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, which had somewhat more success than its predecessor, but even so, Steele wrote no more plays for seventeen years.
He entered, instead, into politics (quite actively from 1707 to 1710) and began to write periodical essays, most significantly in collaboration with his old friend Addison. These two men, with some little help from other writers now forgotten except by scholars, published first The Tatler, which appeared three times weekly from 1709 to 1711, and later The Spectator, which appeared daily from 1711 to 1712. Of both papers Steele was the fathering genius. Having served the government’s cause through his writing, he was knighted in 1714.
In both these forerunners of the modern newspaper, Steele, writing on subjects ranging from descriptions of London and of life in the country to articles on dueling and the question of immortality, preached the gospel of reformed gentility and true gentle manliness to oppose the artificial elegance symbolized by Etherege’s Dorimant (the protagonist of Etherege’s comedy The Man of Mode , 1676), and he preached in a style supple and precise, warm and penetrating, a style later used by Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) as a model...
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when he was teaching himself to write. In the dedication to the first collected volume ofThe Tatler (1710), Steele wrote, “The general purpose of this paper, is to expose the false arts of life, to pull off the disguises of cunning, vanity, and affectation, and to recommend a general simplicity in our dress, our discourse, and our behavior.”
It is indicative of the trend toward “rational conduct” that these papers were eminently successful in an age when journals, like the lilies of the field, bloomed today and were cast tomorrow into the fire. It is moreover indicative of the influence they had—or the trend they reflected—that when Steele’s last play, The Conscious Lovers, appeared at Drury Lane in 1722, it ran for eighteen nights and was a great success.
In this play, the contrast with the Restoration is complete. The characters are not fine ladies and gentlemen, but frankly middle class. The lovers do not fence verbally through four acts about their affection before they dare to confess it in the fifth; their mutual love is clear throughout the play, though no amorous words pass between them. Young Bevil, the hero, is not even tainted with rakishness but is thoroughly upright and worthy. The solution to the plot which occurs in the last act, just in time to show virtue rewarded with wealth and consequent lifelong happiness, appears not at all incongruous but achieves its purpose of moving the audience to compassion.
Though the play has a well-knit structure—even the startling denouement is handled with sureness and restraint—and though the expression is easy and natural, it celebrated the funeral of Restoration comedy and the coming-of-age of sentimental comedy. True dramatic comedy was dead; whatever the faults of Restoration comedy, and they were many, it was dramatic, it was funny, and it was sometimes brilliant. The Conscious Lovers banished vice and, for a time at least, theatrical immorality was dead. One imagines that Steele would have been pleased, not offended, at William Hazlitt’s remark: “It is almost a misnomer to call them comedies; they are rather homilies in dialogues.” In any case, Sir Richard Steele had temporarily achieved the purpose he set forth in The Tatler. In that respect, he must have gone peacefully to his death. He died September 1, 1729. He lies buried in St. Peter’s Church, Carmarthen, Wales.