Nathaniel Lee was an extremely popular dramatist of his time; many of his plays, including Sophonisba, The Rival Queens, Theodosius, Oedipus (written with John Dryden), and Mithridates, King of Pontus were frequently revived and reprinted. These plays, five of the most popular Restoration dramas, were produced through the seventeenth century and occasionally revived in the next.
Lee wrote primarily heroic tragedy, characterized by superhuman heroes torn between passion and honor, a struggle that usually results in the hero’s death. Spectacle, battles, processions, and bombastic language in rhymed couplets are common to this form. Moreover, along with Dryden, with whom he collaborated on two plays, Oedipus and The Duke of Guise, Lee abandoned the use of rhymed couplets and employed blank verse, which allowed for greater expressiveness, realism, and emotive force.
Like the quality of his work, critical estimation of Lee as a dramatist varies. Lee has been criticized for his lack of balance and control, for allowing his scenes to degenerate into mere spectacle and his dialogue into rant. Nevertheless, he created individual scenes of great effect and passages of compelling beauty and dramatic power. Many critics and historians of English drama have placed him in the first rank of English dramatists and some have called him great. Unfortunately, very little attention has been paid to his work, which, according to the famous critic George Saintsbury, has been “shamefully neglected.”
Armistead, J. M. Four Restoration Playwrights: A Reference Guide to Thomas Shadwell, Aphra Behn, Nathaniel Lee, and Thomas Otway. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984. Provides extensive bibliographies of works by and relating to Lee, Thomas Shadwell, Aphra Behn, and Thomas Otway. Index.
Armistead, J. M. Nathaniel Lee. Boston: Twayne, 1979. After presenting the playwright and his milieu, Armistead marches straight through the plays, summarizing and identifying their themes. In a chapter entitled “Lee’s Artistry,” Armistead identifies Lee’s “distinctive” style. Complemented by a genealogy tree and an excellent bibliography.
Canfield, J. Douglas. Heroes and States: On the Ideology of Restoration Tragedy. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2000. A study of Restoration drama that covers Lee’s The Princess of Cleve, among many other works from the period.
Canfield, J. Douglas. Tricksters and Estates: On the Ideology of Restoration Comedy. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997. Canfield examines the characters known as tricksters in Restoration comedy. In his discussion, he focuses on lesser known playwrights, including Lee.
Ellison, Julie. Cato’s Tears and the Making of Anglo-American Emotion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. A study of public emotion that uses among its examples Lee’s Lucius Junius Brutus.
Haggerty, George. Men in Love: Masculinity and Sexuality in the Eighteenth Century. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. As part of his greater discussion of male “love,” Haggerty examines the eroticized bonds of male friendship in Lee’s The Rival Queens.
Hayne, Victoria. “‘All Language Then Is Vile’: The Theatrical Critique of Political Rhetoric in Nathaniel Lee’s Lucius Junius Brutus.” ELH 63, no. 2 (Summer, 1996): 337-350. Hayne provides a political interpretation of Lucius Junius Brutus.
Owen, Sue. “‘Partial Tyrants’ and ‘Freeborn People’ in Lucius Junius Brutus.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 31, no. 3 (Summer, 1991): 463. Owen argues that Lucius Junius Brutus is not a Whiggish play but rather a somewhat radical work.