Authors: William Congreve

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English playwright

January 24, 1670

Bardsey, Yorkshire, England

January 19, 1729

London, England


Considered during his lifetime to be the legitimate rival of practically every English dramatist except William Shakespeare, William Congreve (KAWN-greev) was born in 1670 in Yorkshire, England, where his paternal grandfather led the comfortable life of a country squire. In 1674, Congreve’s father accepted a lieutenant’s commission in Ireland and moved his family first to Youghal and then to Carrickfergus. At the age of eleven, young Congreve entered the school at Kilkenny, where his father had recently been posted. Here, along with the slightly older Jonathan Swift, Congreve followed a rigorous and comprehensive program of study centering on Greek and Latin classics. Knowledge of his academic performance at Kilkenny is sparse, but he succeeded well enough to be admitted, in 1686, to Trinity College, Dublin. A Protestant, Congreve left Ireland two years later, before he could finish his degree, when it seemed as though James II would sanction a renewal of Catholic oppression. {$I[AN]9810000589} {$I[A]Congreve, William} {$I[geo]ENGLAND;Congreve, William} {$I[tim]1670;Congreve, William}

William Congreve

(Library of Congress)

From Ireland, Congreve returned to his grandfather’s estate, where he spent most of the next three years, before moving to London and enrolling, in 1691, in the Middle Temple to study law. An early biographer suggests that Congreve found the study of law unpalatable, and it is easy enough, when looking back, to imagine how the youthful Congreve would naturally gravitate from the Temple’s cloistered halls to the immensely more exciting world of the London coffeehouses, frequented by the greatest English writers of the late Restoration period.

Exactly when Congreve began to write—or at least to write seriously, with money and fame in mind—is unknown. Some scholars have him working on his first play, The Old Bachelor, at his grandfather’s estate as early as 1689. Whatever the chronology, it is certain that Congreve served little in the way of a literary apprenticeship. Success, beginning with the publication of the novella Incognita: Or, Love and Duty Reconcil’d in 1692, followed success, and by March 1693, when his comedy The Old Bachelor ran for a near-record fourteen performances at the Drury Lane Theatre, Congreve, at the remarkable age of twenty-three, was well on his way to becoming the most popular writer of his time.

Over the next seven years, in addition to producing numerous poems and translations, Congreve wrote four more plays. The Double-Dealer, which was performed in December, 1693, was no more than a limited success; moreover, its sometimes dark and cynical, but hardly dishonest, commentary on human sexuality brought charges of indecency and moral impropriety. These charges resurfaced even more sharply several years later, in 1698, in Jeremy Collier’s famous broadside against the London theater, A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage.

Love for Love, called by one critic Congreve’s gayest and most romantic comedy, appeared in 1695 as the first offering at the new theater at Lincoln’s Inns Fields, where it was performed by a stellar cast that included the period’s leading actors, Thomas Betterton and Elizabeth Barry. The play’s great success paid special dividends to Congreve: He was awarded a full share in the new acting company under the stipulation that he provide one new play every year.

Congreve’s only noncomic play, The Mourning Bride, was first staged in 1697. Though a good deal more “pathetic” than tragic in the Shakespearian vein, The Mourning Bride was nevertheless an unqualified triumph, leading more than one contemporary critic to praise it as the finest tragedy of its age. Later critics were not so kind. The play’s great popular success was probably the result of a rather odd contemporary taste for spectacle and bombast combined with the celebrated performances of Betterton, Barry, and the beautiful young Ann Bracegirdle, with whom Congreve was infatuated.

Congreve’s theatrical success ended, ironically enough, in 1700, with the staging of his greatest play, The Way of the World. Contrary to popular belief, his final play was not a financial or critical disaster. An initial run of six or seven performances was considered a moderate success, and several of Congreve’s acquaintances wrote that the play deserved a much better reception than it got. What audiences were responding to is no doubt the play’s enormous complexities on the levels of plot, character, and language. Though potentially dazzling in performance, few plays, and even fewer comedies, make so many demands on an audience. In addition, at a time when audiences were becoming increasingly moderate in both composition and outlook, The Way of the World features a morally ambiguous hero—Mirabell—whose plots and counterplots can only be called Machiavellian.

Why, at the age of only thirty, Congreve stopped writing plays remains a mystery. Perhaps playwriting simply ceased to interest him; perhaps he felt he had achieved all he could achieve in the form. In any case, he did not stop writing altogether. During the nearly thirty years left to him, years he spent living, comfortably, though in declining health, in London, he wrote many things—poems, translations, and even a libretto for an opera. However, his reputation will always rest on the five plays of his youth.

Author Works Drama: The Old Bachelor, pr., pb. 1693 The Double-Dealer, pr. 1693 Love for Love, pr., pb. 1695 The Mourning Bride, pr., pb. 1697 The Way of the World, pr., pb. 1700 The Judgement of Paris, pr., pb. 1701 (masque) Squire Trelooby, pr., pb. 1704 (with Sir John Vanbrugh and William Walsh; adaptation of Molière’s Monsieur de Pourceaugnac) Semele, pb. 1710 (libretto), pr. 1744 (modified version) The Complete Plays of William Congreve, pb. 1967 (Herbert Davis, editor) Long Fiction: Incognita: Or, Love and Duty Reconcil’d, 1692 (novella) Poetry: “To Mr. Dryden on His Translation of Persius,” 1693 Poems upon Several Occasions, 1710 Nonfiction: Amendments of Mr. Collier’s False and Imperfect Citations, 1698 William Congreve: Letters and Documents, 1964 (John C. Hodges, editor) Translations: Ovid’s Art of Love, Book III, 1709 Ovid’s Metamorphoses, 1717 (with John Dryden and Joseph Addison) Miscellaneous: Examen Poeticum, 1693 The Works of Mr. William Congreve, 1710 The Complete Works of William Congreve, 1923, reprint 1964 (4 volumes; Montague Summers, editor) Bibliography Bartlett, Laurence. William Congreve: An Annotated Bibliography, 1978-1994. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1996. A bibliography of works concerning Congreve. Index. Hodges, John C. William Congreve: The Man. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1941. Though somewhat dated, this is still a good standard biography of Congreve. Hodges traces Congreve’s youth in Ireland, his college years at Trinity College, Dublin, his life among the coffeehouses and theaters of London, and his relationships with the actress Annie Bracegirdle and the Duchess of Marlborough. A readable introduction to Congreve’s life, this volume also briefly discusses his major works. Hoffman, Arthur W. Congreve’s Comedies. Victoria, B.C.: University of Victoria, 1993. Analysis and interpretation of Congreve’s comic plays. Includes bibliography. Lindsay, Alexander, and Howard Erskine-Hill, eds. Congreve: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge, 1989. An anthology of critical material on Congreve, divided into three sections: “The Early Reception, 1691–1700,” “The Eighteenth-Century Response, 1701–1793,” and “The Nineteenth Century and After, 1802–1913.” Included are many interesting pieces by contemporaries such as John Dryden and Joseph Addison, and a poem praising Congreve by his friend Jonathan Swift. Though no modern criticism is included, this volume is invaluable as a record of responses to Congreve’s work in literary history. Love, Harold. Congreve. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1975. This well-written discussion of Congreve’s plays places the works within the historical-theatrical context in which they were written. Love stresses the necessity of active aural and spatial imagination in understanding Congreve. Encourages readers to see Congreve’s scenes as the writer himself would have viewed them and gives information about the great performers for whom he wrote. Includes brief bibliography, chronology. Markley, Robert. Two Edg’d Weapons: Style and Dialogue in the Comedies of Etherege, Wycherley, and Congreve. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Theoretical discussions about the nature of style and historical questions about stylistic theory and practice in the late seventeenth century form the broad outline of this study. Focuses on both the definition and interaction of style and ideology in these dramatists’ works. Contains bibliography. Morris, Brian, ed. William Congreve. London: Ernest and Benn, 1972. The nine essays in this record of the York Symposium of 1970 deal mainly with Congreve’s four major comedies (The Old Batchelour, The Double Dealer, Love for Love, and The Way of the World). Critical examinations of the texts address areas such as “Wit and Convention in Congreve’s Comedies,” “Plot and Meaning in Congreve’s Comedies,” and “Passion, ‘Poetical Justice,’ and Dramatic Law.” A few essays deal with the staging of Congreve’s plays, including a piece by Kenneth Muir on modern revivals of the plays with fascinating accounts of Dame Edith Evans as Millamant, Sir John Gielgud as Mirable and Valentine, and Sir Laurence Olivier as Tattle. Novak, Maximillian E. William Congreve. New York: Twayne, 1971. After a detailed introduction to Congreve’s life, Novak discusses each of Congreve’s five plays in depth and devotes a concluding chapter to Congreve’s poetry and other writings. Supplemented by an excellent select bibliography (including secondary sources), notes, an index, and a chronology. Sieber, Anita. Character Portrayal in Congreve’s Comedies: “The Old Batchelor,” “Love for Love,” and “The Way of the World.” Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1996. An examination of the characters in three of Congreve’s best-known comedies. Bibliography. Thomas, David. William Congreve. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. A good introduction to the life and works of Congreve. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Williams, Aubrey L. An Approach to Congreve. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979. This insightful study provides a discussion of the historical context from which Congreve’s work emerged, as well as discussions of Congreve’s five plays and one novella. Supplemented by notes and an index. Young, Douglas M. The Feminist Voices in Restoration Comedy: The Virtuous Women in the Play-worlds of Etherege, Wycherley, and Congreve. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1997. A thoughtful examination of the female characters in the fiction and drama of Congreve, Sir George Etherege, and William Wycherly.

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