John Gay was born on June 30, 1685, at Barnstaple, in Devonshire. Apprenticed from 1702 to 1706 to a London silk mercer, Gay left the business world to make his living as a writer. For most of his life, he was plagued with financial problems, in part because of poor investments and in part because of difficulties in finding a long-standing patron. In 1712, he became secretary to the duchess of Monmouth, and in 1714, he joined the household of Lord Clarendon, a position he kept less than a year. During these years, he became an active and well-liked member of the circle surrounding Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift and remained close friends with both men all of his life.
In 1723, Gay received a government appointment that, along with an offer of lodgings at Whitehall, gave him a measure of financial security. His friendships with the royal circle, however, always made him hope for more substantial support, a hope that was perhaps unrealistic, since most of Gay’s friends were Tories, and the Whigs, led by Prime Minister Robert Walpole, were in control of the government. Gay may have become concerned that the acceptance of a government post would mean the loss of his literary freedom, for in 1727, he turned down the offer of the position of Gentleman Usher to the two-year-old Princess Louisa.
Although Gay is consistently described as honest and congenial, and his works reflect his basically good-humored disposition, his struggles to achieve recognition and support left him somewhat disillusioned and disappointed. His dissatisfaction with the ruling party and with Walpole, whom he believed was responsible for blocking his own hopes, resulted in the strong vein of political satire that runs through his works. Walpole’s displeasure with the satire in The Beggar’s Opera, Gay’s most financially successful play, led to the Lord Chamberlain’s prohibition of its sequel, Polly, in 1728. The resulting squabble cost Gay his lodgings at Whitehall, and he spent the last years of his life, increasingly bothered by a chronic ailment, with his patrons, the duke and duchess of Queensberry. Gay died suddenly in London on December 4, 1732; he is buried in Westminster Abbey.