William Congreve Biography

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.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Because William Congreve’s father was in the army, the family moved several times, one of their longest tours being in Ireland. Congreve attended Kilkenny College (where he met Jonathan Swift), Trinity College in Dublin, and finally the Middle Temple in London. After he wrote Incognita and his five plays, Congreve at the age of thirty went into semiretirement as a writer. This action was partially a result of an accusation by the clergyman Jeremy Collier that his work was immoral and profane, and also because he was disappointed in public reaction toward his personal attempts to move toward a more aesthetic art form. Although Congreve never married, he was devoted to at least two women: the actress Anne Bracegirdle, for whom he devised most of his charming, independent, female roles; and Henrietta, the second Duchess of Marlborough, by whom he had a daughter, Mary. Congreve was in poor health during his later years, suffering from cataracts and poor eyesight, gout and recurring lameness, and obesity. He died in London in 1729 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

William Congreve was born in Yorkshire but grew up in Ireland, where his father served as an army lieutenant. Unlike many poets of his day, he belonged to the gentry: His grandfather was squire of Stretton Hall in Staffordshire. Congreve attended Kilkenny College, where he is reported to have written his first poem on the death of his headmaster’s magpie. Swift was an older classmate of Congreve at Kilkenny and later at Trinity College, Dublin. After college, Congreve moved to London to study law but soon became entranced by the literary life. He frequented Will’s coffeehouse, published a novel, and began writing odes and songs. His translations of Homer won Dryden’s praise and friendship, and Dryden edited and then sponsored Congreve’s first play, The Old Bachelor. During the play’s run, Congreve fell in love with the young actress Anne Bracegirdle, for whom he wrote many poems and the part of Millamant in The Way of the World. For his promise as a propagandist for William III, Congreve was given his first of a long series of political posts, commissioner for hackney coaches; in gratitude, he produced the standard celebratory odes. The Mourning Bride, Congreve’s only tragedy, was his greatest popular success, although he is most acclaimed now for The Way of the World, a relative failure in its own day.

After the less-than-rapturous reception of The Way of the World, suffering from increasing blindness and painful gout, Congreve declined to expend the enormous amount of energy and concentration needed to write plays. He continued to write verses on occasion and became a gentleman about town, friend of prominent writers, and gallant of Henrietta, duchess of Marlborough. Although he stopped writing for the theater, his love for it never waned; in 1705, he became the director of the new Haymarket Theater. His government posts continued; in 1714, he was made searcher of customs and then secretary to the island of Jamaica, an office that gave him an adequate income for the rest of his life. He died in 1729 and was buried in Westminster Abbey, where the duchess was buried beside him a few years later.