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 he himself built to accommodate the changeable scenery that had been the prerogative of the earlier private theaters. His post-Restoration career lasted only seven years, but during that time, he managed to establish actresses on the English stage, to change play production radically, and to create a new appreciation of Shakespeare’s plays, even if in a greatly altered version.
Davenant was married three times. In 1632, he wed a still unidentified woman to whom he was reputed to have been unfaithful. After her death (the date of which is unknown), Davenant married Dame Anne Cademan in 1652. She died in 1655; in that same year, he married Henrietta-Maria du Tremblay, who had four sons by previous marriages. They subsequently had nine sons. He had only one daughter, with one of his first wives. After Davenant’s death in 1668, Henrietta-Maria helped prepare an edition of his works. Davenant was buried in Westminster Abbey. His epitaph epitomizes his achievements: “O rare Sir Will. Davenant.”
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 as a poet, and in the later years of the decade,...
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