two ridiculous couples have already made their peace after their bedroom antics, so the play ends in the triumph of convention, both dramatic and social.

What can we make of this curious homage to a great French novel in the infancy of its reputation? By moving the action of the French narrative from the Court with all its high etiquette to the more relaxed Town, Lee felt no doubt free to deal more openly with sexual intrigues. The picture he presents of urban society may seem scandalous and distorted; but one wonders whether it differs that much in its essence from Madame de la Fayette's own image of the Court. The French author is obliged to adhere to a rigorous decorum, but in saying “l'ambition et la galanterie étaient l'âme de cette cour” (p. 44), in detailing the many amorous adventures of the novel, is she not exposing the same egotistical carnal pursuits as does Lee? The glittering, narrow jungle of royal circles seems not that different from the devil-may-care atmosphere of the Town jungle.

Indeed, Madame de la Fayette's portrait seems even more acerbic in its emphasis on calculated perfidy and betrayal. Struggles to the death, like that between Diane de Poitiers and Madame d'Etampes, for example, reveal another facet of the jungle. Even Nemours is shown in a problematic light. “Il avait tant de disposition à la galanterie qu'il ne pouvait refuser quelques soins à celles qui tâchaient de lui plaire; ainsi il avait plusieurs maîtresses, mais il était difficile de deviner celle qu'il aimait véritablement” (p. 37). Studied, careful words, but is not the author hinting at an irresponsible Don Juan figure? Nemours' single-minded pursuit of the Princesse, in utter disregard of her feelings or those of her husband, seems a confirmation of these dark hues of the portrait. To be sure, Lee gives Nemours another language, but does not change his hero's amorous disposition.

From another perspective, Lee's adaptation confirms the uncompromising realism of La Princesse de Clèves. Madame de la Fayette's apparent authorial detachment veils a profound verisimilitude which comes out strikingly when we compare the two endings. Nemours' sudden conversion in Lee presupposes a wish-fulfillment in the spectator contrary to the norms of human affairs; in the novel, the hero does not change fundamentally, nor do his feelings last forever: “Le temps et l'absence … éteignirent sa passion” (p. 180). And while all is neatly wrapped up in Lee's play, Madame de la Fayette allows a mood of doubt and uncertainty to hang over the latter part of her story. Did Nemours pursue his quarry with such persistence only because she remained so resolutely beyond his grasp? Would he have remained faithful to her as her husband contrary to the pessimism shown by the Princesse on this score? Does he pick up his gallant role after his love for Madame de Clèves finally dies? These ambiguities suffuse the last pages of the novel and show Madame de la Fayette's understanding of the complexities of human nature, however rarefied its milieu.

Two traps lay open before Lee as he pondered the dramatic possibilities of his source: dwelling indecourously on the obvious and graphic and giving in to sentimental illusion. That he tumbled into both, and that Madame de la Fayette maintained a sober balance of truthfulness and propriety explain perhaps why Lee's play is all but forgotten, while La Princesse de Clèves continues to tease us with its secrets.


  1. Lee's dates are 1646?-1692. The author of thirteen plays (a rather large output for the period), he specialized in tragedy; The Princess of Cleve is in fact the only comedy from his pen. He had a checkered career, interrupted by a four-year period spent in Bedlam (1684-88). A friend of Dryden, he collaborated on occasion with his more famous colleague. Some of his efforts continued their stage life into the next century, but he is now largely forgotten and the object of little curiosity among scholars. In recent times some of his dramas have been republished individually, but only one scholarly edition of his collected plays exists: The Works of Nathaniel Lee, ed. T. B. Stroup and A. L. Cooke, two volumes, New Brunswick, N. J., 1954-55. Volume I contains a good summary of his life and career, with an overview of scholarship on him.

  2. The exact date of the play is unknown, but 1681 seems plausible. The work was an apparent failure and did not appear in print until 1689. For more details about it, see the Introduction in the Stroup/Cooke edition (Volume II, p. 149-52).

  3. A History of Restoration Drama 1660-1700, Cambridge, 1923, p. 137.

  4. Spelled this way in the text.

  5. La Princesse de Clèves, ed. A. Adam, Paris, p. 123. Subsequent references will be to this edition.

  6. The Princess of Cleve, in The Works of Nathaniel Lee, ed. Stroup/Cooke, II, p. 182. Subsequent references will be to this edition. Spelling has occasionally been changed when consistency seemed to require it.

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

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13681

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 as a vulgar desecration of a delicate French pearl, thrown before the playgoing swine of Restoration England: “On était en pleine licence à cette époque et si Lee a emprunté le sujet pour le mettre au théâtre c'est dans une pièce ignoble qui n'est qu'une indigne caricature de la Princesse et qui montre combien l'original fut au-dessus des esprits grossiers des Anglo-Saxons de l'époque. Depuis, on a pu l'apprécier à sa juste valeur.”1 Even the play's defenders cannot contain their disgust; Robert D. Hume calls its farce plot “joylessly obscene … rancid smut,” and Harold C. Knutson asserts that “had Madame de la Fayette found the occasion to see or read the drama … she would have been horrified beyond measure.”2 Judging by the play's short run, audiences familiar with the French original or recent English translation may also have been offended by Lee's coarse humor, new characters, and sexual content.3 In spite of an all-star cast including Thomas Betterton as the Duke of Nemours and Elizabeth Barry as the Princess of Cleve, few performances are documented in The London Stage and the play has not been performed since the late seventeenth century.4 In short, Lee is accused of producing an uncomprehending adulteration of La Fayette's masterpiece: as Clifford Leech puts it, “The adaptation, in fact, suggests not only haste and indifference but an incapacity to recognize the character of the French original.”5

What troubles us about the reception of Lee's play is not the fact that so many critics have taken offense (the play is quite offensive), but rather that so few have bothered to substantiate their complaints by examining the play's complex relationship to its continental sources, by which we mean both La Fayette's novel and the historical writings upon which La Fayette relied, some of which, we shall argue, would have been familiar to Lee. Such an examination suggests that the play was carefully crafted and that the playwright did understand the “character” of La Princesse de Clèves. The play's debauchery, we argue, makes explicit that which is already implicit in La Fayette's original.

Lee's changes are more elaboration than interpolation, more elucidation than adulteration. As such, we are continuing a critical project suggested by Hume when he promised to show “beyond reasonable doubt … [that] Lee makes skilful and purposeful use of his source.” Disappointingly, Hume's important article devotes scant attention to the novel, falling back on the now familiar claim that the play is a radical “depart[ure] from the original.”6 A reading of Lee alongside both La Fayette and her historical sources forces one to reconsider the degree to which the French novelist also depicts the myriad obscenities of the Valois court, though these are expressed in a more elegant and circumspect manner. Rather than being a major departure from, let alone a “radical” degradation of, La Fayette, we will demonstrate, Lee's work differs in style more than in substance. Hume wonders, “Why does he travesty his source?” and Knutson asserts that “admirers of the French narrative would call the work a travesty, so brazenly altered is the content and spirit of the original”; even Michael Cordner, in a generally sympathetic account of Lee's “method and purpose,” perpetuates the view that Lee “transforms his source ruthlessly”: “Anyone approaching the play in expectation of a faithful theatrical version of the original will be bitterly disappointed.”7 At issue for these critics is the degree to which Lee altered the content of his source. We contend that both Lee and La Fayette engaged in forms of “travesty” in their use of source materials, but that this is a creative and interpretive process, rather than one of destruction or desecration.

According to Gérard Genette's classification of processes of adaptation, parody alters the substance, whereas travesty alters the style, of sources: “Le travestissement burlesque modifie donc le style sans modifier le sujet; inversement la ‘parodie’ modifie le sujet sans modifier le style.8 A careful reading of Lee's version beside La Fayette's original reveals the surprising degree to which “burlesque travesty” permeates both works. Lee's play presents a “low burlesque” of La Fayette, diminishing her lofty novel by recasting it in a grotesquely familiar style.9 Yet Lee's play reveals that the loftiness of the subject matter has been exaggerated in the original, which raises a disconcerting possibility: namely, that La Fayette is also actively engaged in distorting source materials, in her case by using the opposite process, “high burlesque,” by which ignoble or mean subject matter is elevated to appear better than it actually is.10 These stylistic distortions are analogous to what Mikhail Bakhtin, in his discussion of carnivalizing genres, calls the funhouse mirror “elongating, diminishing, distorting in various directions and to various degrees” the reflected subject. No matter how grotesque the inverted image may be, nothing appears in the crooked glass that is not already present outside of it. Instead, the grotesque new forms direct our critical attention back to reconsider the contours of the reflected original.11

For example, Lee's quip about lusty English wives and their unhappy husbands, “o' my Conscience Cuckoldom is the Destiny of above half the Nation” (1.2.132-34), is simply a crude distension of what the novel couches in more delicate terms when a dying Prince de Clèves reproaches his wife for confessing her passion for another man: “Que ne me laissiez-vous dans cet aveuglement tranquille dont jouissent tant de maris?” (p. 291). Complacent cuckoldom is the destiny of half the French nation, too. Earlier Mme de Chartres makes a similar point in her deathbed admonition to the Princesse de Clèves: “Songez ce que vous devez à votre mari … si quelque chose était capable de troubler le bonheur que j'espère en sortant de ce monde, ce serait de vous voir tomber comme les autres femmes” (p. 172). Mme de Chartres's life-long mission to elevate her daughter above the sordid intrigues indulged in by other ladies of the court is analogous to critical traditions that sanitize La Fayette's novel and distinguish it from the de-idealized reflection presented in Lee's play. Just as La Fayette's Princesse comes to realize that her mother's absolute distinction is impossible to maintain—“je me trouve comme les autres femmes” (p. 262)—a close comparison of play, novel, and the continental sources of both likewise collapses the comforting distance between La Fayette and Lee.

The degree to which La Fayette's intricate plotting and subtle characterization provide the raw materials for Lee's play has not been fully explored, largely because so few drama critics have acknowledged the eroticism and pointed humor of La Fayette's portrait of the Valois court.12 Her celebrated opening sentence may serve as a litmus test of how the novel's sexual content is frequently whitewashed, making Lee's dramatic elaborations seem more grotesque than they actually are: “La magnificence et la galanterie n'ont jamais paru en France avec tant d'éclat que dans les dernières années du règne de Henri second” (p. 129). K. B. Kettle points out that here ‘galanterie’ denotes courtly “elegance, distinction [and] flirtatious behaviour,” but he acknowledges that elsewhere the term is a code word for love affairs (as in the sentence, “M. de Nemours avait une galanterie depuis longtemps”).13 However, Terence Cave translates ‘galanterie’ as ‘manners’, effectively erasing the French term's sexual connotations from the scene.14 Cave later glosses La Fayette's description of the promiscuous Duc de Nemours, “il avait plusieurs maîtresses, mais il était difficile de deviner celle qu'il aimait véritablement” (p. 132), thus: “mistresses: this word should be taken in its older, less explicitly sexual sense.”15 Yet in this novel mistresses are sexual, such as when François I juggles his “little group” of court ladies: “Ce prince n'avait pas une fidélité exacte pour ses maîtresses … les dames que l'on appelait de la petite bande le partageaient tour à tour” (p. 158). When the King asks his favorite mistress, Diane de Poitiers, to render his son “plus vif et plus agréable,” this is a sexual initiation, not a refinement of Henri's manners; as La Fayette wryly observes, “Elle y réussit comme vous le voyez” (p. 158). Editorial bowdlerizing notwithstanding, as the profusion of Henri II's bastard children attests, the novel's extramarital liaisons are sexual, not platonic: “de tous ses enfants, il n'y avait que les naturels qui lui ressemblassent” (p. 157).16

The two most common complaints voiced in criticism of the play concern its “degradation” of La Fayette's noble characters, and its “adulteration” of her story with farcical plot elements and characters invented by Lee.17 In their introduction to the play, Thomas B. Stroup and Arthur L. Cooke highlight Lee's “degradation” of Nemours, one that transforms a “tender and delicate love story into a tale of sordid lust,” and Derek Hughes accuses Lee of “debas[ing]” La Fayette's noble duke, “turning Nemours into a faithless cynical rake.”18 As for the coarse comic subplot involving the cuckolding of St. Andre and Poltrot by Nemours and the Vidam of Chartres, Knutson mistakenly argues that Lee's St. Andre has “only a name in common” with his novelistic counterpart, and that Lee dehistoricizes the play: “the elements of the action drawn from the French novel are pulled away from their setting in history to become relatively generalized.” Hume describes the genesis of Lee's comedy thus: “onto Madame de La Fayette's delicate and aristocratic tale he grafts an apparently disjunct middle-class cuckolding plot.”19 Most recently, Paulina Kewes observes that, for Restoration theatergoers familiar with the French novel, “the pleasure of recognition [was] dispelled by the adapter's divergence in focus and characterization.” In short, through its degraded characters and interpolated events, Lee's version “compelled [them] to reexamine their assumptions about the original in light of what was made of it on the stage, and [they] did not like the result.”20

Yet the critical charges of degradation and adulteration do not bear close scrutiny when Lee's play is read alongside La Fayette's novel. By comparing the characterization of key figures (Nemours, Tournon, the Vidam, Poltrot, and St. Andre) and the complex interweaving of main and subsidiary plots in the play to figures and episodes in the novel and in widely circulated French historical gossip (as preserved, for example, in one of La Fayette's major sources, Pierre de Bourdeille, Seigneur de Brantôme's memoirs of the Valois court), we will demonstrate that Lee is a much more astute reader of his continental sources than has hitherto been acknowledged.21 Critical misunderstandings may have been prompted by the dedication to the 1689 edition of the play. There Lee recalls, “The Play cost me much pains, the Story is true, and I hope the Object will display Treachery in its own Colours. But this Farce, Comedy, Tragedy, or meer Play, was a Revenge for the Refusal of the other; for when they expected the most polish'd Hero in Nemours, I gave 'em a Ruffian reeking from Whetstone's-Park.”22 This admission of anger over the censorship of another French-inspired play, The Massacre of Paris, should not be interpreted as proof that Lee deliberately distorted La Fayette's novel.23 Instead, in adapting The Princess of Cleve he set out to correct popular misconceptions concerning the novel (“they expected the most polish'd Hero”) by depicting for London playgoers the subterfuge and debauchery of the sixteenth-century French court (“Treachery in its own Colours”) stripped of La Fayette's decorous phrasing, subtle wit, and delicate irony.

The dedication's defiant “they expected” suggests that Lee's Princess of Cleve was penned to satisfy popular demand to see the glamorous French Duke of Nemours on the English stage. As Kewes documents, European novels, romances, and above all histories were common sources for English dramatists, who in turn used dedications, prologues, and epilogues to justify their “appropriative strategies” in order to counter critical censure for plagiarism or unoriginality.24 Increasingly, playwrights came under fire for translating, reproducing, or “rehashing” sources because of nascent emphases on literary originality and propriety. In order to appease critics, dramatists employed strategies ranging from plot alterations to the “extensive stylistic revisions” characteristic of John Dryden's notorious “improvements” of Shakespeare.25 One widespread appropriative strategy was to assert a play's “historical authenticity,” but this merely exacerbated a kind of catch-22 in which dramatists were either attacked for slavish imitation of sources or excoriated for taking creative liberties with these—especially by adulterating serious plots with romantic intrigues.26

Another appropriative strategy simply entailed naming a play after a familiar source, thus simultaneously acknowledging a dramatist's indebtedness to, and capitalizing on audiences' anticipation of, that source. Yet unlike the prefatory materials to the 1678 adaptation of Oedipus by Lee and Dryden, which identify Sophocles as the play's source, none of the prefatory materials to The Princess of Cleve specifies the French novel as its source. The preface was obviously penned in response to the 1679 translation, so Lee's failure to mention the novel is less evidence of attempted plagiarism than a signal that his play would transcend mere slavish reproduction of La Princesse de Clèves in dramatic form.27 His would be a radical attempt to recreate a de-idealized version of the Valois court and counter widespread misperceptions held by readers who failed to see beneath the refined surface of La Fayette's novel. When Dryden's epilogue sums up the play as an exposure of “what fate followed the saint-like fool” who chose “a husband for [her] confessor,” it becomes apparent that Nemours is not the only French figure whose “polish” has been overestimated by English playgoers and readers.28


Just as La Fayette's novel represents a groundbreaking generic hybrid, composed of history, fiction, memoir, and romance, Lee's play seems an incongruous mixture of distinct dramatic forms.29 Its main plot follows that of the novel in which the newly wed Princesse, in spite of her mother's admonitions, falls in love with the Duc de Nemours and confesses it to her husband. However, Lee makes several plot changes: (1) the play opens in media res on the couple's wedding night; (2) Nemours and the Princess are already in love; (3) neither Madame de Chartres (the Princess's mother) nor Marie Stuart (the novel's “reine dauphine”) appear onstage; (4) the novel's famous lost letter actually belongs to Nemours, as opposed to being claimed by him to protect the Vidame de Chartres; (5) the scene of the stolen portrait is omitted; and (6) Lee invents a melodramatic duel in which Cleve challenges and is disarmed by Nemours. This plot has been likened to sentimental drama, to eighteenth-century French tragédie larmoyant, to heroic tragedy, and to bombastic melodrama that satirizes the “heroic / précieuse ethos of Restoration tragedy.”30

In his comic second plot, Lee begins his supposed descent into degradation and adulteration. La Fayette's Mme de Tournon reappears as Lee's “Tournon,” agent for the shadowy offstage Catherine de Médici, who is promoting the wedding of her son, the Dauphin, to Princess Marguerite of Jainville. Because Marguerite is already betrothed to Nemours, Tournon's assignment is to procure sexual partners to distract Nemours and enrage his jealous fiancée. Unlike his novelistic counterpart, Lee's Nemours continues his rakish seductions long after being smitten by the Princess: he has a bisexual lover, Bellamore; he seduces a masked woman (actually Marguerite in disguise); and he plots to seduce a newly arrived English bride, Celia. Like George Etherege's Dorimant or William Wycherly's Horner, Nemours behaves like the hero of a libertine sex comedy in prose, juggling lovers and engineering intrigues with his cynical wit and inexhaustible sexual appetite.31 But this plot ends with the reformation of Nemours and his implicit reconciliation with Marguerite whom he embraces and to whom he “Swear[s] a whole Life's Constancy” (5.3.289).

The farcical third plot features what appear to be Lee's most significant departures from the novel, as it combines only one of La Fayette's characters, the Maréchal de Saint-André, with three new additions: St. Andre's wife Elianor, his friend Poltrot, and Poltrot's English bride Celia. While the two husbands plan amorous intrigues and sing bawdy songs, their wives plot to revenge this neglect by cuckolding them. Suspicious, St. Andre and Poltrot disguise themselves as fortune-tellers to entrap their lusty wives. Later that night, while a sleepwalking St. Andre leaves his room, Poltrot sneaks in to take his friend's place in bed—only to find Elianor already occupied with the Vidam. Poltrot hurries back to his room and finds Celia busy with Bellamore, a bed-trick substitute for Nemours who is off chasing the Princess. Stroup and Cooke dismiss this plot as having no source except Lee's own imagination; Knutson calls it “brawling” and “tasteless tomfoolery”; and Hume complains, “The omnipresent subplot … degrades the heroic element in the play. St. Andre and Poltrot are doltish cit cuckolds; their wives … are witty but sex-mad sluts.”32 Yet as we will demonstrate below, these husbands are not citizens, and there is nothing intrinsically bourgeois about “sluttish” promiscuity. Furthermore, bedding a woman right under her husband's nose would not be out of character for La Fayette's Vidame. Nemours teases his friend for his audacious juggling of four mistresses, including the Queen: “On m'a accusé de n'être pas un amant fidèle et d'avoir plusieurs galanteries à la fois; mais vous me passez de si loin que je n'aurais seulement osé imaginer les choses que vous avez entreprises” (p. 225). Coming from Nemours, this is a significant indictment of the Vidame's behavior.

The explicit sexuality contained in Lee's secondary plots and characters elicits a critical controversy analogous to one that has dogged the reception of La Fayette's novel; that is, while La Fayette's main narrative concerns the unconsummated passion of a princess who would rather flee the court and confess to her husband than succumb to her would-be seducer, the novel is punctuated with narrative digressions describing sordid and consummated sexual intrigues. One early critical response to the novel, Valincour's “Letters to the Marquise” of 1678, complained of “superfluous” stories that interrupted the flow of the novel's main narrative.33 Two eighteenth-century commentators likewise complained that some digressions were “des hors d'oeuvre”—“appetizers,” but also literally “out of the work,” foreign elements contaminating the purity of the novel.34 In an important early article, J. W. Scott defended the novel against detractors upset by the “alleged irrelevance of the so-called ‘digressions’ of the work.” Scott argued that the digressions are linked to the main plot in several ways: formally, they presage the experiences of the Princesse; psychologically, as cautionary tales about women punished for adultery, they function as part of her social and sexual “indoctrination”; thematically, they explore issues of fatal passion, trust, and betrayal; and historically, they recreate a vivid setting, a “seductive but spiritually bankrupt environment” against which the Princesse will define herself. Scott concluded that “with such a sense of unified purpose … the integrated episodes cease to be digressions at all.”35

Those who divide La Princesse de Clèves structurally into two parts—fledgling psychological novel on the one hand and loosely connected peripheral episodes on the other—may have been prompted by the novel's apparent thematic dichotomy of main-plot Platonic love versus the consummated sex of its digressions; as Janet Raitt and Jules Brody have suggested, the novel explores distinctions between spiritual love and numerous sorts of physical love.36 Lee's adaptation has drawn fire because it seems to subordinate the spiritual to the sexual; yet in doing so, it radically questions the exaggerated moral distinction between the heroic passion of La Fayette's Prince and Princesse and the sexual rapacity of France's courtiers.

For example, in the novel, the Prince's jealousy of his wife is largely sexual in nature, and therefore Lee's elaborations on the subject are in keeping with the spirit of his source. Initially Mlle de Chartres is not physically attracted to her future husband: “elle l'épouserait même avec moins de répugnance qu'un autre, mais [elle] n'avait aucune inclination particulière pour sa personne” (pp. 148-49). Thereafter the Princesse dutifully performs her marital debt to him, but her continued failure to reciprocate his passion spoils his enjoyment of their physical union: “La qualité de mari lui donna de plus grands privilèges; mais elle ne lui donna pas une autre place dans le coeur de sa femme. Cela fit aussi que, pour être son mari, il ne laissa pas d'être son amant, parce qu'il avait toujours quelque chose à souhaiter au-delà de sa possession” (p. 151). Lee elaborates perceptively on these tensions in the balcony scene that occurs the morning after their wedding night. The farcical Poltrot and St. Andre infiltrate the heroic plot when they sing a randy aubade for the Prince, teasing him about how often the newlyweds shared “Joy” last night by holding up three and five fingers (see the stage direction at 1.3.34-35). As it happens, Lee's Prince had a disappointing night of “cold Embraces” (lines 65-70).

Unrequited desire prompts the novel's Prince to behave toward his wife in a manner no better than that displayed by Nemours. For example, Nemours repeatedly uses his friendship with the Prince de Clèves as a pretext to visit the Princesse, such as during the illness of Mme de Chartres (p. 171), or later, when the Prince and Duc both fall ill: “sur le prétexte d'être encore faible, [Nemours] y passait la plus grande partie du jour” (p. 194). La Fayette's Prince likewise frequents the apartment of his ailing mother-in-law, ostensibly to support his wife in a time of crisis, but really “pour avoir aussi le plaisir de la voir; sa passion n'éta[n]t point diminuée” (p. 171). Lee transfers this modus operandi to the farce plot, when Poltrot visits his friend St. Andre: “I keep him company and lye at his House, because I intend to lye with his Wife” (1.2.131-32). Thus the play's displays of predatory opportunism are not farcical interpolations. Nemours's cynicism when he confides to Bellamore his attraction to Cleve's bride is frequently cited as a degradation of La Fayette's Duc's character: “I sav'd his Life, Sweet-heart, when he was assaulted by a mistake in the dark, and shall he grudge me a little Fooling with his Wife, for so serious an Obligation?” (2.3.7-9).37 Yet Lee takes his cue from the novel, where the Prince demands that his wife reveal the identity of her secret lover, even if he should be a close friend of his: “je connais trop le monde pour ignorer que la considération d'un mari n'empêche pas que l'on ne soit amoureux de sa femme” (p. 242).

The irony La Fayette sets out is that despite all the talk of merit, esteem, virtue, and Platonic love, what the Prince really wants is love in its most physical sense: “Vous êtes ma femme, je vous aime comme ma maîtresse et je vous en vois aimer un autre” (p. 276). While he is jealous of his wife's spiritual infidelity, it is ultimately the Prince's misperception of her physical infidelity that kills him. When his manservant returns from Coulommiers with the news that Nemours spent the night there, the Prince falls into a fever from which he never recovers. Shortly before his death, he accuses her of having “passé des nuits avec un homme,” of having committed “crimes,” in other words, of consummated adultery (p. 292). La Fayette's distinction between the love of a wife and mistress—and the novel's implicit approval of the married Princesse for being “si éloigné[e] de la galanterie” (p. 151) and criticism of her husband for blurring the two—stem from a common assertion, articulated for example by Brantôme, that conjugal sensuality is tantamount to adultery: “Qui se monstre plustost desbordé amoureux de sa femme que mary, est adultère et pèche.”38 Here again, Lee takes a subtle detail from the novel and elucidates it in his play; as St. Andre explains, “A Wife dares not assume the Liberty of pleasing like a Miss, for fear of being thought one. A Wife may pretend to dutiful affection, and bustle below, but must be still at night. 'Tis Miss alone may be allow'd Flame and Rapture, and all that” (2.2.34-35).

In creating a husband who dies of grief over the misperception of his wife's physical adultery, La Fayette ironically reverses details about the Prince's possible historical counterpart, François de Clèves, second Duc de Nevers. According to Brantôme, after telling his wife he lost a diamond ring belonging to her while playing tennis, Nevers gave this ring to his mistress, who proceeded indiscreetly to wear it in public. When the duchess saw the ring on her hand, she deduced the identity of her husband's mistress but concealed her grief at the discovery: “Elle fut si sage et si fort commandant à soy que, changeant seulement de couleur et rongeant tout doucement son despit, sans faire autre semblant, tourna la teste de l'autre costé, et jamais n'en sonna mot à son mary.”39 La Fayette incorporates key elements of this anecdote, such as by having the Prince and Princesse first meet in a jeweller's shop; by including an incriminating love-token (the Vidame's letter) lost while playing tennis; and by turning the discretion of a duchess who blushes angrily at her husband's infidelity into the indiscretion of a princess who blushes guiltily at her own. Readers familiar with the real-life Nevers's cruelty could spot the irony of the novel's Prince, jealously inducing a confession by his wife by presenting his own infidelity as a strictly hypothetical situation, then melodramatically dying of grief following her confession: “si ma maîtresse, et même ma femme, m'avouait que quelqu'un lui plût, j'en serais affligé sans en être aigri. … Ces paroles firent rougir Mme de Clèves” (p. 181). Lee's Prince perceptively identifies this physiological response as “that Face of flush'd Hypocrisie” (3.2.121). Brantôme concludes his account of Nevers's ring fiasco with the moral observation, “Voilà comment la modestie en telles choses y est fort nécessaire et très-bonne”—the presence or absence of modesty becoming a crucial thematic concern in both the novel and play that followed.40 Thus, when Lee's Nemours, on the hunt for mistresses in the park, asks Tournon, “when and where shall I see the Gems thou hast in store?” (1.2.52-53), his question seems less a crass interpolation than a suggestive reworking of narrative details found in the play's sources.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Lee's adaptation is his supposed degradation of La Fayette's Nemours from “un chef-d'oeuvre de la nature … l'homme du monde le mieux fait et le plus beau” (p. 132) to a coarse, amoral, bisexual rake. As Dryden puts it in his 1688 prologue to Lee's play, Nemours is “a filthy beast,” a man “that's false to love, that vows and cheats, / And kisses every living thing he meets!”41 The bisexuality of Lee's Nemours is commonly interpreted as forming part of the play's topical satire on the recently deceased Earl of Rochester,42 yet this aspect of Nemours's character can be traced back to suggestive details in the novel. La Fayette guardedly describes Nemours's attractiveness to both sexes: “il avait un enjouement qui plaisait également aux hommes et aux femmes … il avait plusieurs maîtresses” (p. 132). During the wedding masque for Madame de France and her proxy groom, the Duc d'Albe, Nemours is costumed to play “échanson” (cupbearer) to King Henry II's Jupiter (p. 265). In other words, Nemours plays the court's Ganymede. Again, Lee makes explicit what is implicit in the novel, concocting an all-male love triangle in which Nemours has a regular partner Bellamore (“my Spouse, my Hephestion, my Ganymed” [2.3.1-2]) but makes amorous overtures to the Prince of Cleve, to parallel the heterosexual triangle in which the Princess neglects her husband because of her desire for Nemours. But where the Prince is jealous of his wife's attention elsewhere, Nemours enjoys a more “open” relationship with Bellamore—sending him as a proxy for an assignation with Celia when the Duke finds himself double-booked: “Hell! can't I be in two places at once? Heark thee, give her this, and this, and this” (4.1.264-65).43 When Lee's Prince confronts Nemours about his interest in the Princess, what begins as a heroic declaration of friendship soon switches into lewd double entendres. Nemours declares that he loves Cleve for his “manly Grace and shining Vertue” and wishes that one “Add yet the bloom of Beauty to his Youth, / That I may make a Mistress of him too” (4.1.280-82). Nemours collapses distinctions between spiritual and carnal love, wishing that “our Souls may kindle, / And like two Tapers kindly mix their beams” (lines 283-84). That Nemours's seductive “tapers” have phallic implications is supported by his earlier fondling of another husband, “wanton” Poltrot, bringing the latter to near climax: “Nay, I protest my Lord … you'll make me run to a Whore” (1.2.158-63).

With respect to Nemours's character, Lee merely continues a process which begins in La Fayette's novel. As Brody has demonstrated, La Fayette made skillful use of her own source materials, especially the works of Brantôme, to depict an amoral seducer and to debunk the myth of courtly love.44 For example, Nemours's boast to friends about his powers of seduction in Brantôme—“il disoit que … infailliblement il emporteroit la forteresse de sa dame”45—becomes the Duc's assertion, late in La Fayette's novel, that the now-widowed Princesse will eventually submit to his advances: “il demeura d'accord avec M. le vidame qu'il était impossible que Mme de Clèves demeurât dans les résolutions où elle était” (p. 309). Lee's Nemours simply takes the cynicism one step further, saying to the Vidam: “I'll Wager my State, I Bed her eighteen months three weeks hence, at half an hour past two in the Morning” (5.3.254-56). If Brantôme's Duc sees women as “fortresses” to be conquered, La Fayette's Duc sees the Princesse de Clèves as “un si grand prix” that he begins to neglect his other mistresses (pp. 162-63)—a sentiment Lee echoes in Bellamore's description of her: “She is a prize, my Lord” (1.1.36).46

One notorious episode La Fayette discreetly omits from her portrait of Nemours is of such extraordinary vulgarity that it would not be out of place in Lee's play: “une fois, estans de bons compagnons à la cour ensemble, comme M. de Nemours, M. le vidame de Chartres … et autres, ne sachans que faire, allèrent voir pisser les filles un jour, cela s'entend cachez en bas et elles en haut.” Delighted with their voyeuristic discoveries, these men proceeded to describe the “labies longues et pendantes” of various ladies to the King “qui en rit pour sa part son saoul.”47 Thus when Lee alludes to urinating genitalia in St. Andre's boast that he and Poltrot are such notable “Marks-men” (i.e., seducers) that they “never miss hitting between Wind and Water” (3.1.156-57), the playwright is merely evoking the well-known sexual antics of Henri II's courtiers.

Lee's Nemours is relentless in his pursuit of pleasure, but here too his single-mindedness derives from the novel's Duc, who spends much of book 4 stalking the Princesse in her secluded garden at Coulommiers.48 The leitmotif of hunting links the play's heroic and comic plots, but also links the play itself to La Fayette's novel, where Nemours “feignit une grande passion pour la chasse” (p. 194) to absent himself from court when the Princesse enters into seclusion. While hunting on his sister's estate, he makes a detour and overhears the Princesse's confession to her husband from a hiding spot in her garden pavilion (pp. 238-39). Lee strips these actions of the glamour of courtly love and the rhetoric of the suffering lover: “how it fires my Fancy to steal into a Garden, to rustle through the Trees, to stumble up a narrow pair of back stairs, to whisper through the hole of the door [and] to kiss it open” (4.1.19-22). Lee's Nemours bluntly hunts the Princess “like a bleeding Quarry” (2.3.215) in a play that, taking its cue from the novel, equates sexual infidelity with trespassing. According to Poltrot, cuckolding is tantamount to poaching, as husbands “take pleasure to go a Deer-steeling that have fine Parks of their own” (2.2.28-29).

Nemours's rakish behavior reaches a fever pitch during a ball that he throws in honor of the play's King's birthday. La Fayette punctuates her novel with several important ball scenes: one in which Nemours dances with the Princesse; a second ball hosted by Saint-André from which the Princesse absents herself after overhearing someone remark that Nemours would only consent to his mistress's presence at a ball if he were the host (p. 165); and a third ball, hosted the previous year by Nemours, to which his mistresses came in droves: “Il y avait alors un si grand nombre de femmes à qui il donnait cette qualité [i.e., de maîtresse] que, si elles n'y fussent point venues, il y aurait eu peu de monde” (p. 166). Lee condenses these scenes into his own fourth-act ball at which Nemours is host and the Princess is conspicuously absent, but numerous other mistresses are in attendance. During this scene Nemours arranges one assignation for later with Celia (“there's one in the Fernbrake”), then turns his attention to a new arrival, Tournon masked and dressed in black (“why what have we here? A Hugonot Whore” [4.1.28-29]). By the scene's end, he is vowing eternal love to another masked dancer, Marguerite, who angrily confronts him with his infidelity, cutting through the polished rhetoric and exposing his ruthless modus operandi: “you say the same thing to every one you meet. … Villany, Treachery, Perjury, all those Monstrous, Diabolical Arts, that seduce Young Virgins from their Innocent homes, to set 'em on the High-way to Hell and Damnation” (lines 169-70, 185-87).49 This is merely an angry elaboration of the rakish conquests “des gens qui, en vous témoignant de l'amour, ne cherchent que l'honneur de vous séduire” about which La Fayette's Prince warns his wife (p. 291).

Where La Fayette's first ball scene presents one woman (the Princesse) demurely entertaining two male admirers (the Chevalier de Guise and the Duc de Nemours), Lee presents one man juggling trysts with three mistresses. Yet as decorous as La Fayette's noble appears when juxtaposed with Lee's rakish scoundrel, she includes a subtle barb to convey the ruthlessness of her Nemours when it comes to courting mistresses. Arriving fashionably late, Nemours makes a grand entrance: “M. de Nemours … passait par-dessus quelques sièges pour arriver où l'on dansait” (p. 153). Translations that have Nemours traveling around the chairs,50 instead of clambering over them, eradicate the humorous manner in which La Fayette presents Nemours's eagerness to dance with the newest arrivals at court. Elsewhere, the novel's Nemours's indiscretions are described as “grossières et peu polies” (p. 263), and when he is finally rejected by the Princesse, “M. de Nemours était inconsolable; sa douleur allait au désespoir et à l'extravagance. Le vidame eut beaucoup de peine à l'empêcher de faire voir sa passion au public” (p. 313). La Fayette's portrait hints at what was common knowledge to her contemporaries and what modern historians are at greater liberty to point out, namely that Nemours was a graceless debauchee.51

Lee's presentation of other characters is similarly grounded in a close reading of the novel and its sources. Mme de Tournon's apparent transformation into a bawd in the play is likely prompted by the novel's narrative digression, recounted by the Prince to his wife, about her simultaneous promises to marry two men, Sancerre and Estouteville. Recently widowed, Mme de Tournon has vowed never to remarry; yet she strings along her lover of two years, Sancerre, for whom her passion has diminished, while entertaining a new flame, Estouteville. When she dies suddenly, Estouteville unknowingly confides his grief and a packet of love letters to his rival Sancerre, thus revealing to both men her infidelity. At the conclusion of his tale, the Prince primly observes, “L'adresse et la dissimulation … ne peuvent aller plus loin qu'elle les a portées” (p. 186), traits that may have inspired Lee to condense within her single character aspects of several sexual intrigues in the novel. The novel's lost letter from Mme de Thémines to the Vidame de Chartres becomes a love letter from Tournon to Nemours in the play. In the novel, Nemours's most recent love interest is Marie Stuart, who spreads the rumor that he is the lover of the as-yet unidentified woman who confessed to her husband. In the play, Tournon is his former mistress and she spreads the rumor. The motif of two best friends competing for a woman's love presages Nemours's courtship of Clèves's wife. Moreover, the motif of a widow's empty vows never to remarry reappears in the Princesse's ambiguous rejection of Nemours after her husband's death, “Attendez ce que le temps pourra faire” (p. 309); Lee translates this almost verbatim, as his Princess directs Nemours to “have patience, / Expect what time, with such a love as mine, / May work in your behalf” (5.3.231-33). The play's condensation of these character functions can be summed up by the Vidam's assessment of Tournon as an “Ubiquitary Whore” (2.3.17).

Lee's Tournon frankly admits, “We are the lucky Sieves, where fond men trust their Hearts, and so she [i.e., the Queen] sifts 'em through us” (1.1.47-49). Tournon's willingness to pimp for the Queen links her with the Valois court's notorious “Flying Squadron” of beautiful ladies who seduced men in order to secure political alliances for Catherine de Médici.52 For example, in order to prevent the historical Nemours from marrying into the powerful de Guise family, Catherine provided him with the beautiful Françoise de Rohan as mistress.53 When Nemours proceeded to marry the widow of François de Guise anyway in 1566, Mlle de Rohan was “infuriated,” in part because she loved Nemours, but also because she had failed in her mission on behalf of the Queen.54 The play's jilted termagent, Marguerite, who spends much of the play pursuing Nemours across the stage, may have been inspired by the jealousy of Mlle de Rohan. The Flying Squadron is again suggested when Lee's Tournon distracts Nemours from the Dauphin's future bride by whetting the Duke's appetite for Celia (1.1.54-82).

Like Tournon, the farce plot's cuckolded husbands also participate in structural analogues to the novel's digressions, as both provide thematic emphases on consummated sexual infidelity and contrast with the more subtle explorations of jealousy and desire contained in the main plot. Lee's fourth-act sleepwalking and the fortune-telling scenes appear to contain the play's most pronounced departures from La Fayette. Yet, on closer inspection, the sleepwalking hijinks merely elaborate a seemingly innocuous passage in the novel: “[Nemours] dormait d'un sommeil tranquille; ce qu'il avait vu, le jour précédent, de Mme de Clèves, ne lui avait donné que des idées agréables. Il fut bien surpris de se voir éveillé par le vidame de Chartres; et il lui demanda si c'était pour se venger de ce qu'il avait dit pendant le souper qu'il venait troubler son repos” (p. 215). The association of dreaming and desire is best expressed in the play by Nemours's credo: “let me Dream of nothing but dimpl'd Cheeks, and laughing Lips … Venus be my Star, and Whoring my House” (3.1.128-33). Lee's preservation of La Fayette's agreeable dream and vengeful awakening occurs during St. Andre's somnambulistic monologue about seducing a chambermaid (4.2.64-75), from which he is rudely awakened when the Vidam “shoots off a Pistol” at Poltrot (see the stage direction at line 102).

Lee connects the subplot to La Fayette's main plot by having his Princess describe an erotic dream she enjoyed while lying “upon a flow'ry Bank” on the verge of a “Rockless Stream.” In the dream, she sees a drowning Nemours rescued by “Naked Nymphs” and brought to the surface to kiss her lips: “I found a Pleasure I ne'er felt before, / Dissolving Pains, and Swimming shuddering Joys, / To which my Bridal Night with Cleve was dull” (2.3.83-85, 97-99). The startling appearance of sensuality in the heroic plot may take its cue from a parallel episode in the novel where Nemours secretly indulges in similar transports of joy: “Il s'éloigna le plus qu'il lui fut possible, pour n'être vu ni entendu de personne; il s'abandonna aux transports de son amour” (p. 284). The suggestive imagery used in the novel's description of his retreat differs in degree, but not in kind, from that employed in the play's autoerotic fantasizing. The forest's weeping willows (“saules”) and bubbling brook (“ruisseau qui coulait”) break down Nemours's inhibitions, eliciting a monologue in which he surrenders to love (“Je sais mon bonheur; laissez-m'en jouir”) and its own unique form of shuddering joys: “il fut contraint de laisser couler quelques larmes; mais ces larmes n'étaient pas de celles que la douleur seule fait répandre, elles étaient mêlées de douceur et de ce charme qui ne se trouve que dans l'amour” (pp. 284-85). The hints of masturbation here are further supported by the episode that prompted Nemours's retreat: “Il se rangea derrière une des fenêtres, qui servaient de porte, pour voir ce que faisait Mme de Clèves. … Il faisait chaud, et elle n'avait rien, sur sa tête et sur sa gorge, que ses cheveux confusément rattachés” (p. 281). Thus La Fayette delicately transforms the scatalogical voyeurism of Brantôme's Duc into Nemours's fleeting glimpse of the Princesse's breasts (“gorge”). Lee's play does not sexualize and contaminate a chaste love affair but merely reveals the strong undercurrent of eroticism that is already present in the novel.

Lee's comic characters also evoke the popularity of fortune-telling in the court of Henri II, which, under the influence of the superstitious Catherine de Médici, was frequented by many famous astrologers, including Ruggieri, Simeoni, and Nostradamus himself.55 The predilection of this court for occult ceremonies was a popular subject in early modern accounts; Edward Grimeston in 1611 reported that “there were two great sins crept into France, Atheism and Magick, whereunto was joyned the corruption of all good learning.”56 La Fayette details the court's obsession with magical predictions, such as the fateful one that Henri II would die in a duel, but then gently burlesques the phenomenon by having Nemours accost the Princesse with a prediction of his own: “‘On m'a prédit, lui dit-il tout bas, que je serais heureux par les bontés de la personne du monde pour qui j'aurais la plus violente et la plus respecteuse passion. Vous pouvez juger, Madame, si je dois croire aux prédictions’” (p. 197). Lee takes La Fayette's astrological flirtation to an extreme in his farce plot when Poltrot and St. Andre disguise themselves as Scottish fortune-tellers to test their wives' fidelity; in the process, the playwright pokes fun at the Princess's overwrought confession to her husband (4.1.65-118). Confronted by the mysterious “mute” astrologer (St. Andre), Celia and Elianor confess to the grotesquely exaggerated charges as interpreted by his assistant (Poltrot):

He says you are a couple of Messalina's, and the Stews cannot satisfie you; he says your thoughts are swell'd with a Carnosity; nay, you have the Green Sickness of the Soul, which runs upon nothing but neighing Stallions, churning Boars, and bellowing Bulls—
O! I confess, I confess. …


The “sales bourdeleries” of Messalina are described in Brantôme,57 and Poltrot's subsequent allegation that their wives' genitals are unclean and they compulsively masturbate recalls Brantôme's prurient description of court ladies's “labies” discussed above:

… [he says] that you are all Fish downward; that Lot's Wife is fresh to you, and when you were little Girls of Seven, you were so wanton, your Mothers ty'd your hands behind you—
All this we confess to be true.

(Lines 114-18)

This scene's scabrous humor merely takes to a further extreme images already employed by the enraged Prince after he tricks his own wife into confessing that Nemours is her lover: “the Treason is too gross; / After that most unnatural Confession … / … / It Scents too far, the God of Love flies wide, / He gets the wind, and stops the Nose at this” (3.2.156-61).

Lee's crude characterization of a St. Andre obsessed with “carnosity” (4.1.96) embellishes the well-known profligacy of a historical figure whose excesses are hinted at in La Fayette's novel. In the novel's presentation, the Maréchal de Saint-André is an ostentatious aging fop who can no longer even aspire to the “moindres dignités,” but who (thanks to the King's largesse) “cherchait toutes les occasions de faire voir sa magnificence,” and who hosts a ball in order to “faire paraître, aux yeux de Mme de Clèves, cette dépense éclatante qui allait jusqu'à la profusion” (pp. 134, 163-64). The Princesse does not attend this ball on the pretext that Saint-André is paying her unwanted attention (p. 166). Therefore, when Lee's St. Andre expresses a desire to seduce the Princess—“Gad I'll write to her, and then she's mine directly” (1.1.115-18)—his lines not only link the farce to the heroic plot but also link the play directly to its source. Historically, the Maréchal de Saint-André prided himself on being a ferocious warrior, a great military strategist, and a fanatic Catholic who received a special benediction from the Pope in 1561 for defending the faith during the religious wars. Yet, according to many, he enjoyed his meteoric rise mostly due to his ingratiating friendship with Henri II.58 La Fayette gently deflates the pretensions of Saint-André as she notes that his career was marked by a series of victories, “si on en excepte la bataille de Saint-Quentin”; she then reminds readers that this defeat so demoralized the French that Henri II was forced to negotiate for peace (p. 135). Lee magnifies this subtle slight when his Marshall boasts of wounding five men including the Prince of Cleve and the Vidam of Chartres at “the Tournament of Mete” (1.2.41-53), even though the Prince and the Vidam deny that they were there.

What likely interested Lee most about the historical Saint-André was his notorious behavior at court as recounted, for example, by Grimeston. A terrible spendthrift, he lavished money—borrowed from friends or extorted from enemies—on palaces, banquets, masques, mistresses, perfumes, and fancy clothes.59 A compulsive womanizer and sensualist, he was also accused of indulging in unnatural practices, and he reportedly suffered from a venereal disease for which prescriptions to alleviate his painful urination still exist.60 Lee captures the essence of this belligerent, profligate, bad-mannered cad right from St. Andre's first appearance onstage. He boasts that his previous evening's activities included drinking five bottles, sleeping with six whores, stabbing a link-man in the back, and dueling with a gentleman who beat him with a bottle (1.1.94-107). Later St Andre quarrels with his wife about his foppish excesses:

Pray, St. Andre, leave trising your Curls, your affected Nods, Grimaces, taking of Snuff, and answer me—Why are we not as pleasing as formerly?
ST. Andre.
Why, Nell—Gad 'tis special—This Amarum is very pungent—Why, Nell, I can give no more reason … only this, I love Whoring, because I love Whoring.


Here Lee invents very little. As several contemporary satires suggest, the historical Saint-André was viewed as a pimp (“macquereau”), a debauched rake (“vile volupté et pute paillardise”), and a dishonorable cad (“[sans] renom”).61 His profligacy and pleasure-seeking earned him the nickname “harquebuzier de ponant” (i.e., “sodomite”).62

Lee's portrait of St. André's wife, Marguerite de Lustrac, dame d'honneur to Marie Stuart, also has a sound historical basis, although Lee changes her name to Elianor. As ostentatious and hedonistic as her husband, she had affairs with numerous courtiers during her husband's military campaigns.63 Her most notorious love affair was with the Prince de Condé, who at one point sent the Maréchal on a dangerous spy mission in order to enjoy Marguerite in his absence (p. 307). Lee translates these military absences into bouts of comic sleepwalking. This playwright, whose knowledge of biblical harlots such as “Potiphar's wife” (2.2.101), “Jezabel” (4.1.104), and “Bathsheba” (5.1.57) was extensive, seems to have delighted in reviving this sixteenth-century Uriah for the Restoration stage.64 The abuse Lee's cuckolded St. Andre heaps upon his wife also has a literary precedent. Six years before the appearance of Lee's play, Edme Boursault wrote Le Prince de Condé, a mediocre nouvelle of sexual intrigue in which Saint-André is a senile old cuckold with a fickle wife and a promiscuous daughter who, though engaged to marry a courtier, is discovered by her father in the bed of King François II. We do not know whether Lee ever read Boursault's version of events, but it typifies popular depictions of the moral laxity of Saint-André and his family.65

In light of these historical and literary contexts, when Stroup and Cooke assert that “for the comic subplot of Poltrot, St. Andre, and their wives, there appears to be no source, and it is presumably original with Lee,” the editors appear to have given up their search too soon. J. M. Armistead digs deeper and suggests that Lee's cuckold plot functions as historical satire, as Lee brings together two fanatical religious enemies, the Catholic Saint-André and the Huguenot Jean de Poltrot, who assassinated the Duc de Guise in 1563. That Poltrot and St. Andre should be “couzens” (1.1.79) who go whoring together seems to suggest that, as Armistead puts it, “something is rotten in the state.”66 But as La Fayette does elsewhere, Lee engages in a careful reading of his historical sources, resulting in an elaborate topical joke. Specifically, we believe that the circumstances leading up to Saint-André's death by a pistol shot provide a likely source of inspiration for Lee's farcical events.

In 1553, a wealthy Parisian named Pierre Perdriel placed in Saint-André's trust his newlywed son Jean Perdriel, Seigneur de Mézières. To secure his son's advancement, the father advised Mézières to underwrite Saint-André's massive debts. Years passed, the debts increased, and Saint-André seemed about to ruin both houses, when suddenly Perdriel told his son to back out of the arrangement. Infuriated, Saint-André ejected Mézières from his household, and engaged a thuggish gentleman named Saint-Sernin to insult Mézières, possibly by defaming his young wife. Mézières reported the incident to Saint-André and demanded reparation, but the Maréchal dryly replied that Saint-Sernin did not owe any such thing to “un bourgeois de petite condition.” Outraged at this snub, Mézières attacked and killed Saint-Sernin, and a warrant for his arrest was issued by the Maréchal. When Mézières ignored three court summonses and fled Paris, he was condemned to death and his confiscated lands were turned over to Saint-André.67 Nearly a decade later, the two met again on opposite sides of the Battle of Dreux on December 19, 1562. When Saint-André's horse fell, he was taken prisoner by his exiled enemy, the former Seigneur de Mézières, now just plain Jean Perdriel fighting for the Huguenot armies. Delighted by this coincidence, Perdriel thought to ransom the Maréchal for the reinstatement of his lands; Saint-André agreed to these terms, and swore allegiance to Perdriel. However, when another mortal enemy of Saint-André passed by, the Maréchal inexplicably attacked him, breaking his prisoner's oath to cease fighting. Consequently, Perdriel shot Saint-André in the head with a pistol and tossed his body into a ditch. When news of the unpopular Maréchal's death reached the court, it prompted the composition of the verse satires cited above.68

Though Jean de Poltrot remains little more than a footnote in the history of the religious wars, Lee's portrayal of him is also less an invention than an informed elaboration. Stroup and Cooke suggest that Lee gleaned bare-bones details of the “cunning” Poltrot from Enrico Caterino Davila's account of the French civil wars, translated into English in 1678,69 but the play paints so accurate a portrait of the man's essential character that it seems likely that Lee used some other unidentified (or lost) source. Henry M. Baird suggests that Poltrot was an upstart Spanish impostor who claimed to be the Lord of Mérey, and whose lifelong ambition was to assassinate de Guise. The play's Elianor may be alluding to this obsession when she complains that every night, “you come home, and swear you'll be reveng'd on this Lord, or that Duke” (2.2.80-81). Viewed by his fellow Huguenot military commanders as an expendable “silly braggart,” Poltrot was sent undercover on a suicide mission to infiltrate the enemy camp and assassinate de Guise in 1562.70 After Poltrot's subsequent capture, he was tortured in a Paris prison where he betrayed his fellow Huguenots and was executed, attaining considerable notoriety on both sides of the English channel.71 Lee's Poltrot is likewise a comic braggart who attempts (sexual) subterfuge at the home of a Catholic (St. Andre), is caught, then flees to the safety of his room where his wife is literally sleeping with the enemy. When the Vidam shoots Poltrot and threatens him with worse violence, his cowardly acceptance of cuckoldom doubles as an allusion to the drawing and quartering of Jean de Poltrot: “Lord! Lord! why what pleasure can it be to any Man to rip me open?” (5.1.90-91).

What has the documented treachery of Poltrot and Saint-André to do with Lee's comic subplot? If Armistead is correct that Grimeston's General Historie of France was another of Lee's sources of information, then two facing pages in Grimeston may have provided the inspiration for Lee's pairing of two so unlikely figures.72 On page 742, Grimeston describes the “battaile of Dreux” at which Saint-André was captured and killed. His death, combined with significant troop losses, “caused a generall confusion in the Kings army” which was prevented only by the heroic leadership of the Duc de Guise. The next page recounts Poltrot's treacherous infiltration of the Catholic camp, and his assassination of de Guise on February 18, 1563: “John Poltrot, Seigneur of Mercy, a gentleman of Angoulmois mounted upon a Spanish horse, by his own proper and private, shoots him into the shouldar with a pistoll charged with three bullets, and saves himselfe by flight.” Poltrot's treachery did not go unpunished: “having wandered all night, he was taken the next day: soon after, hee was pincht with hot irons, and so drawne in peeces with horses at Paris.” Thus on facing pages we get accounts of the ignominious deaths of Saint-André and Poltrot. Combined with other biographical details (a newlywed husband [also named Jean] taken under the wing of a social superior; possible calumny directed toward Perdriel's bride; a trusting protegé's betrayal by the Maréchal; various discharged pistols), the juxtaposition of their demises may have inspired a playwright steeped in French political gossip to create his comic pair. Indeed, by having the Catholic Vidam shoot Poltrot in the guts, Lee creates a parodic inversion by altering the content of the original anecdote and reversing the course of French history. He rescues St. André from his nemesis, Jean Perdriel, and de Guise from his nemesis, Jean de Poltrot. Finally, the historical Saint-André was not only a notorious cuckold, womanizer, braggart, and spy, but according to Grimeston he was one of two “violent” and “brutish” counselors who attempted to poison the Huguenot King of Navarre at a banquet held in 1560, the year in which La Fayette's novel is set—yet another attack on a Protestant gut.73


It is not surprising that Lee should adapt La Fayette's novel for the stage; jealousy and death are, after all, the stuff of Restoration heroic tragedy, whereas cuckoldry and assignations are the stuff of comedy. Furthermore, several critics of La Fayette's novel have highlighted its own deep indebtedness to the theater of her day.74 Yet as Raitt notes, combining three key elements borrowed from disparate forms of writing—a detailed portrait of the court of Henri II (history), a series of narrative digressions (romance), and a psychological portrait of a troubled marriage (theater)—La Fayette produces a new, hybrid form, the novel.75 To translate this novel back to the theater without jettisoning its historical and romance elements is a tall order. Simone Ackerman argues that if readers concentrate on the ill-fated marriage of the Clèves and ignore the narrative digressions, “une pièce de théâtre en cinq actes émerge du roman.”76

While Lee jettisons the digressions, he adds salacious comic material that critics find so at odds with the tone and subject matter of the main plot. This purported incompatibility brings us to the mot-clef of our title. Defined in the OED as “to render spurious or counterfeit, to falsify, corrupt, [or] debase, especially by the admixture of baser ingredients,” ‘adulteration’ is an important concept in the history of food, such as when unscrupulous distributors water down a product, or sell contaminated goods such as the turpentine gin of eighteenth-century London.77 Of course, ‘adulteration’ shares the same root with ‘adultery,’ a link suggesting that in love relationships, as in food production and literary adaptation, the impure ingredients do not belong. Lee makes the link between sex and food when Tournon teases Nemours about his infidelity:

Say then—Hast thou not defil'd thy self with any Dalilah since you last fel[l] upon my Neck and loved much?
Nay verily—
Have you not overheated your Body with adulterate Wines? Have you not been at a Play, nor touch'd Fruit after the leud Orange Women?
I am unpolluted.


As we have argued, remaining pure and rising above the “pollution” of common sexuality (e.g., as represented by Mme de Chartres's snide remark about “les autres femmes” [p. 172], or Lee's anachronistic joke about promiscuous London orange women) are of paramount importance for the princesses in both novel and play. The play's Nemours echoes the novel's Mme de Chartres's cynicism about the essential impurity of women: “I know the Ingredients just that make 'em up, / All to loose Grains, the subtlest volatile Atoms, / With the whole Mishmash of their Composition” (5.3.260-62). One cannot adulterate something that is already a volatile mish-mash. Lee's Princess falls not because she allows base ingredients into her marriage, but because, as in La Fayette's novel, the purity of the Cleves' union is nothing more than a brittle facade. Early in the play, she idealizes her husband's sweet “Disposition / As if no Gaul had mixt with his Creation” (1.3.114-15), but later his sudden bouts of jealous rage reveal a character as fundamentally flawed as that of the Princess who finds impurity irresistible:

Methinks I see Fate set two Bowls before me,
Poyson and Health, a Husband and Nemours;
But see with what a whirl my Passions move,
I loath the Cordial of my Husband's Love;
But when Nemours my Fancy does recal,
The Bane's so sweet that I cou'd drink it all.


Her dilemma extends to the critical reception of Lee's play, as “the sweet Bane” of its explicit sexuality has left a bad taste in so many mouths.

Hume posits two explanations for this shocking adaptation: “Either Lee has produced a sloppy and pointless amalgam of filth and heroic sentiment, or he has deliberately set out to debase the heroic.”78 We have argued the case for a third explanation, one never adequately explored in existing criticism of the play, namely, that Lee's adaptation proves not that he had a foul mouth and a filthy mind, but that he was an astute reader of La Fayette and of French history. The play may lack the delicacy and restraint of the novel, but it is no adulteration. In fact, Lee's heroic plot highlights the extent to which unbecoming pollution cannot be quarantined in “lower” dramatic forms like comedy or farce. The Princess describes her passion for Nemours as “a Gangreen to my Honour” (5.3.62), and she retreats from the world to atone for her sins: “Death will shortly purge my dross away” (5.3.48). Her image recalls Lee's cynical prediction in the prologue that audiences would enjoy the play's immoral comedy more than its heroic tragedy—“They'll take the Dross and through the Gold away” (line 16)—though the play's complex low burlesque of La Fayette proved more successful in print than in performance.79 The sexual “dross” that Lee seemingly adds to La Fayette's mix was always already present, albeit in lower concentrations. Essential to appreciating The Princess of Cleve is understanding the complex machinations of the Valois court, knowledge that the novelist and playwright could assume in their contemporaries but that most modern readers lack. Historical unfamiliarity or inattention to detail can lead to critical errors, such as Hume's demotion of St. Andre to the rank of middle-class “cit,”80 or Armistead's segregation of “libertine” from heroic characters on the grounds that the former group “consistently speak prose.”81

Lee's Princess of Cleve functions on three different levels—as satire, parody, and burlesque—of which only the first has been studied in detail. Armistead, Cordner, Hume, Knutson, and Harold Weber have elucidated the play's satirical exposure of the popular stage figure, the rake; its topical satire of Restoration English politics and the exploits of the Earl of Rochester and Duke of Buckingham; and finally its satiric deflation of the rhetorical excesses of heroic tragedy. According to one widely accepted distinction between satire and parody, satire is corrective, targeting elements external to the text with an aim to reforming social, historical, or individual excesses, whereas parody is ameliorative, assimilating and then inverting elements of a target text with a view to creating a new, more vibrant aesthetic form.82 Margaret Rose outlines signal tools at a parodist's disposal, several of which are employed by Lee: juxtaposition (e.g., the Princess vs. Tournon, Celia, Elianor, and Marguerite), addition (e.g., the new farce plot materials), condensation (e.g., Tournon's performance of roles found in several of La Fayette's digressions), and discontinuity (e.g., a general disruption of tone between plots, and between the overall play and its source). Perhaps the most distinctive feature of parody is the way it “refunctions” the target text, incorporating its basic features but altering its content to create a new structure (e.g., Lee transforms the novel's digressions into two comic subplots).83

Linda Hutcheon points out that parody enables formal and generic evolution, and does not necessarily imply contempt on the part of parodists toward their targets. Instead, two possible etymologies for the Greek prefix para as either ‘against’ or ‘beside’ render a second translation of parodia ‘singing beside’—creating “a suggestion of an accord or intimacy instead of contrast.”84 At their best, parodists engage in a kind of creative literary criticism, “an active exploration of form” that is both synthetic and analytic.85 Mme de La Fayette employed this method by absorbing an astonishing range of historical detail from her own sources, then refining and embellishing these accounts to produce France's first psychological novel: “she must have worked with these great volumes for ever beside her and referred to them again and again for historical details to incorporate into her tales of love and despair.”86

In the same spirit, Lee's parody seems less to ridicule his continental sources than to rework them—demonstrating the potential structural coherence of texts involving multiple plots and discourses and elucidating the thematic coherence of works in which refined manners do not necessarily make for moral behavior. Lee doesn't cannibalize La Princesse de Clèves so much as he carnivalizes it. Where La Fayette's prose style remains even throughout, Lee intensifies the discursive differences between plots; where La Fayette segregates her inimitable Princesse from her sordid surroundings through the convention of self-contained narrated episodes, Lee collapses the distinctions and narrows the distance between heroic and comic by having the latter intrude into the former at every opportunity. What critics have generally observed about The Princess of Cleve, that “there are two worlds in the play, one courtly and refined, the other crass and bourgeois,”87 is a kind of misrecognition, prompted by Lee's structural refunctioning of the moral dichotomy between the Princesse and “les autres femmes,” that breaks down in the novel. In the play, the two worlds are linked by what Bakhtin terms carnivalistic mésalliances: “All things that were once self-enclosed, disunified, distanced from one another by a noncarnivalistic hierarchical worldview are drawn into carnivalistic contacts and combinations. Carnival brings together, unifies, weds, and combines the sacred with the profane, the lofty with the low, the great with the insignificant, the wise with the stupid.”88 Carnivalistic mésalliances emerge in the novel as well, where in spite of Mme de Chartres's admonitions and Mme de Clèves's good intentions, La Fayette's Princesse cannot remain above and beyond the sexual infidelity so rife in French court society.

In dramatizing this radical interpretation, Lee's adaptation becomes a pioneering exercise in practical literary criticism of La Fayette's novel. For centuries, her exquisite prose style has overshadowed her cynical moral observations. For example, Hippolyte Taine praised her rhetorical elevation of rather disturbing subject matter: “D'un bout à l'autre de son livre brille une sérénité charmante; ses personnages semblent glisser au milieu d'un air limpide et lumineux. L'amour, la jalousie atroce, les angoisses suprêmes du corps brisé par la maladie de l'âme, les cris saccadés de la passion, le bruit discordant du monde, tout s'adoucit et s'éfface, et le tumulte d'en bas arrive comme une harmonie dans la région pure où nous sommes montés.”89 Of course one can write about ignoble events in an elevated style without producing a burlesque. What makes a high burlesque is an incongruity between style and substance that creates a comic effect (such as when Nemours leaps over chairs at a royal ball or rents a room opposite the Princesse's garden to act as a Peeping Tom). La Fayette's treatment of the more sexually explicit material found in Brantôme, for example, is usually described as a process of discreet omission, “a euphemistic way of ignoring the mémorialiste's crude remark[s]. … The author is too dignified a woman to lower herself to explicit references.”90 But if these notorious individuals and historical events were common knowledge, as La Fayette's contemporaries attest they were, then her revisionary process of omission and elevation becomes one of creative high burlesque, not critical censorship.

Nowhere does Taine credit La Fayette for her pointed wit, which, as we have argued, permeates the novel. Following the famous “portrait dérobé” incident, the Princesse's husband teases her that “elle avait sans doute quelque amant caché à qui elle avait donné ce portrait ou qui l'avait dérobé, et qu'un autre qu'un amant ne se serait pas contenté de la peinture sans la boîte” (p. 204). As we mentioned above, the Princesse blushes at her husband's near discovery, but her embarrassment is evoked through La Fayette's wry choice of expression: “elle trouva qu'elle n'était plus maîtresse … de son visage.” This revealing textual parapraxis is repeated in the next sentence's verb construction, “elle n'était pas maîtresse de s'éloigner” (p. 204). La Fayette doth protest too much that the lady is not a “maîtresse.” Lee's low burlesque makes an exquisite original seem base, and La Fayette's high burlesque makes a base occurrence seem exquisite; though the two writers shared interests in generic experimentation, social mores, and French history, their most unexpected affinity lies in their sense of humor. As Rose points out, humor is the defining characteristic of burlesque, as the word is derived from the Italian term burla denoting a joke or trick.91 In foisting a “Ruffian” on playgoers who expected a most “polish'd Hero in Nemours,” Lee exposes the elaborate trick La Fayette has played on her readers. Whereas she displayed treachery in beautiful colors, Lee strips it bare and exposes it in its purest, most unadulterated form.


  1. Harry Ashton, Madame de La Fayette: Sa vie et ses ocuvres (Cambridge University Press, 1922), p. 178. All quotations of the novel are from Madame de La Fayette, La Princesse de Clèves, ed. Bernard Pingaud (Paris: Folio, 1987) and are cited parenthetically in the text by page number. All quotations of Lee's plays are from The Works of Nathaniel Lee, 2 vols., ed. Thomas B. Stroup and Arthur L. Cooke (1955; reprint, Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow, 1968). Lee's play The Princess of Cleve is cited parenthetically in the text by act, scene, and line number.

  2. Robert D. Hume, “The Satiric Design of Nat. Lee's The Princess of Cleve,Journal of English and Germanic Philology 75 (1976): 132-33; Harold C. Knutson, “La Princesse de Clèves on the English Stage: A 1681 Adaptation by Nathaniel Lee,” in Ouverture et Dialogue: Mélanges Offerts à Wolfgang Leiner à l'Occasion de son Soixantième Anniversaire, ed. Ulrich Döring, Antiopy Lyroudias, and Rainer Zaiser (Tübingen: Narr, 1988), p. 497.

  3. The novel first appeared in English as The Princess of Cleve; The Most Famed Romance. Written in French by the Greatest Wits of France. Rendred into English by a Person of Quality, at the Request of some Friends (London, 1679). This version preserves the restrained tone of the original, so Lee's controversial changes do not stem from a “bad” translation.

  4. The play debuted as part of the Duke's Company's 1680-81 season and may have been revived in 1696-97. For details on performances and the cast, see William Van Lennep, ed., The London Stage 1660-1800, pt. 1, 1660-1700 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1965), pp. 290-91, 467; and Michael Cordner, ed., Four Restoration Marriage Plays (Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. xxii-xxxi.

  5. Clifford Leech, “Restoration Comedy: The Earlier Phase,” Essays in Criticism 1 (1951): 165-66.

  6. Hume, “Satiric Design,” pp. 118, 123. Similarly, Knutson closes his article on Lee's play by wondering “whether it differs that much in its essence from Madame de la Fayette's own image of the court,” but does not explore the possibility in detail (pp. 503-4).

  7. Hume, “Satiric Design,” pp. 123, 118; Knutson, p. 497; Cordner, ed., p. xxii.

  8. Gérard Genette, Palimpsestes: La littérature au second degré (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1982), p. 35 (emphasis in original); see also Simon Dentith, Parody (London: Routledge, 2000), pp. 194-95.

  9. See Margaret A. Rose, Parody: Ancient, Modern, and Post-Modern (Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 55-57; see also Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Parody: The Teaching of Twentieth-Century Art Forms (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000), p. 40.

  10. Rose, p. 65.

  11. See Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, trans. and ed. Caryl Emerson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), pp. 122-28, quotation on p. 127.

  12. One notable exception is J. M. Armistead, whose book Nathaniel Lee (Boston: Twayne, G. K. Hall, 1979) provides indispensable French historical contexts for several of Lee's plays, though the chapter on The Princess of Cleve does not examine La Fayette's novel in depth (pp. 144-62).

  13. K. B. Kettle, ed., La Princesse de Clèves (London: Macmillan, 1967), p. 181, n. 4; quotation from his glossary, p. 156.

  14. Terence Cave, trans. and ed., The Princesse de Clèves (Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 3. In modern French, ‘galanterie’ has a double sense of ‘chivalry’ and ‘love affair’, but in an additional, seventeenth-century usage the term had darker connotations: “Gallanterie, fourberie, tour, affront” (i.e., “Gallantry, treachery, trick, insult”); see the editor's lexicon in Pierre de Bourdeille, Seigneur de Brantôme, Oeuvres Complètes, ed. Ludovic Lalanne, 11 vols. (1868; reprint, New York: Johnson, 1968), 10:271.

  15. Cave, trans. and ed., p. 206, n. 6.

  16. Lucien Romier provides a less euphemistic summary than the novel's opening sentence: “La cour de Henri II fut le théâtre d'intrigues particulièrement complexes et immorales.” See his La Carrière d'un favori: Jacques D'Albon de Saint-André, Maréchal de France (1512-1562) (Paris: Librairie Académique—Perrin et Compagnie, 1909), p. 166.

  17. See Armistead, pp. 144-62; Richard E. Brown, “Heroics Satirized by ‘Mad Nat. Lee,’” Papers on Language and Literature 19 (1983): 385-401; J. Douglas Canfield, “Poetical Injustice in Some Neglected Masterpieces of Restoration Drama,” in Rhetorics of Order/Ordering Rhetorics in English Neoclassical Literature, ed. J. Douglas Canfield and J. Paul Hunter (Newark, N.J.: University of Delaware Press, 1989), pp. 28-36; Hume, “Satiric Design” (n. 2 above), pp. 117-38; Knutson (n. 2 above), pp. 497-504; and Harold Weber, The Restoration Rake-Hero: Transformations in Sexual Understanding in Seventeenth-Century England (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986), pp. 69-78.

  18. Stroup and Cooke, eds. (n. 1 above), 2:149; Derek Hughes, English Drama 1660-1700 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996), pp. 313-14. Armistead agrees that “the comic action degrades the heroic” (p. 147), and Knutson also writes of the “degredation which Nemours undergoes in Lee's hands” (p. 498).

  19. Knutson, pp. 500-501; Hume, “Satiric Design,” p. 117.

  20. Paulina Kewes, Authorship and Appropriation: Writing for the Stage in England, 1660-1710 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1998), p. 79.

  21. In addition to The Massacre of Paris (1679) and The Princess of Cleve (1680-81), Lee collaborated with John Dryden on another play set in Valois France. The Duke of Guise (1682). Armistead suggests that a young Nathaniel Lee could have gained his expertise by reading no fewer than four histories of France cataloged in his father's library (see Armistead, p. 184, n. 6, p. 198, n. 16, pp. 208-9, and sources cited there).

  22. Lee, dedication to The Princess of Cleve, in Stroup and Cooke, eds., 2:153.

  23. On The Princess of Cleve as a response to the suppression of The Massacre at Paris, see Cordner, ed. (n. 4 above), pp. 361-62; Armistead (n. 12 above), pp. 155-56; and Hume, “Satiric Design,” pp. 118-23.

  24. Kewes, pp. 76, 40-46, quotation on p. 41.

  25. Ibid., pp. 46-60, 76, 85, quotations on pp. 48, 57.

  26. Dryden defended from censors his collaboration with Lee on another dramatization of sixteenth-century French history, The Duke of Guise, on the grounds of its “exceptional faithfulness … to its historical sources” (see Kewes, p. 171; for a contemporary view of “adulteration,” see p. 77).

  27. See the editors' introduction in Stroup and Cooke, eds., 2:149; on Dryden and Lee's Oedipus, see Kewes, pp. 155-62.

  28. Dryden's epilogue is reproduced in Cordner, ed., p. 172.

  29. See the editor's introduction in Cordner, ed., pp. xxii-xxiii.

  30. Thomas B. Stroup, “The Princess of Cleve and Sentimental Comedy,” Review of English Studies 11 (1935): 200-203; Knutson (n. 2 above), p. 500; Armistead, p. 147; and Hume, “Satiric Design” (n. 2 above), pp. 130-35, quotation on p. 135.

  31. The term “sex comedy” is borrowed from Robert D. Hume, The Development of English Drama in the Late Seventeenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon, 1976), pp. 97-104; see also his brief discussion of Lee's play (pp. 355-57).

  32. Stroup and Cooke, eds. (n. 1 above), 2:149-51; Knutson, p. 502; Hume, “Satiric Design,” p. 132.

  33. Valincour's letters are excerpted and translated in Marie-Madeleine de Lafayette, The Princess of Clèves, trans. and ed. John D. Lyons (New York: Norton, 1994), pp. 126-27.

  34. For a survey of such complaints, see J. W. Scott, “The ‘Digressions’ of the Princesse de Clèves,French Studies 11 (1957): 315-16, and sources cited there.

  35. Ibid., pp. 315-20. For more recent studies of La Fayette's “peripheral episodes,” see Susan W. Tiefenbrun, A Structural Analysis ofLa Princesse de Clèves” (The Hague: Mouton, 1976), pp. 87-116; and John D. Lyons, “Narrative, Interpretation and Paradox: La Princesse de Clèves,Romantic Review 72 (1981): 383-400.

  36. Janet Raitt, Madame de Lafayette andLa Princesse de Clèves” (London: Harrap, 1971), pp. 63-89. Jules Brody argues that the novel erases distinctions between the “carnal and spiritual” in “La Princesse de Clèves and the Myth of Courtly Love,” University of Toronto Quarterly 38 (1969): 114 ff.

  37. For example, Hume cites this passage as evidence that Nemours is a “goatishly insatiable whoremonger” in “Satiric Design,” p. 124.

  38. Brantôme (n. 14 above), 9:51.

  39. Ibid., 9:514-15.

  40. Ibid., 9:515.

  41. Dryden's prologue is included in Cordner, ed. (n. 4 above), p. 92.

  42. For a discussion of Nemours's “polymorphous desires,” see Weber (n. 17 above), pp. 70-73; and the editor's introduction in Cordner, ed. (n. 29 above), pp. xxiii-xxxi.

  43. Cordner's Oxford edition includes an interpolated stage direction, “[embracing and kissing Bellamore]” (4.1.282-83 in that edition).

  44. Brody, pp. 105-35. On La Fayette's use of historical sources, including her indebtedness to Brantôme, see H. Chamard and G. Rudler's two-part article on “Les Sources Historiques de La Princesse de Clèves,” Revue du Seízíème Siècle 2 (1914): 92-131, 289-321; Janet Letts's detailed account of Legendary Lives inLa Princesse de Clèves” (Charlottesville, Va.: Rookwood, 1998); Michael G. Paulson, Facets of a Princess: Multiple Readings of Madame de La Fayette'sLa Princesse de Clèves” (New York: Peter Lang, 1998), pp. 57-67; and, most recently, Louise K. Horowitz, “Primary Sources: La Princesse de Clèves,French Forum 25 (2000): 165-75.

  45. Brantôme, 4:166.

  46. For a detailed examination of Nemours's predatory behavior, see Peggy Trzebiatowski, “The Hunt Is On: The Duc de Nemours, Aggression, and Rejection,” Papers on French Seventeenth Century Literature 25 (1998): 581-93, especially her discussion of the Princesse's role as “‘quarry’ or ‘prize’” (p. 582).

  47. Brantôme, 9:268-69. On La Fayette's suppression of such details, see Chamard and Rudler, pp. 99, 104.

  48. On Nemours's “penetration” of this private space, see J. David Macey, Jr., “‘Where the World May Ne'er Invade’? Green Retreats and Garden Theatre in La Princesse de Clèves, The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless, and Cecilia,Eighteenth-Century Fiction 12 (1999): 78-81.

  49. Marguerite's attribution of “treachery” to Nemours may have a sound basis in fact, if reports are true that the queen, consumed with jealousy over Henri II's mistress, plotted to have Nemours throw acid at Diane de Poitiers to disfigure her famed beauty. The plan was not realized, but it is significant that Catherine selected Nemours. See Frederick J. Baumgartner, Henry II King of France 1547-1559 (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1988), p. 99; and Jean Heritier, Catherine de Medici, trans. Charlotte Haldane (New York: St. Martin's, 1963), p. 81.

  50. For example, Walter J. Cobb's translation renders the passage. “She turned and saw a man making his way around the seats to the dancing floor” (The Princess of Clèves [New York: Meridian Classics/Penguin, 1989], p. 22).

  51. Romier (n. 16 above), p. 205.

  52. Heritier, pp. 306-7.

  53. Mark Strage, Women of Power: The Life and Times of Catherine de' Medici (New York: Harcourt, 1976), p. 99; see also Armistead (n. 12 above), p. 151.

  54. Heritier, p. 236.

  55. Jean Orieux, Cathérine de Médicis, ou, La reine noire (Paris: Flammarion, 1986), pp. 265-66.

  56. Edward Grimeston, A Generall Historie of France Written by John de Serres unto the Year 1598, Much Augmented and Continued unto this Present, out of the Most Approved Authors that have Written of that Subject (London, 1611), pp. 719-20.

  57. Brantôme (n. 14 above), 9:30.

  58. Romier, pp. 338, 27-39.

  59. Ibid., p. 127. According to Grimeston, “The Marshall of Saint Andrew [was] advanced by the favours of the deceased King, and made fat by the confiscations of them of the religion [i.e., Huguenots], and by borrowing, which hee never paied againe” (p. 721).

  60. Ibid., pp. 189-90n, and sources cited there.

  61. The anonymous “Epigramme au Maréschal de Saint-André,” “Epitaphe du Maréschal Sainet-André,” and an untitled satire recited at court by Catherine de Medici are reprinted in Romier (n. 16 above), pp. 445, 206; see also pp. 383, 189-90, and 190, n. 4.

  62. Brantôme, 5:36, cited in Romier, p. 190, n. 4.

  63. Romier, pp. 31-32.

  64. Armistead (n. 12 above), pp. 152-55.

  65. Romier, pp. 393-96.

  66. Stroup and Cooke, eds. (n. 1 above), 2:149; Armistead, pp. 150-52.

  67. Romier, pp. 196-97.

  68. Ibid., pp. 380-81.

  69. Enrico Caterino Davila describes him as “being of a ready wit, and by nature subtile, having lived many years in Spain” in The Historie of the Civill Warres of France (London, 1678), p. 86; Stroup and Cooke identify this source in The Works of Nathaniel Lee, 2:585. Kewes (n. 20 above) also cites Lee's close collaborator, Dryden, as acknowledging that he took materials “‘Verbatim out of Davila’” (p. 165); it is reasonable to infer, therefore, that Lee had access to this same source.

  70. Henry M. Baird, History of the Rise of the Huguenots of France, 2 vols. (New York, 1889), 2:103-7. Lee alludes to de Guise's assassination by “damn'd Poltrot” in The Massacre of Paris (1.1.135).

  71. News of Poltrot's actions and interrogation appeared in an English pamphlet in March of 1563; see J. H. M. Salmon, The French Religious Wars in English Political Thought (Oxford: Clarendon, 1959), p. 171.

  72. Grimeston (n. 56 above), pp. 742-73. On this and various French sources used by Lee, see Armistead, p. 198, n. 16.

  73. Grimeston, p. 733. The events at Dreux are also recounted by Davila, though not on facing pages (pp. 83, 86-87).

  74. See Charles Dédéyan, Madame de Lafayette (Paris: Société D'Édition D'Enseignement Supérieur, 1955), pp. 143-45; Roger Francillon, L'Oeuvre romanesque de Madame de La Fayette (Paris: Librairie José Corti, 1973), pp. 191-95; and Raitt (n. 36 above), p. 80.

  75. See Raitt, pp. 171, 133, and passim.

  76. Simone Ackerman, “La Princesse de Clèves: Un théâtre de la verité oblique,” Actes de Davis, ed. Claude Abraham (Paris: Biblio 17, 1988), pp. 40-41. Lee was not the only playwright to recognize the theatricality of La Fayette's novel. Edme Boursault produced a tragic adaptation for Paris's Guénégaud Theatre, where it was performed in December 1678 but never published; see Henry Carrington Lancaster, A History of French Dramatic Literature in the Seventeenth Century, 5 vols. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1929), vol. 4, pt. 1, pp. 140-42. A second adaptation was written by Jules Lemaître for Sarah Bernhardt in 1893, though this version's most noteworthy production was by the nationalist troupe Action Française in 1908; see Germaine Durrière, Jules Lemaître et le théâtre (Paris: Boivin, 1934), pp. 275-76.

  77. Reay Tannahill, Food in History (New York: Stein & Day, 1973), pp. 343-46.

  78. Hume, “Satiric Design” (n. 2 above), p. 133.

  79. Lee's printed text seems to have sold respectably well, going through five separate editions between 1689 and 1734; see Stroup and Cooke, eds. (n. 1 above), p. 151.

  80. Hume, “Satiric Design,” p. 124. Crass behavior notwithstanding, Saint-André was no “bourgeois” (p. 130), but belonged to a powerful and wealthy elite and lived, as Lee's Tournon reveals, in a “Palace” (2.1.11).

  81. Armistead (n. 12 above), pp. 147, 149. This moral/social distinction breaks down in a comic argument between Celia and Poltrot that burlesques the melodramatic exchanges of the Prince and Princess of Cleve: “Poltrot, behold—Ah! canst thou see me kneel, / And yet no Bowels of Compassion feel? / Why dost thou bluster by me like a Storm, / And ruffle into Frowns that Godlike Form?” (5.1.28-31).

  82. Hutcheon (n. 9 above), chaps. 2 and 3 passim; and Rose (n. 9 above), chaps. 1 and 2 passim.

  83. Rose, p. 83.

  84. Hutcheon, p. 32; cf. Rose, pp. 45-47.

  85. Hutcheon, pp. 50-53, quotation on p. 51.

  86. Raitt (n. 36 above), pp. 147-68, and sources cited there (quotation on p. 157).

  87. Hume, “Satiric Design,” p. 130.

  88. Bakhtin (n. 11 above), p. 123.

  89. Hippolyte Taine, Essais de critique et d'histoire (1858), excerpted in K. B. Kettle, ed. (n. 13 above), p. 149.

  90. Paulson (n. 44 above), p. 63; cf. Bernard Fontenelle's 1678 letter criticizing the novel for presenting too many “‘obvious’ historical facts” (cited in Paulson, pp. 57-58).

  91. Rose, p. 54.

Further Reading

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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 1981.

———. Nathaniel Lee. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979, 220 p.

One of the only full-length studies of Lee; includes chapter-long analyses of each of Lee's ten plays.

Brown, Richard E. “Nathaniel Lee's Political Dramas, 1679-1683.” Restoration 10, no. 1 (1986): 41-52.

Explores several of Lee's political plays, concluding that Lee was neither a Tory nor a Whig but was politically independent.

Ham, Roswell Gray. “The Collaboration of Lee and Dryden.” In Otway and Lee: Biography from a Baroque Age, pp. 156-63. New York: Greenwood Press, 1931.

Reviews the generally favorable critical commentary on Oedipus, a play written by Lee and John Dryden.

Hammond, Antony. “‘The Greatest Action’: Lee's Lucius Junius Brutus.” In Poetry and Drama 1570-1700: Essays in Honour of Harold F. Brooks, edited by Antony Colemand and Antony Hammond, pp. 173-78. London: Methuen & Co., 1981.

Charges that most critics have misunderstood the political message and stylistic subtlety of Lucius Junius Brutus.

Hayne, Victoria. “‘All Language Then Is Vile’: The Theatrical Critique of Political Rhetoric in Nathaniel Lee's Lucius Junius Brutus.ELH 63, no. 2 (1996): 337-65.

Argues that Lee's use of language in Lucius Junius Brutus is meant to show the violence underlying Whig political propaganda.

Marshall, Geoffrey. “Diction.” In Restoration: Serious Drama, pp. 148-87. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1975.

Uses Lee's Lucius Junius Brutus to illustrate larger points about critical theory concerning vocabulary and speech during the Restoration period.

Owen, Sue. “‘Partial Tyrants’ and ‘Freeborn People’ in Lucius Junius Brutus.Studies in English Literature 31, no. 3 (1991): 463-82.

Argues that Lucius Junius Brutus should be read as expressing Lee's radical political views.

Verdurmen, J. Peter. “Lucius Junuis Brutus and Restoration Tragedy: The Politics of Trauma.” Journal of European Studies 19, no. 74 (June 1989): 81-98.

Counters critics who have argued that Lee's Lucius Junius Brutus is a play about politics, claiming that the work is essentially anti-political.

Waith, Eugene M. “Lee and Otway.” In Ideas of Greatness: Heroic Drama in England, pp. 235-52. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1971.

Argue that the emotionalism of Lee's plays were influential on the tone and poetics of John Dryden's All for Love.

Additional coverage of Lee's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 80; Literature Resource Center; and Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2.

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