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Sir  William Davenant (1606–1668), by William Faithorne the elder, pubd 1673 (after John Greenhill)Sir William Davenant (1606–1668), by William Faithorne the elder, pubd 1673 (after John Greenhill)
Davenant [D'Avenant], Sir William (1606–1668), poet, playwright, and theatre manager, was the second of four sons of John Davenant, vintner, and Jane, daughter of Robert and Elizabeth Sheppard.

Origins and early life

The Davenants had long been settled in north Essex, near London; the Sheppards were from much further north, co. Durham. During the sixteenth century some members of both families were drawn to London by the growing wealth and expansionist policies of Tudor England, culminating in the long reign of Elizabeth I. Relatives of Sir William became merchant adventurers and freemen of the related Merchant Taylors' Company (Edmond, pedigree facing p. 1), while some Sheppards entered royal service. Davenant's mother was baptized at St Margaret's, Westminster, in 1568. His grandfather and father, both named John, were merchant vintners, importing wines from the continent, and also brokers—licensed agents operating between merchants of all kinds. The elder John became a freeman of the new Muscovy Company, trading with Russia and Persia, and married Judith Sparke, daughter of a founder member: their first child—Sir William's father—was born in 1565.

Davenant's parents would have been married about 1593 (date and place unknown). They lived in the parish of St James Garlickhythe, close to the river and Vintners' Hall, and directly opposite the playhouses on the south bank. John Aubrey, in his long (and, for him, fairly neat) ‘brief life’ of Sir William (Bodl. Oxf., MS Aubrey 6, fols. 46–47v) describes his mother, Jane—or Jennet, as she was known in the family—as beautiful and highly intelligent (‘of a very good witt’). Anthony Wood adds that her husband was ‘an admirer and lover of plays and playmakers, especially Shakespeare’. The Davenants' first six children did not long survive, and they left London, presumably hoping for better fortune elsewhere. In 1600 or 1601 the experienced wine merchant took over a wine tavern in the centre of Oxford, where he and his wife successfully reared a family of seven. Their home has been described as ‘obscure’, but it was called simply ‘the tavern’ because it was so well-known. Aubrey states that Shakespeare stayed at John Davenant's establishment—where he was ‘exceedingly respected’—on annual visits to Stratford. The tavern was owned by New College, and the leasebooks show that it had about twenty rooms (the rear of the old tavern, now 3 Cornmarket, was demolished in 1934). Inns offered beds to the travelling public, wine taverns did not, so Shakespeare was staying as a friend. He and Mrs Davenant's eldest brother, Thomas, royal glover and perfumer, were professional colleagues in London, and as members of the royal household were granted cloth for liveries to attend the old queen's funeral in Westminster Abbey in 1603, and to walk in the progress of James I through the City in 1604 (TNA: PRO, LC2/4(4), LC2/4(5)). The notion that Shakespeare and his Oxford hostess shared a bed in the ‘painted chamber’ of the tavern, and that William was the result of their union, is highly improbable. In later life, says Aubrey, William Davenant (whom Aubrey knew) sometimes remarked that he felt he wrote with Shakespeare's spirit, and was (‘seemed’ cautiously inserted above) happy enough to be ‘thought his Son’: what poet or playwright would not? There is no compelling reason to reject near-contemporary reports that Shakespeare stood godfather when young William was baptized at St Martin's, Carfax, on 3 March 1606.

In autumn 1621 John Davenant, already in failing health, was elected mayor of Oxford. Jennet was buried on 5 April 1622, John died on the 19th, and was given an impressive funeral on the 23rd. He left a long and meticulous will planning for his motherless children, and bequeathed the handsome sum of £1200 overall. He intended his lively and gregarious son William, then sixteen—who had been educated at Oxford by a schoolmaster, Edward Sylvester—to be apprenticed to a London merchant, and left him extra money for ‘double apparell’. William hastened to the capital, acquired a tailor called Urswick (to whom he would later be constantly in debt), ordered elegant attire, and almost immediately became a page in the household of Frances Howard at Ely House in Holborn. She was the third wife of Lodovic Stuart, a kinsman of James I, created duke of Richmond in 1623. Soon after he arrived in London, Davenant had married someone called Mary (details unknown), and the first of his many sons was baptized at St James's, Clerkenwell, on 27 October 1624. Richmond had died early that year and Davenant entered the household of Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke, who was stabbed to death by a servant in 1628.

Plays and masques

The first play of Davenant's to be performed was The Cruel Brother: a Tragedy, an old-fashioned revenge piece, put on by the King's Men at Blackfriars, having been licensed in 1627; it was obviously important to the budding playwright that the Shakespeare first folio and John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi were published in 1623, shortly after his arrival in London, and there are echoes of both playwrights in his early work. His play The Tragedy of Albovine, King of the Lombards, probably written at about the same time, was not performed. It was published, however, in 1629, when the author introduced an apostrophe into his name as part of a fanciful claim that his family had originally come from Lombardy, a claim that aroused much mirth. In 1630 he contracted a venereal disease, probably syphilis, which nearly cost him his nose and his life. Aubrey says that he had been infected by ‘a black [dark] handsome wench’ of Axe Yard, Westminster. In his play The Wits (1634), Davenant has Lucy speak lightly of ‘lewd gallants/That have lost a nose’ (III. i). In the only known portrait of Davenant, by John Greenhill, surviving in an engraving by William Faithorne that forms the frontispiece to his Works of 1673, the nose is somewhat disfigured. The subject prompted ribald comment, some wits linking nose and name, for example:
Will, intending D'Avenant to grace,
Has made a Notch in's name like that in's face.
(Nethercot, 90 and n.1)
The only treatment for syphilis was quicksilver—‘Devill Mercurie’, as Davenant called it. He sought help and comfort from Dr Thomas Cademan, physician to Queen Henrietta Maria (whose widow he later married), and from his loyal friend, the courtier Endymion Porter; he was profoundly grateful to them for his survival. That gratitude was expressed not with pounds but ‘Poesie’: he advises Cademan to concentrate on wealthy patients rather than:
such as pay like mee
A Verse, then thinke they give Eternity.
(‘To Doctor Cademan’)
Davenant was nearly always short of money, and it must be a tribute to his talent and charm, and the generosity of his friends, that he achieved so much.

Davenant probably left London in summer 1632 to recuperate after his illness, succinctly describing the capital as a place of ‘smoke, diseases, law and noise’ (The Wits, I.ii). But in The Wits there is much too about the horrors of country life, recalling the recent reluctant exile of the young London playwright. This, his fifth play, written at the age of twenty-seven, was his first comedy, and marks a significant advance: it is assured, lively, and set in an authentic seventeenth-century London. The theme is not courtly love, but people living on their wits in the big city; it owes much to the example of Ben Jonson.

The playwright soon became a servant of the queen, and most of his future work was for the court. The next two plays, Love and Honour (1634) and The Platonic Lovers (1635), were prompted by the queen's liking for romantic comedy and interest in Neoplatonism. It is clear that in the second half of the 1630s he became a valued member of Henrietta Maria's circle.

The brilliantly gifted Inigo Jones, surveyor of the king's works and principal creator of court masques, had collaborated with several writers from 1605, beginning with Ben Jonson and including Davenant's friend Thomas Carew. The Jones–Carew Coelum Britannicum (1634) has been described as the best of all Caroline masques, the two men combining to give full expression to Stuart autocratic ideals. The queen invited her servant William Davenant to write the words spoken or sung for the next masque, The Temple of Love (1635). He was as yet unfamiliar with the conventions of the genre, and the entertainment owed its success to Jones's creation of an Asian fantasy for Henrietta Maria and her ladies. The queen wore a feathered Indian costume—one of many which Jones designed for masques—and was seen banishing Lust, in the persons of three Asian magicians, from the realm. The Temple of Love was the last masque performed in Jones's great Banqueting House in Whitehall; it was then closed to allow the installation of Rubens's paintings in the ceiling, which remain in place. The last three Jones–Davenant masques, in 1638 and 1640, were staged in a temporary ‘masking room’ which King Charles had instructed his surveyor to build in a courtyard behind the hall. Smoke from the huge numbers of candles required to light performances would have endangered the paintings. Though his name does not appear on the title page, Davenant is also generally supposed to be the author of a Middle Temple masque, Triumph of the Prince d'Amour (1636), for which the letter of dedication is signed W. D..

In late summer 1637 William Davenant visited the west of England with Sir John Suckling and Jack Young: ‘Twas as pleasant a journey as ever men had; in the height of a long peace and luxury, and in the venison season’. The trip included a week's stay with Davenant's brother, Parson Robert of West Kington near Chippenham in Wiltshire—‘mirth, witt and good cheer flowing’ says Wood in his brief life of Suckling. This belies Wood's statement that John Davenant and his eldest son were ‘of a melancholic disposition and … seldom or never seen to laugh’ (Wood, Ath. Oxon., 3rd edn, 3.802–9).

Davenant's first masque for the king, staged in February 1638 in the new hall, was entitled Britannia triumphans, title and theme bearing no relation to political realities. King Charles appeared as Britanocles, ‘glory of the western world’, whose hated ship money tax had allegedly cleared the seas of piracy. One painted scene showed a formidable British fleet sailing into harbour: only at sea was the navy's real weakness apparent. The queen's masque following her husband's, as usual, was put on three or four times in February, and was entitled Luminalia, or, The Festival of Light, an idea derived from a Florentine entertainment. Inigo Jones devised a haunting night-scene giving way to dawn, symbolizing the triumph of light over darkness—the triumph of monarchical rule. Songs, with words by Davenant, praised Henrietta Maria's benevolent effects upon the nation as ‘queen of brightness’, with much use of platonic imagery.

Also in 1638 Davenant published a collection of poems with the overall title Madagascar. The first and longest poem was addressed to Prince Rupert, and related to a tentative plan—never carried out—for him to lead an expedition to colonize the island. More than forty shorter poems were included, many reflecting Davenant's court connections and friendships, and he dedicated the volume to his beloved Endymion Porter and Henry Jermyn. His standing as a poet was confirmed in the same year, when he was recognized as the unofficial laureate, succeeding Jonson who had died in 1637.

Court masques required a great deal of preparation, and rehearsals for the last Caroline masque—generally regarded as among the best, and Davenant now writing with more assurance—were in full swing by the beginning of December 1639. Its title (Salmacida spolia) meant the trophies of the king's peace: the earlier triumphalist tone had been abandoned, and King Charles—Philogenes, ‘lover of his people’—although still claiming victory over his opponents, was now a saddened and patient monarch enduring adverse times. The masque, spectacular as ever, was staged on 21 January 1640 and on three days in February. For the only time, the king and queen took part together. It was a final desperate appeal to the court for understanding and support, but put on far too late to influence events. The continuing opposition of parliament to the king's policies led to the outbreak of war in August 1642.

War, exile, and imprisonment

During the civil war the king campaigned in England while the queen, often on the continent, worked hard to raise money, arms, and munitions, with Davenant helping her from time to time. He did much to keep the royal couple in touch, and served for some months, with apparent competence, as lieutenant-general of the ordnance. In 1643 at Gloucester the king knighted him for his ‘loyalty and poetry’. When the royalist armies had been defeated, Davenant joined the exiled court at St Germain-en-Laye near Paris, later becoming a guest of Lord Jermyn at the Louvre. The compulsive writer, cut off from his country and with theatres closed, was forced to become ‘an Author’, as distinct from poet and playwright. He wrote two books of a long rambling work called Gondibert, which he described as a new kind of heroic poem, based on earlier writers, but modelled on a five-act tragedy without dramatic action. He sent his long preface, and then the first two books of the poem, to his friend Thomas Hobbes, who was also living in Paris at the time; Hobbes replied with some qualified praise, and commended Davenant's choice of verse form. Davenant incautiously published the preface on its own in Paris, prompting predictable scoffing by exiled courtiers: ‘A Preface to no Book, a Porch to no house: Here is the Mountain, but where is the Mouse?’ John Dryden, who succeeded Davenant as laureate at his death, described the poem as ‘rather a play in narrative … than an heroic poem’. Later readers have generally found it extremely dull. The first two books were published in London in 1651, but Davenant abandoned the project after the third book, which was published posthumously in 1685.

King Charles had been executed in Whitehall in January 1649. In January 1650 there were plans, probably initiated by the widowed queen, for Davenant to take up an appointment in Virginia or Maryland. In May he sailed from Jersey, but he was intercepted by a parliamentary frigate, and imprisoned in Cowes Castle on the Isle of Wight, on orders from the new council of state in London, ‘having been an active enemy of the commonwealth’. Soon he was moved to the Tower of London, and there was talk of a treason trial with a possible death penalty. But there was probably no real intention to take drastic action against ‘Davenant the poet’, as he was usually then called, although he was not released, on bail, until October 1652. He seems to have been a victim of bureaucracy and muddle.

Within the month he married Anne Cademan, the widow of the doctor who had cured his illness, and she provided money from the estate of a first husband (Davenant was her third), but also four stepsons. In 1653 Davenant published A Proposition for Advancement of Moralitie, by a New Way of Entertainment of the People, arguing for ‘the establishment of a moral academy where, under strict government surveillance, theatrical productions combining music, scenery and discourse would be performed for the purpose of teaching civic virtue directly to the lower classes’ (Jacob and Raylor, 205). The work indicates that Davenant was involved in discussions among royalists and republicans alike on the origins and maintenance of order in society, but it failed to win him friends immediately in the protectorate government. Soon the poet was arrested again, for debt; early in 1654 he appealed for fair treatment, and was finally pardoned and released on 4 August. His second wife died in March 1655. In August he secured a pass to visit France, and returned with a third and last wife, Henrietta Maria du Tremblay (d. 1691), of ‘an ancient family’ in Anjou. They had nine sons, including , government official and political economist, and the translator . His wife was a capable business partner during his years as a theatre manager, a role she continued after his death.

The opera

Sir William Davenant was a man of great resilience and enterprise, and after his release from the Tower he pursued a cautious plan, adapted from his scheme of 1653, aimed at promoting operatic drama, as a first step towards restoring drama proper. By May 1656 he was ready to offer an ‘entertainment’, with ‘declamations’ and music, to run for ten days; he put this on at the back of Rutland House in Aldersgate Street near the Charterhouse and the present Barbican Centre, where he was living at the time. A prologue apologized for the ‘narrow room’, and those present were invited to regard it as a way ‘to our Elyzian field, the Opera’—the first appearance of the crucial word. The figures of Aristophanes and Diogenes the Cynic declaimed for and against the value of public entertainments by ‘moral representations’; then, after a song, a Parisian and a Londoner debated the merits of their respective capital cities. The debates were interspersed with appropriate instrumental music. The entertainment (titled The First Days Entertainment at Rutland-House) was quite unlike a stage play, with seated declaimers, and no dialogue, elaborate costumes, or props. An anonymous observer reported that at the end there were ‘songs relating to the Victor [Oliver Cromwell]’ (TNA: PRO, SP 18/128/108). No official criticism resulted, and in the autumn Davenant put on and published The Siege of Rhodes, part 1, which is generally regarded as the first English opera (Pepys, 2.130 and n. 2). Again he avoided all theatre terms: the show is described on the title-page as a ‘Representation by the Art of Prospective [sic] in Scenes, And the Story sung in Recitative Musick’: but this time there was also a ‘small narrative’ delivered by ‘seven persons’. Davenant prudently sent an advance copy to Bulstrode Whitelocke, lord commissioner of the treasury, whom he had known in their youth, and soon followed this up with a memorandum to Cromwell's secretary of state, John Thurloe, arguing the value of ‘entertainments’ to divert people's minds from ‘melancholy that breeds sedition’.

Davenant was now emboldened to move to a theatre, the Cockpit in Drury Lane (dismantled in 1649, but refitted in 1651). He transferred Rhodes from Rutland House, and put on two more operas, one relating to Cromwell's anti-Spanish policy, entitled The Cruelty of the Spaniards in Peru (1658), the other a history of Sir Francis Drake (1659). Drake was certainly more like a play than an opera, with several characters, and some dialogue, action, and plot. Criticism of Davenant's activities had sharpened after Cromwell's death in September 1658, and Cromwell's son Richard and the council of state ordered him to say by whose authority he was staging opera publicly at Drury Lane. But sentiment in favour of the exiled king was increasing, and on 29 May 1660—his thirtieth birthday—Charles II entered his capital. Soon the poet laureate, whose role had been in abeyance during the Commonwealth, produced a long panegyric on his ‘happy Return to his Dominions’.

Restoration theatre manager

On 9 July 1660 Thomas Killigrew, who was six years younger than William Davenant and personally on good terms with Charles II, secured a warrant to form the King's Company of players. Davenant had long intended to become a theatre manager, and as early as March 1639 (the year before he and Jones staged the last court masque, Salmacida spolia) he had successfully secured from Charles I a warrant to build a playhouse on the north side of Fleet Street, between Fetter and Shoe lanes and behind the Three Kings ordinary (eating house); there he planned to stage ‘Action, musical Presentments, Scenes, Dancing and the like’. But the time was not propitious. Now, twenty-one years later, on 19 July 1660—ten days after Killigrew's warrant—he drafted an updated one for the attorney-general, to grant a monopoly to both Killigrew and himself (TNA: PRO, SP 29/8/1; and plate in Davenant's hand, Edmond, 136). They planned to put on tragedies, comedies, plays, operas, and all other similar entertainments, setting reasonable admission charges to meet ‘the great expences of scenes, musick and new decorations as have not bin formerly used’ (Edmond, 143–4). The draft, somewhat added to, passed the privy signet, the final stage before the great seal, on 21 August 1660.

The two men recruited the best actors available from Drury Lane and the Red Bull in Clerkenwell. Samuel Pepys, a man totally in love with the theatre, had begun keeping his Diary (without which knowledge of stage history at the time would be very much the poorer), on 1 January 1660; it records that from 8 October until 4 November the Cockpit was used by a short-lived troupe called His Majesty's Comedians. The diarist did not fail to go there; on 11 October he saw ‘The Moore of Venice [Othello] … well done’ (Pepys, 1.264). The cast included Thomas Betterton from the former Cockpit group who was presumably playing the title role; he later became Davenant's leading player. On 5 November the two companies were formally established, with Killigrew's under the patronage of the king, and Davenant's under the duke of York; henceforth Davenant's company and theatre would be known as the Duke's. The managers made use of former tennis court buildings: Killigrew's was in Vere Street near Lincoln's Inn Fields, Davenant's at the Salisbury Court, Whitefriars, between Fleet Street and the river. Killigrew opened almost immediately.

Davenant did not open his new playhouse in Lincoln's Inn Fields to the public until 1661. Killigrew was less cautious. He initially retained almost all existing plays (including Davenant's), on the ground that his King's Company was the automatic successor to the pre-war and pre-Commonwealth King's Men. It was not until 12 December 1660 that Davenant was able to secure from the lord chamberlain a somewhat fairer distribution of plays. Those he received included The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, Henry VIII, King Lear, Macbeth, and Hamlet; also John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi and his own works. From then on he had a great deal of rehearsing to do. Pepys went to see Davenant's company for the first time on 29 January 1661, and it may be presumed that this devotee of the theatre went on or near the opening date. The manager was having teething troubles: the performance started late, and Pepys had to exercise ‘great patience’ and endure ‘poor beginnings’. He did eventually, to his ‘great content’ see three acts of The Maid in the Mill by Fletcher and Rowley; on 9 February he saw Fletcher's The Mad Lover for the first time, and liked it ‘pretty well’, and on the 23rd, The Changeling by Middleton and Rowley: ‘the first time it hath been acted these 20 yeeres—and it takes exceedingly’. On 1 March Pepys watched Thomas Betterton's performance in the title role of Philip Massinger's tragi-comedy The Bondman: ‘an excellent play and well done—but above all that ever I saw, Baterton [sic] doth the Bondman the best’ (Pepys, 2.34, 41, 47, and n. 2). Thomas Betterton, then aged twenty-five, is generally considered to have been the greatest actor of the Restoration period, and Pepys, like Davenant, immediately recognized his quality.

The diarist paid his last visit to Davenant's Whitefriars theatre on 6 April 1661. By then the conversion of the new location for the Duke's Theatre at Lincoln's Inn Fields must have been completed, allowing the company to move in and concentrate on final intensive preparations before the opening in June. The important articles of agreement (Edmond, 153–4, 156), which Davenant signed with his ten leading players on 5 November 1660, the date on which the Duke's company was formally constituted, ensured that the manager was in complete control, and closely involved in day-to-day operations. He lodged at his theatre, unlike Killigrew, who lacked his rival's professional experience and delegated most of his functions to his leading players.

The Duke's Theatre

Shakespeare and Davenant were supremely fortunate in their leading men: Shakespeare wrote for the first great English actor, Richard Burbage (1568–1619), Davenant employed and directed the second, Thomas Betterton (1635–1710). Betterton once paid a notable tribute to his former master as a disciplinarian:
When I was a young Player under Sir William Davenant, we were obliged to make our Study our Business, which our young Men do not think it their duty now to do, for they now scarce ever mind a word of their Parts but only at Rehearsals. (Edmond, 156)
—a stricture not unheard in the theatre world of today. After a month or two, said Betterton, young actors imagined themselves masters of an art which required a lifetime of application.

Pepys had first seen women on the stage at Killigrew's theatre, on 3 January 1661, as he noted without comment. Davenant's articles of agreement with his players show that he too had decided to use actresses: but he wisely did not deploy them until he opened at the Duke's Playhouse, where he would have rehearsed them with special care. He had recruited eight, and boarded the four principals, mistresses Davenport, Saunderson, Gibbs, and Norris, in his own part of the building. With them too he was fortunate: Mary Saunderson was the first leading English professional actress.

It is generally agreed, on the strength of Pepys's evidence, that the new theatre opened on Friday 28 June 1661 with Davenant's The Siege of Rhodes, part 1, dating from 1656 but now enlarged: it was repeated on 29 June and 1 July and was followed by the first gala performance of part 2, now in play form, on Tuesday 2 July. This became the standard version. The theatre had a small stage and proscenium arch; the scenery consisted of wings fronting pairs of large painted flats, which could be moved along grooves set in the floor and flies of the stage. Davenant's was the first public playhouse in England to use this system continuously. King Charles, making his first visit to a public theatre, was present on 2 July, with the duke of York. Rhodes had an exceptional run of twelve days (omitting a Sunday), and was greeted with great applause. Pepys considered the scenery ‘very fine and magnificent’, and the play ‘well acted’. Betterton played Solyman the Magnificent, and Mary Saunderson was Ianthe. (In 1665 Pepys spent a winter afternoon setting to music some lines of Solyman beginning ‘Beauty, retire! Thou dost my pity move!’ He was very proud of his composition, and later commissioned John Hayls to paint his portrait holding it (NPG).) Next Davenant put on a successful revival of his own early play The Wits—with scenes, of course, for the first time, which Pepys considered ‘admirable’. The king and the duke and duchess of York were at the first performance on 15 August.

As the cast were familiar with Rhodes and The Wits, the manager had been able to devote most of the morning rehearsal-times, during the first hectic weeks at his new theatre, to preparing his first ambitious production, his adaptation of Hamlet. The play returned to the London stage on the afternoon of Saturday 24 August.

Davenant and Shakespeare

Sir William's father, the devotee of Shakespeare, had probably left London just before the first performance of Hamlet at the Globe on Bankside; he would certainly have seen it at Oxford by 1603 (title-page, first quarto). Later on he no doubt told his young son about the production: thus William Davenant, the man mainly responsible for the return of Shakespeare's plays to the London stage at the Restoration, would have had the unique advantage of hearing a firsthand account of how Richard Burbage played the prince. By 1661 Shakespeare had been dead for nearly half a century; his language would have seemed old-fashioned, his plots were unfamiliar, and tastes had changed. Davenant's version of Hamlet (printed 1676) was severely cut—largely of course because of its length—and some of its diction altered in the supposed interest of clarity and intelligibility. However, the power of the play prevailed. Pepys, who was at the first performance, wrote that it was ‘done with Scenes very well. But above all, Batterton [sic] did the Prince's part beyond imagination’ (Pepys, 2.161). Mary Saunderson, then aged about twenty-five, played Ophelia, her first Shakespearian role in a career which, to quote Colley Cibber, ‘was to the last, the Admiration of all true Judges of Nature and Lovers of Shakespeare’ (Edmond, 167). John Downes reports in his Roscius Anglicanus that ‘No succeeding Tragedy for several Yeares got more Reputation, or Money to the Company’.

In October 1661, between a few more presumed showings of Hamlet in the summer and following winter, the manager revived his Love and Honour of 1634, no doubt having in mind those who did not care for tragedy but loved ‘spectacle’. Downes reports that the production was ‘Richly Cloath'd’: Betterton and two other leading players were allowed to wear the coronation suits of King Charles, the duke of York, and the earl of Oxford respectively—a not uncommon practice. The quality of Davenant's productions demonstrates how much he had benefited from working with Inigo Jones on the court masques of the 1630s.

Thomas Killigrew must have been alarmed at his rival's continuing success: he had never used moveable scenery at Vere Street, and badly needed a larger and better-equipped playhouse to compete. On 20 December 1661 he secured a plot of ground between Drury Lane and Bridges (now Catherine) Street: on this was built the first of the Theatre Royals that have stood to the present day. Work continued throughout 1662—a year in which, on 30 September, Davenant revived one of the great plays of the past, John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi. Mary Saunderson played the title role, and Betterton was Bosola: it became one of the most popular tragedies in the company's repertoire (Pepys, 3.209 and n. 1). On the following Christmas eve, Betterton and Mary Saunderson found time to marry before the afternoon performance—making the company even more popular.

Thomas Killigrew finally opened at the Theatre Royal ‘with scenes’ on 7 May 1663, the cost having risen from an estimated £1500 to £2400. To counter any opposition, Davenant spared no expense on a production in December of Shakespeare's Henry VIII, a play in which the element of pageant has always been exploited. The Bettertons played the king and his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, the cast were all ‘new cloath'd in proper Habits’, and the play ran for fifteen days (Pepys, 4.411 and n. 5).

The date of Davenant's production of Macbeth is debatable, but it seems probable that it was launched in 1664. His version would have included music, and marked a further step towards the development of English opera. It would have been a variation on the theme of Shakespeare's play: it was not until 1744 that David Garrick staged it purportedly ‘as written by Shakespeare’. Davenant once tried to stage King Lear, no doubt with Betterton in the title role, but it evidently did not ‘take’ until put on at the Dorset Garden Theatre (the company's new playhouse) built shortly after Davenant's sudden death: it was then given a happy ending by Nahum Tate. Davenant's last brief engagement with Shakespeare was in 1667, when The Tempest as altered by him and John Dryden was made into an opera.

Last years

Between 1664 and 1668 Davenant launched several new plays and playwrights. In the spring of 1664 he staged with success The Comical Revenge, or, Love in a Tub, by George Etherege, a lively prose piece with a realistic underplot, which ‘got the Company more Reputation and Profit than any preceding Comedy, and took a thousand pounds in a month’ (Edmond, 187). On 6 February 1668 the king was present at another new play by the same author, She Would if she Could, and there was a command performance at court on his birthday, 29 May. On 13 August 1664 Davenant staged a play by another new author, Roger Boyle, earl of Orrery: this was a rhymed tragedy, Henry V, which had one of his leading players, Henry Harris, in the title role. Again, the three principals wore royal coronation suits. The earl, of a prominent Anglo-Irish family, was the elder brother of Robert Boyle the scientist. In April 1665 Davenant put on a second play by Orrery, Mustapha, the Son of Solyman the Magnificent—clearly a follow-up to his own Siege of Rhodes. A play called The Villain, by Tom, son of Davenant's old friend Endymion Porter, had unexpectedly attracted full houses for ten days in 1662, and had at least one command performance at court in 1667.

In June 1665 a severe bout of plague erupted in the capital; all theatres were closed, and they did not reopen until November 1666. Now began Davenant's short-lived collaboration with Dryden, and in August 1667 he staged Dryden's comedy Sir Martin Mar-All. Pepys was unable to get into the first performance, but saw it eight times in whole or in part, in a matter of months: ‘It is the most entire piece of Mirth, a complete Farce from one end to the other … I never laughed so in all my life.’ In October the Duke's Theatre was so full that the Pepyses had to go to the Theatre Royal: there the diarist heard Nell Gwyn cursing because there were so few people in the pit—the other house was ‘said nowadays to have generally most company, as being better players’ (Pepys, 8.463–4). This is one of seven references in the Diary, from 1663 to 1667, to the superiority of Davenant's players, both men and women, over Killigrew's.

In the first months of 1668 Davenant was as active as ever. On 26 March the king was at his playhouse to see the manager's new play, The Man's the Master, based on a French work. There are some shrewd digs at ‘Town-Gallants’ who put ‘Half-Crowns of Brass’ into the box instead of ‘true Coyne’, or pretend ‘but to speak to a friend’ and get in for nothing. On 7 April Pepys was at the Theatre Royal for a play by James Howard, and went down afterwards to call on his favourite actress, Mrs Knepp, in her dressing room; while they were chatting, news came that ‘Sir W Davenant is just now dead’ (Pepys, 9.155–6). He had died at his home in the Duke's Playhouse, Lincoln's Inn Fields.

The funeral took place two days later. Pepys went to the Duke's Playhouse to see the cortège leave for Westminster Abbey: ‘many coaches, and six horses and many hackneys, that made it look, methought, as if it were the burial of a poor poett’ (Pepys, 9.158–9). John Aubrey, at the west door of the abbey, heard the choir sing ‘the Service of the Church (I am the Resurrection &c)’, and accompanied the coffin to what is now called Poets' Corner. Both observers remarked upon the many young boys, Davenant's sons, in the first mourning coach. Aubrey noted that the marble paving stone above the grave bore the words ‘O rare Sr Will: Davenant’, echoing the nearby inscription to Ben Jonson, whom Davenant had succeeded as unofficial laureate.

In a long career through great social change, William Davenant kept abreast of and sometimes advanced the tastes of the day: in the 1630s he wrote city comedies in the Jonsonian manner, and tragicomedies of statecraft, love, and intrigue; in the circle of Henrietta Maria he provided entertainments to meet the vogue for Neoplatonism, and wrote poetry in the stylish cavalier manner, honouring the conduct and taste of Caroline courtiers. With Inigo Jones he put on the final court masques, vainly attempting to promote Charles I as a benevolent autocrat, seeking the support of the ruling élite against a surge of discontent. In exile Davenant attempted to create a new style of heroic poetry, Christian, stoical, and high-minded. He returned to London in the dying days of the Commonwealth and surreptitiously introduced a form of English opera while playhouses were still banned: on the restoration of Charles II he opened a modern theatre with scenery, built up a distinguished company of players of both sexes, revived old plays and promoted writers of new ones, and exercised a virtual stage monopoly until his sudden death. His leading players, Betterton and Harris, carried on as directors without a break, until the opening three years later of their new playhouse, then the finest in the capital (Edmond, 204–6).

Mary Edmond


M. Edmond, Rare Sir William Davenant (1987) · DNB · Pepys, Diary · Sir William Davenant: the shorter poems and songs from the plays and masques, ed. A. M. Gibbs (1972) · J. Orrell, The theatres of Inigo Jones and John Webb (1985) · S. Orgel and R. Strong, Inigo Jones: the theatre of the Stuart court, 2 vols. (1973) · W. A. Pantin and E. C. Rouse, ‘The Golden Cross, Oxford’, Oxoniensia, 20 (1955), 46–89 · LCC survey of London, 35 (1970) [on Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and Royal Opera House, Covent Garden] · J. Downes, Roscius Anglicanus, ed. M. Summers [new edn] (1928) · A. H. Nethercot, Sir William D'Avenant: poet laureate and playwright-manager (1938) · Sir William Davenant: dramatic works, ed. J. Maidment and W. H. Logan, 5 vols. (1872–4) · Wood, Ath. Oxon., new edn, 3.802–9 · Bodl. Oxf., MS Aubrey 6, fols. 46–47v · C. Gildon, The life of Mr Thomas Betterton (1710) · Essex RO · testamentary records, marriage licences, etc., Oxon. RO · testamentary records, marriage licences etc., Victoria Library, London · TNA: PRO · testamentary records, marriage licences etc., Family Records Centre, Myddelton Street, London EC1 · testamentary records, marriage licences etc., LMA · testamentary records, marriage licences, etc., GL · leasebooks, New College, Oxford · draft council minutes, 1615–34, Oxon. RO · GL, Merchants Taylors' Company MSS · exchequer records, TNA: PRO, E351 series · will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/61/39 [William Sheppard] · private information (2008) [A. Nelson] · R. J. Jacob and T. Raylor, ‘Opera and obedience: Thomas Hobbes and A proposition for advancement of mortalitie by Sir William Davenant’, Seventeenth Century, 6 (1991), 205–50


W. Faithorne the elder, line engraving (after J. Greenhill), Bodl. Oxf., NPG; repro. in The works of Sir William Davenant (1673) [see illus.]