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Congreve, Williamlocked

  • C. Y. Ferdinand
  •  and D. F. McKenzie

William Congreve (1670–1729)

by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1709

Congreve, William (1670–1729), playwright and poet, was born on either 24 or 31 January 1670 in Bardsey Grange, Yorkshire, the son of William Congreve (1637–1708) and his wife, Mary (1636?–1715), daughter of Mary, née Bright, and Walter Browning (d. 1636). Congreve's mother was the great-granddaughter of Dr Timothy Bright (1549/50–1615), author of A Treatise of Melancholie (1586) and Characterie: an Arte of Shorte, Swifte, and Secret Writing by Character (1586). She grew up in the household of her mother's second husband, Dr George Roe (d. 1651), of Doncaster, within easy distance of her cousins the Lewises of Ledstone Park, near Marr. It was to one of these, John Lewis (d. 1671), a successful merchant knighted by Charles II and created a baronet after the Restoration, that the Congreves owed their tenancy of Bardsey Grange. William Congreve senior was the second son of Richard Congreve (1609–1689) of Stretton Hall, Staffordshire, and Anne, née Fitzherbert, of Norbury, Derbyshire. Congreve was described as 'the only surviving son' in information supplied to Giles Jacob's Poetical Register in 1719 (p. 41), and there is evidence of only one sister.

Early years and education

The Congreve family was in London by 22 September 1672 when William's sister Elizabeth was buried at St Paul's, Covent Garden. The following year Congreve's father secured a passport to the Low Countries to purchase coach horses for the duke of York. In 1674 he was granted a commission as lieutenant in the army in Ireland and moved with his family to join the garrison at the seaport of Youghal. This was the home of Richard Boyle, second earl of Cork and first earl of Burlington. Congreve's father was to manage part of the earl's estates at Youghal and Lismore Castle from about 1690, after he was discharged from a commission as captain in the earl of Danby's volunteer regiment. Congreve later dedicated his first play, The Old Batchelor, to Charles, the second earl of Burlington and third earl of Cork, acknowledging 'the particular Ties, by which I am bound to your Lordship and Family'.

William senior was transferred in 1678 to Carrickfergus, where he joined his uncle Christopher Congreve (1622–1706). Both men were with companies quartered at Kilkenny by late 1681. Since children of those in service to the duke of Ormond, lord lieutenant of Ireland, were entitled to the free privileges and benefits of Kilkenny College, Congreve, then almost twelve, may have entered there at once. His portrait, signed ‘W. D. Claret’ (but possibly by Wolfgang William Claret) and painted about this time, shows a twelve-year-old of slight figure but determined chin, with blue eyes and curly brown hair. Dr Henry Rider, a graduate of Trinity College and later bishop of Killaloe, was then headmaster, in charge of about sixty students, who briefly included Jonathan Swift while Congreve was there (Swift left in April 1682). Congreve began his long and close friendship with Joseph Keally at Kilkenny College, when Keally joined the school in 1685. Dr Edward Hinton, the Greek scholar who succeeded Rider as headmaster in 1684, must have been instrumental in developing Congreve's considerable competence in Greek.

Congreve matriculated at Trinity College, Dublin, on 5 April 1686 'annos natus Sexdecim' ('aged sixteen'; TCD, Catalogus omnium studentium). His tutor there, and Swift's, was the learned St George Ashe, mathematician, member of the Royal Society, later bishop of Cloyne, of Clogher, and of Derry. The presence in Congreve's library of such volumes as the 1684 editions of John Dryden's Essay of Dramatick Poesy and François Hédelin's The Whole Art of the Stage suggests that his interest in writing for the stage might have been an early one. The flourishing theatre in Dublin at the time probably contributed as well. Congreve's career at Trinity College was evidently cut short with the exodus of protestants from Ireland—his name is deleted from the college buttery book in January 1687 and does not appear thereafter, although in 1696 Trinity College conferred the degree of MA on Congreve. He may have left with his parents for England and Stretton Hall in Staffordshire in March 1689.

Early writings, 1689–1691

Congreve probably wrote Incognita, 'an Essay', he says, 'began and finished in the idler hours of a fortnight's time' (Dedication), during this stay in Staffordshire, and it was there he met Katherine Leveson, to whom he dedicated the book. A little later, in a 'slow Recovery from a Fit of Sickness' and still 'very much a Boy', he wrote a draft of his first play, The Old Batchelor (Congreve, Amendments, 39). At some time before 21 March 1691, when he was admitted to the Middle Temple to study law, Congreve moved to London, lodging first in nearby Crane Court in the home of William Brookes. He was evidently able to put his knowledge of the law to good use later, but, like those of Sir George Etherege, William Wycherley, and Thomas Shadwell before him, his inclinations were decidedly towards theatre and poetry, and he was never called to the bar.

In February 1692 Congreve made a muted entrance into the London literary world with the publication of Incognita under the pseudonym Cleophil. The more public declaration of his arrival as a talented new writer appeared in the first week of June 1692 in Charles Gildon's Miscellany: he contributed imitations of two Horatian odes, two other poems, 'The Message' and 'The Decay: a Song', signed with his initials, and the irregular ode to Arabella Hunt 'Upon a Lady's Singing' signed ‘Mr. Congreve’. Were it not for Leonora's song in Incognita ('Ah! Whither, whither shall I fly', which was set to music by John Eccles) this would be the earliest evidence of Congreve's love of music and of his capacity for the most minute attention to it. He also assisted Dryden in his edition of the satires of Juvenal and Persius, supplying a translation of Juvenal's eleventh satire, published in 1693 but probably completed by early 1692, and he paid a classically informed compliment to Dryden in his 'Poem to Mr. Dryden on his Translation of Persius'.

Writings, 1692–1699

It was in this context that Congreve was taken up as a promising young dramatist. Two of his cousins, who had served with Thomas Southerne in Princess Anne's regiment of foot, had introduced Congreve to the older dramatist, and it is likely that Southerne in turn made Congreve acquainted with Dryden. Congreve completed a draft of The Old Batchelor at some time before August 1692. Southerne's recollection was that when Dryden read it, he

sayd he never saw such a first play in his life, but the Author not being acquainted with the Stage or the town, it woud be pity to have it miscarry for want of a little Assistance: the stuff was rich indeed, it only wanted the fashionable cutt of the town.

BL, Add. MS 4221, fol. 341

Later in August Congreve went off to Ilam in Derbyshire to revise the play in light of suggestions made by these more experienced friends. Congreve describes the setting there in a letter to his friend Edward Porter on 21 August 1692:

I have a little tried, what solitude and retirement can afford, which are here in perfection. I am now writing to you from before a black mountain nodding over me and a whole river in cascade falling so near me that even I can distinctly see it.

Hodges, Letters

Kneller painted such a background into his much copied kit-cat portrait of Congreve in 1709.

Samuel Foote recorded that when Congreve eventually brought his finished comedy to the players

he read it so wretchedly ill, that they were on the point of rejecting it, till one of them good naturedly took it out of his hands and read it; when they were so fully persuaded of its excellence, that for half a year before it was acted he had the privilege of the house.

Table-Talk, 133

The Old Batchelor opened on 9 March 1693 at the Drury Lane Theatre for an exceptionally long run. The play was acted with a good cast that included Thomas Betterton and Thomas Doggett, as well as Elizabeth Barry, Elizabeth Bowman, Anne Bracegirdle, and Susanna Mountfort who, 'when they appeared together, in the last scene of the Old Batchelor, the audience was struck with so fine a groupe of beauty, and broke out into loud applauses' (Davies, 3.391). Congreve had recently provided a song for Southerne's The Maid's Last Prayer, 'Tell me no more I am deceiv'd', which Henry Purcell had set to music; it was Purcell's music that accompanied the songs in The Old Batchelor. The play's immediate success was described by the earl of Burlington to Congreve's father:

Your sons Play was Acted on Thursday last & was by all the hearers applauded to bee the best that has been Acted for many yeares. Monday is to bee his day which will bring him in a better sume of money than the writters of late have had, for the house will bee so full that very many persons of Quality cannot have a Seate all the places having been bespoken many days since.

Complete Works, 4

The crowds that had come to see and hear the play were of course eager to read it, and the first edition was reprinted twice by the end of the month: 'indeed the Wit which is diffus'd through it, makes it lose but few of those Charms in the Perusal, which yield such Pleasure in the Representation' (London Gazette, 23–7 March 1693).

There are no obvious single sources for The Old Batchelor, nor for any of Congreve's other plays. Nevertheless there is evidence of Congreve's wide reading in echoes of texts ranging from Plato, Epictetus, and Aesop, down to Cervantes and Scarron, and clearly he had read and heard Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Francis Beaumont, and John Fletcher, and his fellow dramatists Dryden, Etherege, and Wycherley. This range and originality are also evident in Congreve's other writings.

Towards the end of March 1693, Dryden's Examen poeticum was advertised as then being prepared for the press. The poem on Arabella Hunt is reprinted in it, together with the two imitations of Horace from the 1692 Miscellany. To those Congreve added a further ‘paraphrase’ of Horace. He also included extended translations from the last book of the Iliad, including Priam's lamentation as well as the lamentations of Hecuba, Andromache, and Helen. In his dedication to the volume, Dryden drew attention to Congreve's work: 'I am sure my Friend has added to the Tenderness which he found in the Original; and, without Flattery, surpass'd his Author.' Certainly by this time, with his prose narrative, his comedy, his verse, and his verse translations, Congreve was judged by many to be Dryden's rightful literary successor, although he lacked the political connections to be named poet laureate. Dryden expressed his own regret in verse:

Oh that your Brows my Lawrel had sustain'd,Well had I been Depos'd, if You had reign'd!The Father had descended for the Son;For only You are lineal to the Throne.

To my dear friend Mr. Congreve, ll. 41–4

Production of this first play was soon followed by The Double Dealer, which Congreve may have begun drafting even as The Old Batchelor went into performance. Again, Dryden and other friends must have read or heard the play before it was performed. He mentioned to William Walsh on 12 December 1693 that he had written 'To my dear friend Mr. Congreve, on his comedy, call'd, the Double-Dealer' before the play had been acted (Letters of John Dryden, 62). It is unclear exactly when The Double Dealer was first performed—it was possibly in November 1693—but it had much the same cast as The Old Batchelor. Dryden goes on in his letter to Walsh to describe how the play was

censured by the greater part of the Town: and is defended onely by the best Judges, who … are commonly the fewest. … The women thinke he has exposed their Bitchery too much; & the Gentlemen are offended with him; for the discovery of their follyes.

After the enthusiasm that had greeted his first play, the poor reception of The Double Dealer was particularly disappointing for the young dramatist, who had carefully constructed his play to remain true to 'the three Unities of the Drama' (Dedication), with a plot tailored to fit his moral. Although Congreve must have been encouraged by a royal command performance for Queen Mary in the following January, his unhappiness with his general audience was all too clear in the dedication (to his patron Charles Montagu, later first earl of Halifax) published with the first edition of the play in 1694. Congreve removed this uncharacteristically intemperate attack on his 'Illiterate Criticks' from subsequent editions.

For some time a dispute had been developing between the actors and the patentees of the Drury Lane Theatre. The loss in 1692 of three of the most popular actors—William Mountfort (murdered), Anthony Leigh (died), and James Nokes (retired)—and a subsequent drop in audience numbers did not help matters. The company's debts were increasing with the expensive productions given to Purcell's operas, and then in 1693 a realignment led to a whole new managerial approach, unwelcome to the senior actors. The result was that most of the more experienced actors revolted, led by Thomas Betterton. Early in 1695 Betterton, Bracegirdle, Barry, and others secured a licence from the lord chamberlain to reopen the Lincoln's Inn Theatre in the tennis-courts there. The composer John Eccles, already associated with Congreve, became master of the music. Congreve had written Love for Love by the end of 1694, and it had been read and accepted for production at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. Nevertheless Congreve delayed signing a contract until the outcome of the dispute was clear, and so was able to transfer his play to the new company. Even though a couple of the actors Congreve might well have cast remained with the Drury Lane Company, Love for Love brilliantly opened the Lincoln's Inn Theatre on 30 April 1695: 'Extraordinary well Acted, chiefly the Part of Ben the Sailor [by Thomas Doggett], it took 13 Days Successively' (Downes, 44).

The play was dedicated to the earl of Dorset, who, as lord chamberlain, had helped secure the patent for Betterton's company. According to Colley Cibber the success of Love for Love brought Congreve not only the usual profits from the play itself, but the offer of a full share in the new playhouse (Cibber, 161). The run of recorded performances at both theatres testified to the continued popularity of Love for Love through the eighteenth century, matched only by that of The Old Batchelor, and it has continued to be the most often produced of Congreve's works. On stage, it is his most wholly successful play, dramatic in the pace and shape of its action, with wit and varied comic turns.

When the critic John Dennis sent some notes on Ben Jonson's comedies for his comments, Congreve replied with a letter dated 10 July 1695. The timing of his remarks makes them particularly pertinent to the characters in Love for Love, which had opened only a few months before. His letter was first published as an essay 'Concerning humour in comedy' in Dennis's Letters upon Several Occasions (1696). Here Congreve extends the meaning of humour beyond mere affectation to include a bias of the mind and complexity of character, giving humour an edge that the superficially ‘humorous’ representation of vanities and fopperies might otherwise lack. The letter explains his compassion in exculpating those whose physical condition was none of their own fault, his amused and tolerant exposure of others' affectations and follies, and his severity in judging those whose vicious conduct was deeply prejudicial to the social harmony secured by true wit and exemplified in the resolution of comedy.

Almost as soon as the new theatre had been opened and Love for Love performed, Congreve was seriously at work on his first tragedy, The Mourning Bride, his major poetic work of the 1690s. It opens memorably to Godfrey Finger's 'soft Musick' and the line: 'Musick has charms to sooth a savage Breast'. Act iii concludes just as memorably with Zara's speech:

Heav'n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn'd,Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorn'd.

The Mourning Bride was first performed at the Lincoln's Inn Theatre, probably on 27 February 1697, and was an instant success. Hopkins records the audience melting 'with Pity at the moving Strains' (Hopkins, Epistle … to Mr. Yalden); Samuel Wesley wrote of Congreve's ability to move his audience (S. Wesley, Epistle to a Friend Concerning Poetry, 1700, 19); Charles Gildon confirms that 'This Play had the greatest Success, not only of all Mr. Congreve's, but indeed of all the Plays that ever I can remember on the English stage, excepting none of the incomparable Otway's' (Gildon). Written in irregular blank verse, following Dryden in his tragedies Don Sebastian (1689) and Cleomenes (1692), The Mourning Bride was so popular that it gave rise to two authorized and two pirated editions in 1697, and a third edition in 1703. Congreve continued to work on the verse, revising the metre and making extensive cuts for the 1703 edition. The play remained a favourite through the eighteenth century: the role of Zara was a speciality of the tragic actress Sarah Siddons in the 1780s and 1790s. Smollett adapted parts of Act iii for his graveyard scenes in Ferdinand Count Fathom, and Jefim Schirmann claims the tragedy is the first work of English literature to be translated into Hebrew.

The pamphleteer Jeremy Collier was addressing serious abuses in late seventeenth-century theatre when he wrote his Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage (1698). He was not alone in recognizing what Congreve himself called the 'licentious Practice of the Modern Theatre' (Dedication, The Mourning Bride). But Collier heavy-handedly drove his argument well beyond reform of the theatre to its destruction, attacking in particular Dryden, Congreve, and John Vanbrugh. Congreve followed several others—John Dennis (The Usefulness of the Stage) and Vanbrugh (A Short Vindication of ‘The Relapse’ and ‘The Provok'd Wife’) among them—in his reply. His Amendments of Mr. Collier's False and Imperfect Citations, published on 12 July 1698, set down basic principles, and easily refuted Collier's more foolish accusations, but Congreve was not at his best as a controversialist and, overall, his was not the most effective response to Collier.

Congreve's more considered reply was perhaps The Way of the World, a play that has sustained the highest literary reputation of all his work for its sheer verbal wit, its complex design, and its half-dozen brilliantly written and actable scenes. In his dedication of the first edition to Ralph Montagu, earl of Montagu, Congreve pays tribute to the quality of Montagu's company and the ambience of Boughton House, where he had spent the summer of 1699, and suggests that he wrote the play 'immediately after'. It is more likely—given the care and time he usually spent over his work and noting the comment by the historian John Oldmixon in the spring of 1699 that Congreve was 'giving the World a new Comedy' (J. Oldmixon, Reflections on the Stage, 1699, 173)—that he began writing The Way of the World soon after finishing his own Amendments of Mr. Collier's False and Imperfect Citations in 1698, and worked on it for at least eighteen months after that. Despite its modern acclaim, The Way of the World had a mixed reception after its first performance on 5 March 1700. Congreve himself wrote 'that it succeeded on the Stage, was almost beyond my Expectation; for but little of it was prepar'd for that general Taste which seems now to be predominant in the Pallats of our Audience' (Dedication). But in Dryden's view 'Congreves New Play has had but moderate success; though it deserves much better' (Dryden to Mrs Steward, 12 March 1700). The Way of the World was Congreve's last major comedy, although he, Vanbrugh, and the poet William Walsh collaborated to translate one act each of a comedy based on Molière. The result was Squire Trelooby, which was performed at the Lincoln's Inn Theatre in 1704, but never published.

Music and theatre, 1700–1710

It would be wrong to imagine that Congreve left the stage then for a life of sinecured leisure after Jeremy Collier's envenomed attack on him and the alleged failure of The Way of the World in 1700. Instead he was already moving on to develop his long interest in writing words for music by devoting himself to the musical stage. A significant prelude to this activity was his role in providing the libretto to The Judgment of Paris for the music prize contested in March–June 1701 by John Eccles, Godfrey Finger, Daniel Purcell, and the relatively unknown John Weldon, who was awarded the prize much to everyone's surprise. (A re-enacted competition in the Royal Albert Hall on 13 August 1989 justly gave the first prize to Eccles.) Congreve wrote to his friend Keally on 26 March 1701 describing in detail the first performance in the old Dorset Garden Theatre, with Eccles's music, more than eighty-five performers, and the stage 'all built into a concave with deal boards; all which was to increase and throw forward the sound'. On this occasion the principals were Anne Bracegirdle playing Venus ('performed to a miracle' said Congreve (Hodges, Letters, 20–21)), Mary Hodgson as Juno, and Elizabeth Bowman as Pallas. Hodgson was the only professional singer of the three, perhaps an indication of the importance Congreve, like Dryden before him, accorded to actors as singers. In tribute to its eminently settable nature—the fruits of his ten-year apprenticeship in the art of writing for music—Congreve's libretto has proved a continuing attraction to other composers, including Johann Wolfgang Franck, Giuseppe Sammartini, and Thomas Arne.

The depth of Congreve's commitment to the theatre after 1700 is perhaps best seen in his collaboration with Vanbrugh in both planning and writing for the new Queen's Theatre in the Haymarket. Plans must have been formed before June 1703, when Vanbrugh reported to the publisher Jacob Tonson, who acted as secretary to the Kit-Cat Club, that land had been purchased with money raised from twenty-nine benefactors, many of them fellow Kit-Cat Club members; he hoped that the corner-stone might be laid by midsummer day, with business commencing in December. The theatre was to be built to Vanbrugh's design, with a large orchestra, a deep proscenium, and a stage with machinery capable of spectacular scenic effects. There is every reason to believe that the partners hoped to open with an opera worthy of Purcell's precedent (Dido and Aeneas), designed to revive and develop a specifically English operatic tradition: Congreve's Semele, set to music by John Eccles.

The foundation stone was laid on 18 April 1704 by the duke of Somerset and the countess of Sunderland, one of the duke of Marlborough's daughters and Henrietta Godolphin's younger sister. In December 1704 Congreve and Vanbrugh were granted Queen Anne's royal licence for a new company (Hodges, Letters, 110–11). Vanbrugh's commission to design Blenheim Palace was awarded about the same time, and must have distracted him from the management of the new theatre, perhaps leaving more of that work to Congreve. The first event to take place in the unfinished theatre was a recital by an Italian singer, one 'Segniora Sconiance' before Queen Anne in November 1704 (Diverting Post, 2 Dec 1704). In the end it was not Congreve's and Eccles's English opera, but Jakob Greber's Gli amori d'Ergasto that formally opened the Queen's Theatre on 9 April 1705. Congreve was obliged to supply the epilogue, and it is a telling one:

To Sound and Show at first we make pretence,In time we may regale you with some Sense,But that, at present were too great Expence.

Greber's opera was, says John Downes, 'Perform'd by a new set of Singers, Arriv'd from Italy; (the worst that e're came from thence)'. He adds in a revealing sequence, as if such had indeed been the plan, that 'had they Open'd the House at first, with a good new English Opera, or a new Play; they wou'd have preserv'd the Favour of Court and City, and gain'd Reputation and Profit to themselves' (Downes, 48). Congreve wrote to Keally on 15 December 1705 that he had 'quitted the affair of the Hay-market. You may imagine I got nothing by it' (Hodges, Letters, 38–9). Soon after, the lease of the Queen's Theatre was taken up by Owen Swiney. Semele evidently was not performed during Congreve's lifetime, although it was reported to be ready for rehearsal in 1707 (Muses Mercury, 1707, 10–11). It was published with Congreve's Collected Works in 1710, but its first performance was not until 10 February 1744 with a slightly modified libretto and in a new setting by Handel, rather than with Eccles's original score.

Collected Works and later writings

Not surprisingly after all his set-backs, Congreve wrote to Keally on 29 November 1708: 'Ease and quiet is what I hunt after. If I have not ambition, I have other passions more easily gratified' (Hodges, Letters, 53). In his disappointment, Congreve, like Ben Jonson before him, turned to his readers and prepared his works for publication: his comedies, his tragedy, his poetry, his masque, and his opera Semele. He had already begun collecting and revising his poetry by January 1707 when the Muses Mercury announced that 'Mr. Congreve is preparing an Edition of all his Miscellany Poems, in one Volume, … with the Addition of several New Pieces.' Their preparation preceded and perhaps suggested the larger collected works. The volume is testimony to Congreve's skill in lyric—including sung lyric, pastoral, and verse epistle—and to his ability, in translation and imitation, to make accessible in English a range of classical poets as diverse as Homer, Juvenal, and Ovid. Among them are 'The Mourning Muse of Alexis', a poem written on the death of Queen Mary in 1694 for which he received £100 from the king, and 'The Tears of Amaryllis for Amyntas', on the death of John, marquess of Blandford, in 1703.

Most of his plays, in quarto format, had been rushed into publication in the 1690s to meet demand, but now Congreve collaborated closely with his publisher Jacob Tonson to ensure that they were presented in their proper scenic form. (Congreve had lodged with Tonson in the mid-1690s, before moving to the house of Frances, née Bracegirdle, and Edward Porter in Arundel Street and then Surrey Street.) In 1710 The Works of Mr. William Congreve was published in three handsome octavo volumes, the plays edited to the neo-classical standard that Congreve had observed in composing them. In 1719–20, when the Works were next reprinted by Tonson, a smaller format was chosen that allowed Congreve to introduce centred speech headings.

Congreve never entirely stopped writing, although in later life, hampered by poor vision and health, he wrote much less. Swift mentioned to Stella in 1711 that Congreve had written The Tatler, no. 292, 'as blind as he is, for little Harrison' (Swift, Journal, 13 Feb 1711). Heeding Dryden's request that he 'be kind to his Remains' (To my dear friend Mr. Congreve, l.73), Congreve provided the elegant and affectionate dedication to Dryden's Dramatick Works in six volumes, published by Tonson in 1717. He managed Two Tales, translated into verse from La Fontaine (1720), possibly the prose squib 'The Game of Quadrille' (c.1726), the political poem 'A Ballad of Quadrille' (1727), and one of his finest poems, his Letter to Cobham (1728), written not long before his death.

Anne Bracegirdle and Henrietta, duchess of Marlborough

Congreve did not marry. Instead he formed close alliances, first, with Anne Bracegirdle, for whom he wrote major parts in all his plays, including Angelica in Love for Love and Millamant in The Way of the World. She retired from the stage in 1707, and they remained friends for the rest of Congreve's life: he left her £200 and her sister Frances Porter £50 in his will, written in 1726. Much of the last decades of his life was spent in the sustaining company of Henrietta, Lady Godolphin and (from 1721) second duchess of Marlborough (1681–1733), whom he had probably met by 1703. He had written 'The Tears of Amaryllis'—dedicated to her father-in-law Lord Godolphin—on the death of her brother the marquess of Blandford in the same year, and her mother Sarah, first duchess of Marlborough, was by then complaining of the company her daughter was keeping. Congreve left the largest part of his estate to Henrietta, naming her husband as executor, but this was in fact Congreve's discreet provision for his daughter, Mary (1723–1764), born to Henrietta on 23 November 1723. His intention becomes clear when Congreve's will is read with Henrietta's, in which she bequeaths to Mary 'all Mr Congreves Personal Estate that he left me' as well as her 'Fine Brilliant Diamond Neck-lace which cost Five Thousand Three hundred Pounds And also the fine Diamond Ear-Rings with Diamond Drop's to them which cost Two thousand Pounds'. Henrietta was reported to have told Edward Young that these jewels had been purchased with money Congreve had left her; the collets of the necklace may have been engraved with Congreve's initials (Hodges, Letters, 268–9). Though not specified in either will, Congreve's library also passed to Mary, who became duchess of Leeds when she married in 1740. The library remained at Hornby Castle in the Leeds family until it was auctioned by Sothebys in June 1930.

Government posts and later years

Aside from earning income from his writing, Congreve held various government posts, most of them, according to Thomas Southerne, through the intervention of his patron, Charles Montagu (BL, Add. MS 4221, fol. 341). After the success of The Old Batchelor Congreve was made one of eleven commissioners of the malt lottery on 23 April 1693, for which he seems to have received about £100. From 1695 to 1705 he was one of the commissioners for regulating and licensing hackney coaches, a post worth £100 a year. This was supplemented by his £48 salary as customs collector at Poole from 1700 to 1703. He was one of the commissioners for wine licences (£200 per annum) from 1705 to 1714, and then undersearcher of the London port in 1714, when he deputized one Joshua White, whom he mentioned in his will. Although a spurious letter has Lady Mary Wortley Montagu writing to Pope about Congreve 'enjoying leisure with dignity in two lucrative employments' (Correspondence of Alexander Pope, 1.423) and Southerne says that the post was worth £620, it was persistently recorded as £12 per annum in Treasury documents (Hodges, Congreve, the Man, 98n.). At any rate his civil service pay and perquisites were notably meagre for the first twenty years (Swift wrote that 'Congreve scarce could spare / A shilling to discharge his chair' (Libel on Dr Delany, 1730, ll. 41–2)), but clearly improved after 1714 when he became secretary of Jamaica, a post that brought in about £700 a year, and was confirmed until his death. It is uncertain how much time and work these jobs involved. Three previous commissioners for hackney coaches had resigned when the stipend was reduced from £200 to £100, which suggests that that post may have been more demanding than a simple sinecure. The office for licensing wine was only a few minutes' walk from where Congreve lived in Surrey Street, and at least one wine licence signed by him is still extant (Hodges, Letters, 39n.). On 26 June 1706 Congreve wrote to his friend Keally complaining that business had been 'full of vexation and without any good consequence' (ibid., 42), which might have referred to his civil service work. Although he was officially released from the obligation of residing in Jamaica after he became secretary, his appointment of a controversial deputy, one Samuel Page, certainly meant that he had to involve himself for a time in disputes between Page and the governor of Jamaica, Archibald Hamilton.

Ill health and death

Evidently Congreve enjoyed good health when he was young—Swift says that he 'had the misfortune to squander away a very good constitution in his younger days' (Swift to Pope, 13 Feb 1729, Correspondence of Jonathan Swift, 3.311–12), giving weight to Congreve's claim that he once could 'jump one-and-twenty feet at one jump upon North-hall Common' (Congreve to Keally, 6 May 1712, Hodges, Letters, 67)—but he was afflicted through most of his life by gout and poor eyesight. As early as 1692 Congreve had alluded to his failing vision, and many of his letters refer to his incapacitating fits of gout. Swift wrote to Stella in October 1709 that Congreve

is almost blind with cataracts growing on his eyes, and his case is, that he must wait two or three years, until the cataracts are riper, … and then he must have them couched; and besides he is never rid of the gout, yet he looks young and fresh, and is as chearful as ever.

Swift to Stella, October 1710, Swift, Journal to Stella, 1.69–70

Richard van Bleeck's portrait of Congreve, dated 1715, shows a man in quiet contemplation, holding a manuscript copy of two plays by his friend Vanbrugh. The downcast eyes suggest both Congreve's modesty and his faulty eyes. In his last poem, written to Lord Cobham less than a year before his death, Congreve describes himself

retir'd without Regret,Forgetting Care, or striving to forget;In easy Contemplation soothing TimeWith Morals much, and now and then with Rhime,Not so robust in Body, as in Mind,And always undejected, tho' declin'd …

ll. 71–6Late in September 1728 Congreve's coach accidentally overturned. Although it was reported in the Daily Post on 1 October that 'he received no Hurt, having been immediately let Blood', he probably suffered some internal injury, for he complained later of a violent pain in his side. Congreve died at the Porters' house in Surrey Street on Sunday 19 January 1729. Henrietta arranged the funeral for the following Sunday, 26 January, when Congreve's body was interred in Westminster Abbey. The pall was supported there by the duke of Bridgewater, Henrietta's husband the earl of Godolphin, Lord Cobham, Lord Wilmington, the Hon. George Berkeley, and Brigadier-General Churchill, according to contemporary report. Congreve's memorial in the abbey is a medallion carved after a portrait by Kneller, with an epitaph beneath, written by the duchess of Marlborough.


Congreve's reputation suffered after the publication of Voltaire's Letters Concerning the English Nation in 1733. The young Voltaire, who clearly admired Congreve for raising 'the Glory of Comedy to a greater Height than any English Writer before or since his Time', had paid Congreve a visit in the late 1720s. By then Congreve was ill and nearly blind. Misinterpreting Congreve's modesty and irony in suggesting that his dramatic works were only trifles and that he should be visited 'upon no other foot than that of a Gentleman, who led a Life of Plainness and Simplicity', Voltaire wrote in the same famous letter that he 'was very much disgusted at so unseasonable a Piece of Vanity' (Voltaire, Letters Concerning the English Nation, 1733, 188). The English text has continued unaltered to this day, but a more mature Voltaire took the first opportunity to amend his French text. In the Amsterdam edition of 1738–9 he expunged the passages critical of Congreve's character, leaving only unqualified praise of his work. Voltaire's original theme was ignorantly taken up by Samuel Johnson, who began his life of Congreve with the disparaging suggestion that Congreve had lied about his birth in Yorkshire; he went on to recount the Voltaire story, and could find little to praise in Congreve's work. Even so, Johnson believed that one scene in The Mourning Bride (ii.i) surpassed 'the whole mass of English poetry', and he expressed grudging admiration for a man who could count among his friends 'every man of his time whom wit and elegance had raised to reputation' (S. Johnson, The Lives of the English Poets and a Criticism on their Works, 3 vols., 1779–81).

Another continental, Luigi Riccoboni, who visited Congreve about the same time as Voltaire, found in him a man of 'Taste joined with great Learning', one who was 'perfectly acquainted with Nature' (Riccoboni, 175). Those who knew Congreve better describe a man of candour, wit, good nature, and compassion. Charles Hopkins, writing in 1697, observed:

Nor does your Verse alone our Passions move,Beyond the Poet, we the person Love.In you, and almost only you; we findSublimity of Wit, and Candour of the Mind.

Pope dedicated his translation of the Iliad to Congreve 'as a memorial of our friendship occasioned by his translation of this last part of Homer' (Pope to James Craggs, 1 Oct 1719, Correspondence of Alexander Pope). Swift wrote to Pope of 'our dear friend Mr. Congreve, whom I loved from my youth, and who surely, beside his other talents, was a very agreeable companion' (13 Feb 1729, Correspondence of Jonathan Swift, 3.311). Sir Richard Temple built a monument to Congreve at Stowe to commemorate both the poet's 'elegant, polished Wit' and the friend's 'candid, most unaffected Manners'. Indeed in the very first sentence he ever published—the opening lines of Cleophil's address to Katherine Leveson in IncognitaCongreve announced the values by which, implicitly, he would both write and live: 'A Clear Wit, sound Judgement and a Merciful Disposition'.

The Way of the World has often been considered the culmination of Restoration comedy. Along with Wycherley and Etherege, Congreve is almost universally regarded as one of the three pre-eminent writers of comedy of his time. As The London Stage and E. L. Avery's Congreve's Plays on the Eighteenth-Century Stage (1951) amply prove, Congreve's plays had a long and distinguished history through the eighteenth century, and by no means vanished with the alleged triumph of ‘sentimental comedy’.


  • J. M. Treadwell, ‘Congreve, Tonson, and Rowe's Reconcilement’, N&Q, 220 (1975), 265–9
  • J. Vanbrugh, A short vindication of ‘The relapse’ and ‘The provok'd wife’, from immorality and prophaneness (1698)
  • The correspondence of Jonathan Swift, ed. H. Williams, 5 vols. (1963–5)
  • W. Van Lennep, ed., The London stage, 1660–1800, pt 1: 1660–1700 (1965)
  • E. L. Avery, ed., The London stage, 1660–1800, pt 2: 1700–1729 (1960)
  • The correspondence of Alexander Pope, ed. G. Sherburn, 5 vols. (1956)
  • L. Riccoboni, Historical and critical account of the theatres in Europe (1741)
  • J. Schirmann, ‘The first Hebrew translation from English literature’, Scripta Hierosolymitana (1967), 3–15
  • will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/621, fols. 354r–356r
  • will, Henrietta, duchess of Marlborough, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/677, fols. 139v–141r
  • BL, Add. MS 4221, fol. 341 [Thomas Southerne's recollections of William Congreve]
  • ‘Catalogus omnium studentium admissox in collegium … ab anno 1637’, TCD [MS copy of lost original]
  • E. L. Avery, Congreve's plays on the eighteenth-century stage (New York, 1951)
  • G. Barlow, ‘From tennis court to opera house’, PhD diss., U. Glas., 3 vols., 1983
  • C. Cibber, An apology for the life of Mr. Colley Cibber (1740)
  • J. Collier, A short view of the immorality and profaneness of the English stage (1698)
  • W. Congreve, Amendments of Mr. Collier's false and imperfect citations (1698)
  • The complete works of William Congreve, ed. H. Davis (Chicago, 1967)
  • D. F.McKenzieC. Y.FerdinandThe works of William Congreve3 vols.2011
  • T. Davies, Dramatic miscellanies: consisting of critical observations on several plays of Shakespeare, 3 vols. (1783–4)
  • J. Dennis, Letters upon several occasions written by and between Mr. Dryden, Mr. Wycherly, Mr. —, Mr. Congreve, and Mr. Dennis (1696)
  • J. Dennis, The usefulness of the stage to the happiness of mankind, to government, and to religion (1698)
  • J. Downes, Roscius Anglicanus, or, An historical review of the stage (1708)
  • The letters of John Dryden, ed. C. E. Ward (Durham, NC, 1942)
  • The poems of John Dryden, ed. J. Kinsley, 4 vols. (1958)
  • The table-talk and bon-mots of Samuel Foote, ed. W. Cook (1902)
  • [C. Gildon], The lives and characters of the English dramatick poets … first begun by Mr Langbain [1699]
  • J. C. Hodges, William Congreve, the man: a biography from new sources (New York and London, 1941)
  • William Congreve: letters and documents, ed. J. C. Hodges (1964)
  • C. Hopkins, ‘An epistle … to Mr. Yalden in Oxon., dated from London-Derry, 3 August 1699’, Poetical miscellanies: the fifth part (1704), 185–6
  • [G. Jacob], The poetical register, or, The lives and characters of the English dramatick poets, 2 vols. (1719–20)
  • J. Swift, Journal to Stella, ed. H. Williams, 2 vols. (1948)
  • The poems of Jonathan Swift, ed. H. Williams, 3 vols. (1937)


  • BL, letters to E. Porter and Mrs Porter, Add. MS 4293, fols. 54–64
  • NRA Scotland, priv. coll., letters to J. Keally


  • W. D. Claret, oils, 1682, repro. in Hodges, William Congreve, the man
  • attrib. G. Kneller, oils, 1685, Christies, 5 May 1950, lot 108; copy, NPG [photographic negative 5892]
  • H. Tilson, oils, 1694–1695, repro. in Burcheall & Sadleir, Alum. Dub. (1924)
  • studio of G. Kneller, oils, 1695, repro. in A. Crookshank and D. Webb, The paintings and sculptures in Trinity College Dublin (1990)
  • G. Kneller, oils, 1695–1696, NPG; repro. in D. C. Taylor, William Congreve (1931)
  • miniature, oils on vellum, 1700, Royal Collection; repro. in G. Reynolds, The sixteenth and seventeenth century miniatures in the collection of her majesty the queen (1999)
  • pear wood, 1700, Yale U. CBA
  • H. Howard?, oils, 1704–1705, repro. in Hodges, Congreve, the man
  • H. Howard?, miniature, 1708, repro. in Hodges, Congreve, the man
  • G. Kneller, chalk sketch on brown paper, 1708, Courtauld Inst.; repro. in J. D. Stewart, ‘Some drawings by Sir Godfrey Kneller’, Connoisseur (1964)
  • G. Kneller, oils, 1709, NPG [see illus.]
  • studio of G. Kneller, oils, 1709, NPG
  • J. Smith, mezzotint, 1710 (after G. Kneller, 1709), BM, NPG
  • R. van Bleeck, oils, 1715, Stedelijk Museum Vanderkelen-Mertens, Leuven; repro. in D. F. McKenzie, ‘Richard van Bleeck's painting of William Congreve as contemplative, 1715’, Review of English Studies, 51 (2000), 46–61
  • F. Bird, relief sculpture memorial plaque, 1729 (after G. Kneller, 1709), Westminster Abbey; repro. in K. A. Esdaile, English church monuments, 1510 to 1840 (1946)
  • W. Kent, stone relief, 1736, Stowe, Kent; repro. in G. Bickham, The beauties of Stowe (1750)
  • J. Hopwood, engraving, 1808
  • bronze medallion, 1819, Handel House Museum, London
  • T. Chambars, engraving (after G. Kneller, 1709), repro. in The works of Mr. William Congreve, 3 vols. (1761)
  • J. Cheere, bronze bust, Castle Museum, York
  • T. Cook, engraving, repro. in The poetical works of William Congreve (1778)
  • Cooper, engraving (after G. Kneller, 1709), repro. in Memoirs of celebrated persons composing the Kit-cat Club (1821)
  • J. Faber, mezzotint (after G. Kneller, 1709), repro. in The Kit-cat Club: done from the original paintings of Sir Godfrey Kneller (1735)
  • F. Kyte, mezzotint (after G. Kneller, 1709)
  • P. H., engraving, repro. in The dramatic works of William Congreve, 2 vols. (1773)
  • R. B. Parkes, engraving (after G. Kneller, 1709), repro. in C. Cibber, An apology for the life of Mr. Colley Cibber, ed. R. W. Lowe, new edn, 2 vols. (1889)
  • W. Ridley, engraving, repro. in The poetical works of William Congreve
  • M. Vandergucht, engraving (after G. Kneller, 1709), repro. in Familiar letters of love and gallantry, 2 vols. (1718)
  • M. Vandergucht, engraving (after G. Kneller, 1709), repro. in G. Jacob, The poetical register (1719–20)
  • bronze bust (Regency), repro. in auction catalogue for sale of 28 November 1989

Wealth at Death

£5000–£12,000, including £3000 of old South Sea annuities; other parts of personal estate include a cane, a diamond ring, a Kneller portrait of Henrietta, and an enamelled miniature of Henrietta: wills of William Congreve, with four codicils, proved 21 Feb 1729, and Henrietta, duchess of Marlborough, proved 19 May 1736, in Hodges, William Congreve: Letters and documents

British Library, London
Bodleian Library, Oxford
National Portrait Gallery, London
British Museum, London
Notes and Queries
Christies, London
Trinity College, Dublin
National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London
Courtauld Institute of Art, London
Yale University, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut