William Congreve

William Congreve

Biography of William Congreve

William Congreve, 1670-1729, was born in Yorkshire, England. As his father was an officer in the army and the commander of a garrison near Cork in Ireland, Congreve was educated at Kilkenny and then at Trinity College, Dublin, where he was a slightly younger college-mate of Jonathan Swift. In 1691, he was admitted to the Middle Temple in London to study law. It is likely that, like Young Witwoud in The Way of the World, his interest in law was only a means to take him to London, the center of all excitement.

By 1692, Congreve was already a recognized member of the literary world. His first play, The Old Bachelor, was first acted in January 1693, before he was twenty-three years old, and was triumphantly successful. His other plays, The Double-Dealer, Love for Love, The Mourning Bride, and The Way of the World, all followed at short intervals. The last of them was presented in March 1700.

For the rest of his life, Congreve wrote no plays. The Way of the World was not successful on the stage, and this disappointment may have had something to do with his decision. He engaged in controversy with Jeremy Collier on the morality of the stage, a frustrating experience. He suffered from gout and bad sight. He became an elder statesman of letters at the age of thirty, honored by the nobility, highly respected by younger writers.

In his later years, Congreve conducted an ambiguous romance with Henrietta, Duchess of Marlborough. When he died, she erected a tablet to his memory in Westminster Abbey. She also ordered a life-size figure of him and had it seated in his regular place at her table. The feet were swathed in bandages and a doctor "treated" Congreve for gout daily. This rather surprising memento casts its own odd light on the Duchess, perhaps on Congreve, and certainly on the status of the medical profession at the time.

Plays by William Congreve