Richard Steele Biography


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Sir Richard Steele was born into a family of the English governing class in Ireland. His paternal grandfather was a successful merchant adventurer and courtier who enjoyed the favor of both James I and Charles I. Steele’s father (both forebears were also named Richard) led a less colorful life, but he had begun a promising career as a lawyer when young Richard was born in 1672. Steele’s mother, born Elinor Sheyles (a Celtic name), was the widow of Thomas Symes of Dublin. She became Mrs. Steele in 1670. Because Steele’s father died at a young age without establishing a sure footing for his children, it fell to Richard’s aunt, Katherine Steele Mildmay, to provide for the family. Her second marriage, to Henry Gascoigne in 1675, placed her in a position to help her nephew, and it was through Gascoigne’s influence (he was private secretary to the duke of Ormonde) that Steele entered Charterhouse, a prestigious public school, in the fall of 1684. At Charterhouse, Steele met his famous friend and collaborator, Joseph Addison, though the two men attended different colleges at Oxford. In 1695, Steele became an ensign in Lord Cutt’s regiment, and, partly as a result of his earliest literary efforts, he soon gained a commission and later a captaincy.

Steele made his mark in literary circles with his essay The Christian Hero and then with a series of comedies—The Funeral, The Lying Lover, and The Tender Husband—all produced between 1701 and 1705. His success made him an...

(The entire section is 623 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Educated at the Charterhouse and the University of Oxford, Richard Steele lived in England and made his living first as a soldier and later as a writer and a politician. Although his plays and periodicals earned him some money, he always seemed to be in debt. He married Margaret Ford Stretch in 1705, but, unfortunately, she died the following year. In 1707, he married Mary Scurlock, owner of a small estate in Wales where he ultimately retired. He became the major propagandist for the Whigs from 1710 to 1714, when they were the opposition, and, after the Whigs regained power under King George I in 1714, he was knighted as a reward for his industriousness in the Whig cause. His later life was filled with financial difficulties, family problems, and political discouragement; after a stroke, he retired to Wales in 1724, where he died in 1729.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Sir Richard Steele was born in Dublin in March, 1672, the son of an attorney. Both his parents died when he was a child, and he became the ward of a prominent uncle, Henry Gascoigne. Through his uncle’s influence he entered the Charterhouse School in 1684, where he met and became the lifelong friend of Joseph Addison (1672-1719). In 1689 he followed Addison to Oxford University, but while Addison remained to take his M.A. and to become a fellow, Steele left without a degree in 1694 to enlist as a private in a regiment of guards under the command of his uncle’s employer, the duke of Ormond. On the strength of a poem which he published anonymously, he became in the following year an ensign in Lord Cutts’s regiment.

By 1700 he was Captain Steele, stationed at the Tower, and the friend of Sir Charles Sedley (1639-1701), Sir John Vanbrugh (1664-1726), William Congreve (1670-1729), and other wits and writers of the day. In that same year John Dryden died, and Congreve published his last important play, these two latter events marking the sunset of Restoration comedy.

Steele’s life as a soldier stationed at the Tower led him into excesses of which he repented, and which caused him to publish in 1701 a small book, The Christian Hero, to prove “that no principles but those of religion are sufficient to make a great man.” The sentiments expressed in this little volume lost him his popularity among his fellow soldiers, and to regain that popularity he wrote his first comedy, The Funeral: Or, Grief-à-la-Mode, for “nothing can make the town so fond of a man as a successful play.”

This play, which met with “more than expected success,” illustrates the tendency of the age to react against libertine elegance and to return to bourgeois respectability. In it Steele attacks the mockery of grief in the person of Sable the undertaker, the mockery of justice in Puzzle the lawyer, and the popular dramatic disregard for women in the persons of Lady Sharlot and Lady Hariot. This staunch stand for morality is readily seen as unusual when compared with that in the plays of Sir George Etherege (c. 1635-c. 1692), Congreve, and even Vanbrugh. The success of this play led Steele to write The Lying Lover in 1703; this work was, however, “dam’d for its piety,” as Steele himself said. Steele tried again in 1705 with The Tender Husband,...

(The entire section is 981 words.)