Sir William Davenant began his career as a playwright in the age of Ben Jonson and ended it in the age of John Dryden. Already a well-established playwright and poet laureate before the closing of the playhouses at the beginning of the English Civil War in 1642, Davenant managed a limited revival of theatrical entertainments toward the end of the interregnum. Despite the Puritan prohibition against staging plays, Davenant succeeded in obtaining government consent to present “entertainments” at Rutland House in London in 1656. These “entertainments” were musical rather than strictly dramatic, with set declamations instead of plots and entries instead of acts and scenes, but their popularity kept the theater from vanishing entirely during the protectorate of Oliver Cromwell and kept it poised for a revival after the restoration of Charles II in 1660.
Davenant may be credited with having introduced the first actress on the English stage, when Mrs. Edward Coleman sang the role of the heroine Ianthe during the production of his “opera” The Siege of Rhodes at Rutland House in the fall of 1656. This production also made use of the changeable scenery that until this time had been restricted to private theaters and court masques. After the Restoration, Davenant retained and expanded his use of changeable scenery, designing his new theater in Lincoln’s Inn Fields to take advantage of its possibilities and spurring imitation by his competitors. Thus, the staging of almost every kind of drama was radically altered.
Davenant operated his theater under a patent that was granted to him by Charles II. In need of plays to produce, he revived some of Ben Jonson’s and adapted several of William Shakespeare’s. Indeed, Davenant’s adaptation of Macbeth held the stage well into the eighteenth century, and his adaptation of The Tempest well into the nineteenth. As an innovator and an impresario, Davenant changed the course of English theatrical history and extended his influence well beyond his own age.
Other literary forms
Although he produced a considerable body of lyric and epic poetry, the bulk of the literary work of Sir William Davenant (DAV-uh-nuhnt) was designed for the stage. His early dramas, heavily indebted to William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, included the tragedy The Cruell Brother (pr. 1627), the comedies The Witts (pr. 1634) and News from Plimouth (pr. 1635), and the pastoral romance The Platonick Lovers (pr. 1635). In the mid-1630’s, he began writing masques; the best and most elaborate of these, Britannia Triumphans (pr., pb. 1638), was done in collaboration with Inigo Jones. Salmacida Spolia (pr., pb. 1640), also with Jones, was the last masque in which Charles I performed. After the Civil War, Davenant produced a series of dramatic entertainments, comprising a mixture of set speeches, scenes, and musical interludes, designed to circumvent the Puritan prohibition of conventional drama. The first was The First Days Entertainment at Rutland House (pr. 1656). In more sophisticated pieces on heroic themes, The Siege of Rhodes (pr., pb. 1656) and The Cruelty of the Spaniards in Peru (pr., pb. 1658), Davenant collaborated with such composers as Henry Lawes and Matthew Locke to create the English opera. After the Restoration, he devoted much of his time to rewriting Shakespeare, and in 1667, in collaboration with John Dryden, he produced an immensely popular comic travesty of The Tempest.
Sir William Davenant’s lyric poetry, although essentially derivative from John Donne, Jonson, and the Cavalier mode, is both skillful and varied. Davenant’s longest poem, the unfinished Gondibert, is competent but undistinguished in its artistry. Nevertheless, it is of major importance when considered in conjunction with The Preface to Gondibert with An Answer by Mr. Hobbes (1650). Gondibert was one of the first neoclassical poems. Here Davenant advocates such neoclassical precepts as the importance of restraint in metaphor, image, and sentiment; the use of the balanced, closed line; and the importance of probability. His popularization of neoclassical decorum and his development of the opera and the heroic drama are Davenant’s major achievements.
Blaydes, Sophia B., and Philip Bordinat. Sir William Davenant. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981. Begins with a chapter on Davenant’s life and times and then surveys the early plays, the masques, and the Restoration plays. The bibliography is excellent, including even dissertations and theses as well as the usual primary and secondary sources. A good place to begin studying Davenant.
Blaydes, Sophia B., and Philip Bordinat. Sir William Davenant: An Annotated Bibliography, 1629-1985. New York: Garland, 1986. This bibliography casts a wide net in 365 pages. The primary bibliography is divided into “Collected Works,” “Separate Works,” and “Miscellaneous Works.” The secondary bibliography is broken down into four sections, treating Davenant century by century, and the last section is subdivided into decades. An exceptionally useful tool for Davenant scholars.
Bold, Alan. Longman Dictionary of Poets. Harlow, England: Longman, 1985. The entry on Davenant postulates that he may have been William Shakespeare’s godson. Cites “The Souldier Going to the Field” as his best-known poem and asserts that it is a “tender expression of regret on leaving love for war.”
Bordinat, Philip, and Sophia B. Blaydes. Sir William Davenant. Boston: Twayne, 1981. Recommended as an introduction to Davenant. Mostly...
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