Sir William Davenant Biography


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Sir William Davenant (or D’Avenant), son of John Davenant, a vintner, was born at Oxford, England, near the end of February, in 1606. As a young man, he wrote his first plays while living in the household of Sir Fulke Greville, and by 1638, he was sufficiently established as a poet and playwright to succeed Ben Jonson as poet laureate. When civil war broke out in 1642, Davenant, a staunch Royalist, risked his life for the Stuart cause. He fled to the Continent for a time, and in 1650 he was on his way to America to become lieutenant governor of Maryland when his ship was intercepted and he was captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London. It was there that he wrote most of his unfinished heroic poem Gondibert. Influential friends finally secured his release from the Tower, after which Davenant managed to live on good terms with the Puritan government. He eventually secured official permission to stage operatic entertainments at Rutland House in London, beginning in May of 1656.

Four years later, when the monarchy was restored, Davenant expected court preferment on the basis of his past service to the Stuarts. Although Charles II did grant him a patent to operate a theater, Davenant never regained the favor he had enjoyed under Charles I. Therefore, instead of relying on the patronage of the court, he busied himself with writing and staging plays for the Duke’s Company, which he managed at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in the public playhouse that...

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(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Sir William Davenant, or D’Avenant, as he styled himself in later years, lived a life that seems to cry out to be the subject of a historical novel. Born into the middle class, destined to be a tradesman, he rose to become one of the most honored poets and playwrights of his day, a general in the army of Charles I, a successful diplomat, and the friend and companion of some of the most glamorous men and women of his age.

John Davenant, a vintner, was mayor of Oxford in 1606, the year of his son William’s birth. Shakespeare was supposedly a regular visitor at the Davenant tavern and was reputed to be the boy’s actual father, a rumor that the young poet actively fostered. Intended for apprenticeship to a London merchant, Davenant, at his father’s death in 1622, was instead preferred to the powerful duchess of Richmond as a page. At the duke of Richmond’s death in 1624, Davenant took service with Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke, opening even further the doors of patronage and preferment. The elder poet was an early supporter of his talent, and by 1627, Davenant was a working playwright with his first tragedy, The Cruell Brother, licensed for performance. New plays followed quickly, but in 1630, Davenant fell silent for several years, the victim, it is believed, of a nearly fatal case of syphilis, an illness that cost him his nose. By 1633, however, Davenant had returned to the stage, writing a number of successful plays, gaining a reputation...

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

William Davenant (DAV-uh-nuhnt), or D’Avenant, born at Oxford in February, 1606, himself encouraged the legend that William Shakespeare was his father. It was said that the elder Davenant’s Crown Inn was a favorite stopover of the great poet, although there exists no evidence to prove any intimacy between Mistress Davenant and Shakespeare. The innkeeper later became mayor of Oxford, where his son was educated in Lincoln College. Before taking a degree, however, William quit school to go into the service of King Charles I.

Davenant was associated in London with the theater of Inigo Jones and Ben Jonson, and when these two quarreled, Davenant wrote The Temple of Love for Jones; the masque was played before Queen Henrietta Maria to much applause. After Jonson’s death, Davenant became poet laureate in 1638. Although an ardent Loyalist, he must have had the protection of Oliver Cromwell during the time the theaters were closed, for there are records to show that Davenant at one time had “entertainments” in four separate theaters. After his political activities had led to several sentences, accusations, imprisonments, and other difficulties in England and France and at sea, he was apparently saved by John Milton’s intercession.

After the Restoration, Davenant was given a license to open a new theater, the Duke, in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, where he produced masques, spectacles, adaptations, operas, and bombastic love-and-honor tragedies. His own best plays are The Witts, Love and Honour, and The Platonick Lovers, though he will perhaps always be best remembered as the author of the first “heroic” drama in English, The Siege of Rhodes. He was said to have been influential enough under Charles II to return a favor and save Milton’s life in 1660. Davenant died in London on April 7, 1668, and was buried in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey. On his tomb is an inscription reminiscent of Ben Jonson’s: “O rare Sir William Davenant!”