George Etherege Biography


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Sir George Etherege’s life resembled those of the wits, courtiers, and rakes who populate his plays. When he was born, his father had a small place at court. In 1644, during the civil war, when the queen escaped to France, Etherege’s father followed her into exile, where he died in 1650. Etherege himself was probably reared by his grandfather in England, obtaining along the way a good education and an excellent knowledge of French. In 1654, he was appointed a clerk to George Goswold, an attorney at Beaconsfield. In 1668, The Comical Revenge, Etherege’s first play, was performed at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. It was well received, and Etherege’s reputation was at once established. His next play, She Would if She Could, was performed at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in 1668. Although a better play than the first, it was poorly rehearsed and badly performed, and it fared very poorly. By this time, Etherege was a member of the circle of courtiers and wits that included Sir Charles Sedley and the earl of Rochester. He was made a gentleman of the Privy Chamber and went, as secretary to the ambassador, to Constantinople. Etherege returned to London in 1671, and for the next few years he, along with the earl of Rochester, was mixed up in several wild and rather unsavory scrapes, resulting in at least one death.

In 1676, The Man of Mode was performed at the Duke’s Theatre in Dorset Garden. Remembering his earlier failure, Etherege was...

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(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

The details of Sir George Etherege’s early life are sketchy. The year of his birth is tentatively identified as 1635, and not much is known of his early youth. Following the production of his first two comedies, Etherege began a sporadic diplomatic career. In 1668, he served as secretary to Sir Daniel Harvey in Turkey but returned to England three years later. Following the production of The Man of Mode in 1676, Etherege’s life was noteworthy only for numerous drunken brawls and for his fathering a child out of wedlock. Later, he was sent to The Hague by Charles II. In 1680, he was knighted, as rumor would have it after purchasing the title so that he could marry a wealthy widow. In 1685, he was sent to Ratisbon, in what is now West Germany, by James II. His diplomatic career in Ratisbon degenerated into a dissolute life of gambling and more drunken tavern brawling. To his squalor can be added sloth and negligence, since, during his diplomatic career in Ratisbon, Etherege never bothered to learn German, and left his records in chaos for others to sort out. He died in 1691, probably in Paris.

From these biographical facts, it is presumed that Etherege was not an admirable man. What is clear, at least, is that the accounts of trickstering, gaming, drinking, loving, and debauchery found in his plays and in some of his poetry are authoritative. Etherege was truly the embodiment of the “Restoration rake.”


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Sir George Etherege (EHTH-uh-rihj) is one of those intriguing figures in history about whom biographers, literary historians, and other scholars wish they knew more. Only a few facts covering a relatively short period in his life are known. He was born about 1635, the second child and first son of George Etherege and Mary Powney of the Thames village of Maidenhead. Sometime in the year of young George’s birth the elder George became the purveyor to Queen Henrietta Maria, whom he followed into exile in France in 1644, leaving his wife and children in the care of his own father. It is possible that young George spent some time in France with his father before the latter’s death in September, 1650. Tradition suggests that the future playwright attended Cambridge briefly, but no evidence exists to support that idea.

Better documented are the four years from 1654 to 1658 that George Etherege spent as a law apprentice to George Gosnold of Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire. Gosnold’s influence helped Etherege to gain admission to study law at Clement’s Inn in London, and Etherege began his formal law studies on February 19, 1659. There is no information about his activities for the next five years, although textual evidence in his plays suggests that he may have been in Paris for a time and that he availed himself of the opportunity to attend the theater in London.

Etherege’s first play, The Comical Revenge: Or Love in a Tub, was first produced in 1664 (probably in March) at the Duke’s Playhouse in London. More successful than any previous comedy in Restoration England, the play is considered by scholars to be the first comedy distinctly in the tradition of the Restoration period, when Charles II was on the British throne. The accent of the play is on wittiness, and the theme is a “war” between the sexes.

In the years that followed Etherege became a figure of some notoriety in Restoration London. A compatriot of Sir Charles Sedley and...

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The exact dates of his birth and his death are not certain, but it is established that George Etherege was born between 1634 and 1636 in Maidenhead, Berkshire, some twenty-five miles west of London, the eldest of six children. He may or may not have attended Cambridge University, but if he did, opinion is that it is unlikely he graduated. Rather, it is believed that he passed his youth in Paris, absorbing the culture of the French capital, particularly through the theater, where he became familiar with the early works of the great French comic dramatist Molière (1622-1675). Upon his return to London, Etherege became an apprentice to a lawyer, but his wealth and his taste for easy and voluptuous living freed him from the necessity of pursuing a career. He lived much as the rakish gentleman he portrays in The Man of Mode. He wrote only two other plays: The Comical Revenge, or Love in a Tub in 1664, and She Would If She Could in 1668. Between 1668 and 1671, Etherege served as secretary to the English ambassador in Constantinople. In London, after the success of The Man of Mode, Etherege fathered a daughter with Elizabeth Barry (to whom he was not married), lived extravagantly, gambled heavily, and went bankrupt. In 1680, Charles II knighted him, and Etherege married a wealthy widow and came into possession of her fortune. In 1685, King James II appointed Etherege resident minister to the German court in Regensburg, where he served until the Glorious Revolution in England, which in 1688 unseated James, a Catholic, and installed his Protestant daughter Mary II and her husband William III on the English throne. Etherege joined James in exile in Paris and died there in May 1692.

Etherege himself became a character in the Stephen Jeffreys play The Libertine (1994), which served as the basis for the 2004 film of the same name starring Johnny Depp and featuring Tom Hollander as Etherege.