1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Lee, Nathaniel

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LEE, NATHANIEL (c. 1653–1692), English dramatist, son of Dr Richard Lee, a Presbyterian divine, was born probably in 1653. His father was rector of Hatfield, and held many preferments under the Commonwealth. He was chaplain to General Monk, afterwards duke of Albemarle, and after the Restoration he conformed to the Church of England, abjuring his former opinions, especially his approval of Charles I.’s execution. Nathaniel Lee was educated at Westminster school, and at Trinity College, Cambridge, taking his B.A. degree in 1668. Coming to London under the patronage, it is said, of the duke of Buckingham, he tried to earn his living as an actor, but though he was an admirable reader, his acute stage fright made acting impossible. His earliest play, Nero, Emperor of Rome, was acted in 1675 at Drury Lane. Two tragedies written in rhymed heroic couplets, in imitation of Dryden, followed in 1676—Sophonisba, or Hannibal’s Overthrow and Gloriana, or the Court of Augustus Caesar. Both are extravagant in design and treatment. Lee made his reputation in 1677 with a blank verse tragedy, The Rival Queens, or the Death of Alexander the Great. The play, which treats of the jealousy of Alexander’s first wife, Roxana, for his second wife, Statira, was, in spite of much bombast, a favourite on the English stage down to the days of Edmund Kean. Mithridates, King of Pontus (acted 1678), Theodosius, or the Force of Love (acted 1680), Caesar Borgia (acted 1680)—an imitation of the worst blood and thunder Elizabethan tragedies—Lucius Junius Brutus, Father of His Country (acted 1681), and Constantine the Great (acted 1684) followed. The Princess of Cleve (1681) is a gross adaptation of Madame de La Fayette’s exquisite novel of that name. The Massacre of Paris (published 1690) was written about this time. Lee had given offence at court by his Lucius Junius Brutus, which had been suppressed after its third representation for some lines on Tarquin’s character that were taken to be a reflection on Charles II. He therefore joined with Dryden, who had already admitted him as a collaborator in an adaptation of Oedipus, in The Duke of Guise (1683), a play which directly advocated the Tory point of view. In it part of the Massacre of Paris was incorporated. Lee was now thirty years of age, and had already achieved a considerable reputation. But he had lived in the dissipated society of the earl of Rochester and his associates, and imitated their excesses. As he grew more disreputable, his patrons neglected him, and in 1684 his mind was completely unhinged. He spent five years in Bethlehem Hospital, and recovered his health. He died in a drunken fit in 1692, and was buried in St Clement Danes, Strand, on the 6th of May.

Lee’s Dramatic Works were published in 1784. In spite of their extravagance, they contain many passages of great beauty.