William Congreve was born on January 24, 1670, at Bardsey, Yorkshire, England. In 1674, his father, also named William, received a lieutenant’s commission to serve in Ireland, and the family moved to the garrison of Youghal. In 1678, the elder William was transferred to Carrickfergus, another Irish port, and again, the family accompanied him. Congreve’s knowledge of port life may have contributed to his depiction of the sailor, Ben, in Love for Love; Ben’s use of nautical terms demonstrates the playwright’s familiarity with this jargon. When the elder Congreve joined the regiment of the duke of Ormond at Kilkenny in 1681, his son was able to enroll in Kilkenny College, which was free to all families who served the duke. Here, Congreve received his first formal education and his first exposure to the high society that gathered around the wealthy duke of Ormond. After spending four and a half years at Kilkenny, Congreve entered Trinity College, Dublin (April 5, 1686), where he had the same tutor as Jonathan Swift, Saint George Ashe. The theater in Smock Alley, Dublin, was at this period being run by Joseph Ashbury, who, like Congreve’s father, served under the duke of Ormond. Congreve may already have known Ashbury before coming to Trinity College, and Congreve’s frequent absences from college on Saturday afternoons suggest that he was spending his time at the theater. Here, he would have seen a fine sampling of contemporary drama and could have begun to learn those dramatic conventions that he perfected in his own works.
In 1688, James II fled to Ireland. Perhaps fearing a massacre of Protestants in retaliation for their support of William of Orange against the Catholic Stuart king, the Congreves left Ireland for their family home in England. Congreve went first to Staffordshire to visit his grandfather at Stretton Manor; there, he wrote a draft of The Old Bachelor before coming to London to enroll in the Middle Temple to study law. Congreve was not, however, an ideal law student. Like Steele’s literary Templar in The Spectator, he frequented the Theatre Royal in nearby Drury Lane and Will’s Coffee House rather than the Inns of Court.
At Will’s, Dryden held literary court; by 1692, Congreve had become sufficiently friendly with the former laureate that he was asked to contribute a translation of Juvenal’s eleventh satire to Dryden’s forthcoming edition of the satires of Juvenal and Persius. Together with Arthur Manwayring and Thomas Southerne, Dryden was helpful to Congreve in revising The Old...
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