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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

VII. The Restoration Drama

§ 12. Nathaniel Lee

Nathaniel Lee, son of clergyman, was born about 1653, and educated at Westminster and Trinity college, Cambridge, where he graduated B.A. in 1668. His early experiences bear a strong resemblance to those of Otway. Like him, Lee began his life in London in reliance upon some of the fitful patrons of letters in whom the age abounded, and, also like Otway, he, in the same year at the same theatre, failed utterly as an actor. The first plays—and there is not much to choose between them—of the two dramatists alike appeared in 1675. Between that date and 1681, Lee produced in rapid succession eight tragedies and a tragi-comedy, all with quasi-historical settings. His first play, Nero, Emperour of Rome (1675) was succeeded, in 1676, by Sophonisba, or Hannibal’s Overthrow; which seems to have been inspired by Orrery’s Parthenissa. To 1676, also, belongs Gloriana, or The Court of Augustus Caesar. These three are heroic plays, for the most part in rimed verse, and thoroughly typical of the period. In 1677, Lee, following Dryden’s lead, produced the blank verse play entitled The Rival Queens, or The Death of Alexander the Great, which proved an immediate and lasting success. It is founded on Cassandre, a romance by La Calprenède, upon whose Cléopâtre Lee had already drawn for some of the incidents in his Gloriana. There followed, in 1678, Mithridates, King of Pontus, another blank verse play; and, in 1679, Dryden and Lee co-operated in the composition of dipus, King of Thebes. Theodosius, or the Force of Love, one of Lee’s most successful plays, was produced in 1680, and was acted very frequently throughout the eighteenth century. Caesar Borgia, Son of Pope Alexander the Sixth (1680), Lucius Junius Brutus, Father of His Country (1681), and The Princess of Cleve, acted in 1681, but not printed until 1689, are all more or less reminiscent of French romances of the Scudéry type. (La Princesse de Clèves, by the countess de La Fayette, was a late masterpiece of this school of fiction.) In 1682, Dryden and Lee again joined hands in The Duke of Guise. Most of this play was Lee’s work, and was drawn from a piece called The Massacre of Paris, which, though written some years previously, had not then been produced. In 1684 appeared Constantine the Great, his last play, if we except the aforesaid Massacre of Paris (1690). Lee went out of his mind in 1684 and was confined to Bedlam until 1689, when he was released. He had been given to drink all his life; and, in 1692, an excess of this kind brought about his death.