William Congreve Biography Life and Literature

William Congreve Biography Life and Literature

Life and Literature of William Congreve[William Congreve Biography]

William Congreve, 1670-1729, was born in Yorkshire, England. As his father was an officer in the army and the commander of a garrison near Cork in Ireland, Congreve was educated at Kilkenny and then at Trinity College, Dublin, where he was a slightly younger college-mate of Jonathan Swift. In 1691, he was admitted to the Middle Temple in London to study law. It is likely that, like Young Witwoud in The Way of the World, his interest in law was only a means to take him to London, the center of all excitement.

By 1692, Congreve was already a recognized member of the literary world. His first play, The Old Bachelor, was first acted in January 1693, before he was twenty-three years old, and was triumphantly successful. His other plays, The Double-Dealer, Love for Love, The Mourning Bride, and The Way of the World, all followed at short intervals. The last of them was presented in March 1700.

For the rest of his life, Congreve wrote no plays. The Way of the World was not successful on the stage, and this disappointment may have had something to do with his decision. He engaged in controversy with Jeremy Collier on the morality of the stage, a frustrating experience. He suffered from gout and bad sight. He became an elder statesman of letters at the age of thirty, honored by the nobility, highly respected by younger writers.

In his later years, Congreve conducted an ambiguous romance with Henrietta, Duchess of Marlborough. When he died, she erected a tablet to his memory in Westminster Abbey. She also ordered a life-size figure of him and had it seated in his regular place at her table. The feet were swathed in bandages and a doctor “treated” Congreve for gout daily. This rather surprising memento casts its own odd light on the Duchess, perhaps on Congreve, and certainly on the status of the medical profession at the time.

Although William Congreve is remembered today as a dramatist, his first publication was a novella, Incognita: Or, Love and Duty Reconcil’d, which appeared in 1692. He also published a translation of Juvenal’s eleventh satire and commendatory verses “To Mr. Dryden on His Translation of Perseus” in John Dryden ‘s edition of The Satires of Juvenal and Persius (1693), as well as two songs and three odes in Charles Gildon’s Miscellany of Original Poems (1692). Later, Congreve reprinted these odes, together with translations from Homer’s Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1616), in Examen Poeticum (1693). His other translations from the classics include Book III of Ovid’s Ars Amatoria (c. 2 b.c.e., Art of Love, 1612) in 1709 and two stories from Ovid in the 1717 edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. His original poetry was first collected with his other writings in The Works of Mr. William Congreve (1710) and frequently reprinted throughout the eighteenth century. After 1700, Congreve abandoned serious drama in favor of social and political interests, although he did write a masque and an opera after that date and collaborated with Sir John Vanbrugh and William Walsh on a farce. In response to Jeremy Collier’s attacks on Restoration playwrights, Congreve wrote a short volume of dramatic criticism, Amendments of Mr. Collier’s False and Imperfect Citations (1698). Congreve’s letters have been edited by John C. Hodges and are available in William Congreve: Letters and Documents (1964).

serious drama. William Congreve’s first play, The Old Bachelor, was an instant success; its initial run of fourteen days made it the most popular play since Thomas Otway’s Venice Preserved (pr.,1682). The Double-Dealer was not instantly successful, but Love for Love was so popular that Congreve was made a manager of the theater. The Mourning Bride was still more successful; in 1699, Gildon said of the work that “this play had the greatest success, not only of all Mr. Congreve’s but indeed of all the Plays that ever I can remember on the English Stage.” 

Throughout the eighteenth century, Congreve’s reputation remained high, both for his poetry and his plays. Edward Howard, in his Essay upon Pastoral (1695), said that Congreve possessed the talent of ten Vergils . Dryden, who equated Congreve to William Shakespeare on the stage, declared that in his translations from the Iliad, Congreve surpassed Homer in pathos. Alexander Pope’s translation of the Iliad (1715-1720) was dedicated to Congreve, as were Sir Richard Steele’s Poetical Miscellanies (1714) and his 1722 edition of Joseph Addison’s The Drummer: Or, The Haunted House. In the nineteenth century, Congreve’s reputation declined, along with the public’s regard for Restoration comedy in general , because of the sexual licentiousness depicted in the plays. With the twentieth century, however, came a reevaluation. When The Way of the World was revived at Cherry Lane Theatre in New York in 1924, it ran for 120 performances. That work and Love for Love remain among the most frequently acted of Restoration plays, and Congreve’s other two comedies are also occasionally staged. Although Congreve’s one tragedy has not worn as well, he may be today the most popular and most highly regarded English dramatist between William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw.


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