William Congreve Biography
William Congreve is the source of the often-quoted words, “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.” Congreve was a playwright who had one of literature’s shortest careers. He wrote only five plays and all by the age of thirty. However, as public sentiments changed, his audiences began to find his plays immoral. After receiving a few scathing reviews and discovering that the public’s fickle taste was turning away from the Restoration comedies he specialized in, Congreve turned to a life in politics. Though he is not remembered for his later writings, he continued to write, but instead of plays he wrote translations and poetry.
In addition to his writing, Congreve is also remembered for his many notable affairs, including one with the duchess Henrietta Godolphin. Congreve’s health was poor near the end of his life, and he died from injuries sustained during a carriage accident. The play The Way of the World remains his most enduring work.
Facts and Trivia
- Despite being only fifty-nine when he died in 1729, Congreve suffered from both gout and cataracts.
- He was lifelong friends with Jonathan Swift, whom he met at Kilkenny College.
- Most of the leading roles in Congreve’s plays were written for his mistress at the time, Anne Bracegirdle. In Congreve's day, female roles in plays were beginning to be predominantly played by women, rather than men.
- There was another famous British man named William Congreve. Sir William Congreve, an inventor and rocket pioneer, was born in 1772 and died in 1828.
- Many writers and critics assert that the wit and brilliance of language in Congreve’s plays have only been surpassed by a later author, Oscar Wilde.
- Near the end of his life, Congreve received a visit from the French writer and philosopher Voltaire, whom Congreve annoyed when he said that he didn’t wish to be treated as a famous author, just a plain and simple gentleman. Voltaire describes his reaction in Letters Concerning the English Nation: “I answered that had he been so unfortunate as to be a mere gentleman, I should never have come to see him.”
- Though Way of the World is his most well-known work, at the time of its production, it was a big failure. His most popular play in his own life time, The Mourning Bride, is now one of his most obscure works.
William Congreve was born on January 24, 1670, at Bardsey, Yorkshire, England. In 1674, his father, also named William, received a lieutenant’s commission to serve in Ireland, and the family moved to the garrison of Youghal. In 1678, the elder William was transferred to Carrickfergus, another Irish port, and again, the family accompanied him. Congreve’s knowledge of port life may have contributed to his depiction of the sailor, Ben, in Love for Love; Ben’s use of nautical terms demonstrates the playwright’s familiarity with this jargon. When the elder Congreve joined the regiment of the duke of Ormond at Kilkenny in 1681, his son was able to enroll in Kilkenny College, which was free to all families who served the duke. Here, Congreve received his first formal education and his first exposure to the high society that gathered around the wealthy duke of Ormond. After spending four and a half years at Kilkenny, Congreve entered Trinity College, Dublin (April 5, 1686), where he had the same tutor as Jonathan Swift, Saint George Ashe. The theater in Smock Alley, Dublin, was at this period being run by Joseph Ashbury, who, like Congreve’s father, served under the duke of Ormond. Congreve may already have known Ashbury before coming to Trinity College, and Congreve’s frequent absences from college on Saturday afternoons suggest that he was spending his time at the theater. Here, he would have seen a fine sampling of contemporary drama and could have begun to learn those dramatic conventions that he perfected in his own works.
In 1688, James II fled to Ireland. Perhaps fearing a massacre of Protestants in retaliation for their support of William of Orange against the Catholic Stuart king, the Congreves left Ireland for their family home in England. Congreve went first to Staffordshire to visit his grandfather at Stretton Manor; there, he wrote a draft of The Old Bachelor before coming to London to enroll in the Middle Temple to study law. Congreve was not, however, an ideal law student. Like Steele’s literary Templar in The Spectator, he frequented the Theatre Royal in nearby Drury Lane and Will’s Coffee House rather than the Inns of Court.
At Will’s, Dryden held literary court; by 1692, Congreve had become sufficiently friendly with the former laureate that he was asked to contribute a translation of Juvenal’s eleventh satire to Dryden’s forthcoming edition of the satires of Juvenal and Persius. Together with Arthur Manwayring and Thomas Southerne, Dryden was helpful to Congreve in revising The Old Bachelor. (In 1717, Congreve partially returned the favor, editing and writing an introduction to a posthumous edition of Dryden’s Dramatick Works.) The play opened at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane on March 9, 1693, with a brilliant cast, including Anne Bracegirdle as Araminta. Congreve was soon in love with Bracegirdle, who would play the heroine in each of his succeeding works and who may have been his mistress. In December, 1693, Congreve’s second comedy, The Double-Dealer, was performed. Though Dryden praised it profusely, the play was not initially well received. After Queen Mary requested a special performance, however, its popularity increased.
Love for Love needed no royal sponsorship for its success. The first play to be performed in the restored Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre (April 30, 1695), it ran for thirteen nights. Congreve was made one of the managers of the theater in return for a promise of a play a year, if his health permitted. Congreve needed two years to complete The Mourning Bride , which opened on February 27, 1697. The tragedy was worth the wait, for...
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it was eminently successful. Three more years elapsed before Congreve’s next play. Meanwhile, in 1698, Jeremy Collier attacked the Restoration stage in general, and Congreve in particular, for immorality. Congreve replied with hisAmendments of Mr. Collier’s False and Imperfect Citations. Between ill-health and the controversy with Collier, Congreve was unable to stage The Way of the World until March, 1700. Dryden recognized its genius, writing to Mrs. Steward on March 12, “Congreve’s new play has had but moderate success, though it deserves much better.” Coupled with Collier’s attacks, the poor reception of The Way of the World convinced Congreve to abandon serious drama, but he continued to write and remain interested in the theater.
On March 21, 1701, The Judgement of Paris, an elaborate masque, opened at Dorset Garden with Bracegirdle as Venus. With Vanbrugh and Walsh, Congreve adapted Molière’s Monsieur de Pourceaugnac as Squire Trelooby, which was performed in March, 1704. He also wrote the libretto to an opera, Semele, which was not performed in his lifetime. For a brief time, too, Congreve, Vanbrugh, and Walsh managed a theater in the Haymarket.
Although Congreve held a variety of government posts throughout his life—the type of minor posts with which men of letters were often rewarded in that era—he did not have a lucrative position until 1705, when he was made a commissioner of wines, with an annual salary of two hundred pounds. Congreve was an ardent Whig, but he had so agreeable a personality that when the Tories came to power, Jonathan Swift and Lord Halifax (to whom Congreve had dedicated The Double-Dealer) intervened to help him retain this income. Dryden was not merely flattering when he wrote, “So much the sweetness of your manners move,/ We cannot envy you, because we love.” Not until almost a decade later, when the Hanoverians came to power, did Congreve enjoy a substantial income, receiving the post of secretary of the Island of Jamaica. He discharged his duties by a deputy, continuing to lead a placid, retired life in London during the winter and in various country houses during the summer. As he wrote to Joseph Keally, “Ease and quiet is what I hunt after. If I have not ambition, I have other passions more easily gratified.”
One passion was for Henrietta, duchess of Marlborough, whom he met in 1703. In 1722, Congreve went to Bath for his health, and Henrietta accompanied him, even though she was married to the son of Lord Treasurer Godolphin. The following year, when she gave birth to her second daughter, Mary, it was assumed that Congreve was the child’s father. Henrietta was by his side when he died on January 19, 1729, and when she died four years later, she was buried near him in Westminster Abbey.