William Congreve

Born in England but raised in Ireland, William Congreve (1670-1729) rapidly rose to literary fame after graduating from college and moving to England. Though somewhat obscure today, he was regarded as the foremost poet and playwright of his time, and was the hand-picked successor of John Dryden (1631-1700).Congreve's specialty was wit, which comes through in the elaborate plots and blistering dialogue of his comedies, and some of his turns of phrase, which have entered the English language as idioms.

William Congreve William Congreve

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Table of contents

    William Congreve Biography

    William Congreve (1670-1729) was born to a prominent and wealthy English family. In 1674, his father became a lieutenant in the army, and the family had to move to Dublin. Congreve grew up in Ireland, attending the Kilkenny School and Trinity College, Dublin. At both schools, he was classmates with Jonathan Swift (1667-1745).

    William Congreve, Trinity College Dublin Library, StudySmarterFig. 1 - William Congreve studied at Trinity College, Dublin, which is known for its vast, beautiful library.

    Congreve returned to England to study law after graduation but spent most of his time at Will’s Coffeehouse, a famous gathering place for the literary elite. There he gained a reputation as a witty and competent writer, befriending the literary giant John Dryden. The latter was so impressed with Congreve that he named him his literary successor and recommended that he become England's next poet laureate (though this never materialized).

    Congreve’s first play, The Old Bachelor, was produced in 1693 to commercial and critical success. It was highly praised by Dryden and ran for two weeks straight at a time when a three-night run was considered successful. His next play, The Double Dealer, was produced in the same year but was a box-office failure.

    Congreve also successfully ventured into poetry. His poetry often included praise of royal figures whose patronage he wanted. The government noticed it, and he was financially rewarded and eventually given a minor governmental post, the commissioner for licensing hackney coaches.

    In 1695, he once again gained theatrical success with Love for Love. In the same year, his only tragic play, The Mourning Bride, was a smash hit, running again for nearly two weeks and remaining popular for decades. The Way of the World, first performed in 1700, was highly anticipated but only moderately successful.2

    In 1698, Congreve was one of the targets of Jeremy Collier's Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage. Collier accused Congreve of writing plays with no morals, where bad people often triumph and extramarital sex and affairs are routine. This was a sign of the changing times, as the bawdy and licentious Restoration comedy was beginning to fall out of favor.

    Congreve lived in a politically sensitive and complex time, in which the relatively recent Restoration of the monarchy and Glorious Revolution meant that England's head of state was fairly unstable. Some people supported the old king, James II, who was in exile in France. These also tended to be Catholics, a religious group marginalized under the new government. The Protestant majority supported the William of Orange.

    Further complicating factors was the development of the Tory and Whig political parties. The Tories tended to be wealthy landowners connected with the aristocracy. In contrast, the Whigs tended to be wealthy businessmen from the newly arising bourgeoisie who supported Parliamentary power over the king.

    Congreve was a Protestant and a Whig but moved in circles containing people of all political and religious affiliations.

    After The Way of the World's lukewarm reception, Congreve’s theater work began to taper off. In 1701 he produced a musical masque, The Judgment of Paris, and tried his hand at theater management in 1705. He produced several translations of poetry and drama, mostly from French and Latin. He continued to hold minor government posts at this time, but his options were limited as a Whig in a Tory government. This changed with the accession of George I to the throne in 1714, when he secured the position of Secretary to the Island of Jamaica. This made him responsible, through a deputy on the island itself, for the production of sugar, indigo, and cacao by slave labor.

    While he never married, Congreve had an illicit affair with Henrietta Godolphin, Second Duchess of Marlborough, with whom he very likely had a daughter, Mary. Congreve had long had poor health, particularly gout, and died following an accident in 1729.3

    William Congreve's Works

    William Congreve produced plays and masques for the theater and also wrote poetry, letters, translations, and even a short novel, Incognita (1692). As he is best remembered as a playwright, his most important works include four comedies and a drama produced between 1693 and 1700.4

    William Congreve, Drury Lane Theatre Engraving, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Many of Congreve's works were performed at the 19th-century Drury Lane Theatre.

    The Old Bachelor (1693)

    The old bachelor of the title is a man named Heartwell, who is tricked into marrying a person who he believes to be a woman named Silvia, the former mistress of another character, Vainlove. Silvia turns out to be one of Vainlove’s friends, a man named Bellmour, in disguise, so the marriage was never actually valid. Bellmour, meanwhile, is having an affair with a married woman named Laetitia, but continues to court wealthy men while disguised as a woman, this time fooling Sir Joseph Wittol and Captain Bluffeinto believing that he is a wealthy widow named Araminta. In the end, Bellmour marries a still different woman while Vainlove remains a bachelor.

    The Double Dealer (1693)

    This play takes place after dinner on the evening before the marriage of Mellefont, the heir to one Lord Touchwood, to Cynthia, the daughter of Sir Paul Plyant. The double dealer of the title is a man named Maskwell, who is hired by Lady Touchwood to try to break the couple up before they marry. Maskwell is successful until Lord Touchwood overhears a conversation between him and Lady Touchwood revealing the scheme. Lord Touchwood manages to set everything right so the couple can still marry.

    Love for Love (1695)

    In this comedy, a young man named Valentine pursues an heiress named Angelica, but his reckless drinking and gambling have racked up enormous debt. His father, Sir Sampson Legend, offers to pay off all of his debts on the condition that he give up his share of the inheritance to his brother, Ben, a sailor. Meanwhile, Angelica’s uncle, Foresight, is scheming to have his daughter, Miss Prue, marry Ben and benefit from the entire fortune. The scheme backfires, however, as Ben and Miss Prue both hate each other. Valentine pretends to have gone crazy to avoid deciding on whether to sign his inheritance away.

    Now angry at both sons, Sir Sampson decides to marry Angelica himself and try to father a third son who will be heir to his fortune. Distraught at the prospect of losing Angelica forever, Valentine finally agrees to his father's deal, stating that the money would be meaningless if he has to live without her. Angelica, realizing that he only agrees to this because he loves her, grabs the paperwork and tears it to pieces as he's about to sign it. The two of them marry.

    The Mourning Bride (1695)

    Congreve's only tragedy, The Mourning Bride, is set in Spain and tells the story of two star-crossed lovers, Almeria and Osmyn (Alphonso in disguise). Almeria is the princess of Granada, and Alphonso is the prince of Valencia, two states at war. The two lovers marry secretly, but Almeria's father, King Manuel, eventually finds out about it. Enraged, he orders Alphonso's (disguised as Osmyn) execution. When he gets wind of an attempted escape with the help of Almeria, he plans to impersonate Osmyn in his prison cell so that he can catch her red-handed. This plan goes awry, and Manuel is executed after being mistaken for the real prisoner. A rebellion of disgruntled soldiers in Granada then results in the overthrow of the government, freeing Alphonso so he can marry Almeria.

    The Way of the World (1700)

    Congreve’s last major original comedy, The Way of the World, is the story of Mirabell, a reformed rake, and Millamant, a young heiress. They want to get married but there is an obstacle in Millamant’s aunt, Lady Wishfort, who controls half of Millamant’s inheritance and can choose to withhold it if she disapproves of her marriage partner. Lady Wishfort has a grudge against Mirabell because he had flattered her and pretended to court her in order to get closer to Millamant.

    Mirabell’s plans to trick Lady Wishfort into marrying one of his servants by presenting him as a rich uncle who hates his nephew. This nearly works but is foiled by a woman named Marwood, who is secretly in love with Mirabell, and her lover Mr. Fainall, who is married to Mirabell’s former mistress. Mr. Fainall threatens to ruin his wife, who is also Lady Wishfort’s daughter, by divorcing her for sleeping with Mirabell. Mirabell, however, had made legal arrangements preventing Mr. Fainall from getting Mrs. Fainall’s fortune before the marriage. Lady Wishfort is so grateful that she finally consents to Millmant's marriage to Mirabell.

    William Congreve Poems

    William Congreve was considered one of the best poets of his generation, but his poetic output quickly fell out of fashion. His pastoral on the death of Queen Mary and his elegy to a candle provides a representative sample of the type of poetry that Congreve produced.4

    "The Morning Muse of Alexis. A Pastoral. Lamenting the death of our late gracious Queen Mary."

    Congreve’s most famous poem (and financially rewarding, as it earned him £100 from the court) during his own lifetime, this poem grieves the death of Queen Mary from smallpox on December 28th, 1694. It describes how the death of the Queen, given the poetic name Pastora, has cast a pall over the rural beauties of England, poetically referred to as Albion, between the refrain

    I mourn PASTORA dead, let ALBION mourn,

    And Sable Clouds her Chalkie Cliff adorn (lines 59-60).

    The poem also populates rural England with the deities of ancient Greece and serves at once to dignify England and the late Queen while expressing grief at her loss. At the poem's conclusion, a flame emanates from the Queen's tomb and reaches toward heaven where it will shine forever.

    "To a Candle. Elegy."

    Cited as an example of Congreve’s exacting wit, which could conjure up a poem on seemingly any subject, “To a Candle” uses its quotidian subject matter as an invitation to meditate on issues of love, death, joy, and suffering. The candle and the lover turn out to be analogous in a number of ways, perhaps best summarized by the following lines:

    Like thine, my Flames to my Destruction turn,

    Wasting that Heart, by which supply'd they burn (lines 7-8).

    The poem concludes by comparing the candle’s meager light to that of the unattainable lover, “bright Beams” are the source of its own flame.

    William Congreve Quotes

    Congreve was a master of witty dialogue and banter, with some lines from his plays becoming permanent fixtures of the English language.

    William Congreve, Portrait, StudySmarterFig. 3 - William Congreve is known for writing humorous dialogue.

    In his breakout comedy, The Old Bachelor, two minor characters named Sharper and Setter have the following exchange:

    Sharper: Thus grief still treads upon the heels of pleasure:

    Married in haste, we may repent at leisure.

    Setter: Some by experience find those words mis-placed:

    at leisure married, they repent in haste (Act 5)

    The exchange sets the tone for the ironic and cynical view of marriage that would characterize most of Congreve's future work.

    In the opening lines from Congreve's only tragedy, The Mourning Bride, Almeria is morning the death of King Anselmo, who her father had kept imprisoned. They have entered the English language as an idiom:

    Music has charms to soothe a savage breast (Act 1).

    Almeria goes on to complain of the music’s inability to comfort her in her extreme grief. She will go on to marry Anselmo’s son, and her father, Manuel, will prove cruel enough to try to execute her lover and gloat in her mourning before fate intervenes in his plans.

    Later in the same play, Zara, a captive princess, discovers that Osmyn is being visited in prison by Almeria and has been leading her on purely in the hopes that she will help him escape. In a rage, she orders that he be moved to solitary confinement and threatens that

    Heaven has no rage, like love to hatred turned, Nor hell a fury, like a woman scorned (Act 3).

    This has also entered English as an idiom, usually modified to “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

    In The Way of the World, a comedy about marriage, friendship, and deception, the character Marwood says the following lines to Mrs. Fainall:

    Say what you will, ‘tis better to be left than never to have been loved” (Act 2).

    Ironically, Marwood is having an affair with Mrs. Fainall’s husband as she says this, while Mrs. Fainall is the former mistress of the man that Marwood really loves.

    William Congreve - Key takeaways

    • Born in Yorkshire in 1670, Congreve moved to Ireland as a boy and was educated there before returning to England.
    • Congreve was regarded as the preeminent poet and playwright of his generation, though his reputation has fallen in modern times.
    • He is principally remembered for his comedies, such as The Old Bachelor (1693), Love for Love (1695), and The Way of the World (1700).
    • Towards the end of his life, Congreve secured a lucrative government post and wrote little.

    References

    1. A. Lindsay and H. Erskine-Hill (editors). William Congreve: The Critical Heritage. 2002.

    2. S. Greenblatt (general editor). The Norton Anthology of English Literature Volume 1. 2012.

    3. W. Congreve and David Roberts (editor) The Way of the World. 2009.

    4. D.F. Mckenzie. The Works of William Congreve. Volume I. 2011.

    Frequently Asked Questions about William Congreve

    Who is William Congreve?

    William Congreve (1670-1729) was a preeminent British playwright and poet, known mostly for his comedies such as The Old Bachelor (1693) and The Way of the World (1700).

    Why is William Congreve important?

    William Congreve was one of the most popular playwrights of his generations, and was considered to be one of the best poets. Many of his works are still performed today, and excerpts from some of his plays' dialogues have even become idiomatic expressions in the English language.

    What is William Congreve's contribution in the development of English drama?

    Congreve's plays are often considered to be the pinnacle of English Restoration comedy. Congreve provides some of the best examples of witty dialogue, intricate plot, and characters with questionable moral principles.

    Where is William Congreve from?

    William Congreve was born in Yorkshire, England but grew up in Ireland, where his father had moved for work.

    Why do you think Congreve wrote The Way of the World?

    Congreve depended on the success of his plays for a large part of his income (and they generally did not disappoint). The Way of the World is no exception here, but it was also clearly an output for Congreve's genius. In addition, Congreve wanted to respond to Jeremy Collier's attack, which charged his plays with immorality. Mirabell, the hero in The Way of the World, is a reformed man with moral principles, seeming to prove Collier wrong.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    When was The Way of the World first performed?

    "Let us be as strange as if we had been married a great while, and as well-bred as if we were not married at all" suggests that marriage is

    Who delivered the play's prologue, and what role did they play?

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