William Congreve

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
William Congreve
William Congreve by Sir Godfrey Kneller, Bt.jpg
William Congreve in 1709 by Godfrey Kneller
Born (1670-01-24)24 January 1670
Bardsey, England
Died 19 January 1729(1729-01-19) (aged 58)
London, England
Occupation Playwright, poet
Nationality English
Period 1693–1700

William Congreve (24 January 1670 – 19 January 1729) was an English playwright and poet.

Early life[edit]

Congreve was born in Bardsey, West Yorkshire, England (near Leeds).[note 1] His parents were William Congreve (1637–1708) and Mary (née Browning; 1636?–1715). A sister was buried in London in 1672. He spent his childhood in Ireland, where his father, a Cavalier, had settled during the reign of Charles II. Congreve was educated at Kilkenny College where he met Jonathan Swift, who would be his friend for the remainder of his life; and at Trinity College in Dublin. Upon graduation, he matriculated in the Middle Temple in London to study law, but felt himself pulled toward literature, drama, and the fashionable life. Artistically, he became a disciple of John Dryden.

Literary career[edit]

William Congreve wrote some of the most popular English plays of the Restoration period of the late 17th century. By the age of thirty, he had written four comedies, including Love for Love (premiered 30 April 1695) and The Way of the World (premiered 1700), and one tragedy, The Mourning Bride (1697)

His playwrighting career was brief. Five plays authored from 1693 to 1700 would prove the entirety of his output, as public tastes turned away from the sort of high-brow sexual comedy of manners in which he specialised. He reportedly was particularly stung by a critique written by Jeremy Collier (A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage), to the point that he wrote a long reply, "Amendments of Mr. Collier's False and Imperfect Citations." A member of the Whig Kit-Kat Club, Congreve's career shifted to the political sector, where he held various minor political positions in spite of being a Whig among Tories.

Later life[edit]

Congreve withdrew from the theatre and lived the rest of his life on residuals from his early work. His output from 1700 was restricted to the occasional poem and some translation (notably Molière's Monsieur de Pourceaugnac). Congreve never married; in his own era and through subsequent generations, he was famous for his friendships with prominent actresses and noblewomen, including Anne Bracegirdle, for whom he wrote major parts in all his plays, and Henrietta Godolphin, 2nd Duchess of Marlborough, daughter of the famous general, John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, whom he had probably met by 1703 and who had a daughter, Mary (1723–1764), believed to be his.

As early as 1710, he suffered both from gout and from cataracts on his eyes. Congreve suffered a carriage accident in late September 1728, from which he never recovered (having probably received an internal injury); he died in London in January 1729, and was buried in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Famous lines[edit]

Two of Congreve's turns of phrase from The Mourning Bride (1697) have become famous, albeit frequently in misquotation, and often misattributed to William Shakespeare:[original research?]

  • "Music has charms to soothe a savage breast," which is the first line of the play, spoken by Almeria in Act I, Scene 1. This is often misquoted as "Music has charms to soothe the savage beast".
  • "Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned," spoken by Zara in Act III, Scene VIII.[2] (This is usually paraphrased as "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned")

Congreve coined another famous phrase in Love for Love (1695):

  • "O fie, miss, you must not kiss and tell."

References in popular culture[edit]

A fictitious play by Congreve, The Gallivant, features prominently in the novel Flowers for the Judge by Margery Allingham.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Samuel Johnson doubted Congreve's claim to have been born in Bardsey, Yorkshire in 1670 ("Neither the time nor place of his birth are certainly known; if the inscription upon his monument be true, he was born in 1672. For the place; it was said by himself, that he owed his nativity to England, and by every body else that he was born in Ireland."), and berated him for disowning his native country. However, Edmond Malone later found a baptism entry for Congreve in the Register of Bardsey, in the West Riding of York that would seem to prove that Congreve was not lying when he said that he was born in England: "William, the sonne of Mr. William Congreve, of Bardsey grange, was baptised 10 February 1669 [i.e. 1670 by the modern reckoning of the new year]".[1]


  1. ^ Johnson, Samuel (1861). Cunningham, Peter, ed. Lives of the most eminent English poets. New York: Derby and Jackson. p. 15. 
  2. ^ The mourning bride: a tragedy – Google Books. Books.google.co.uk. Retrieved 15 November 2010. 


  • Klekar, Cynthia. "Obligation, Coercion, and Economy: The Gift of Deed in Congreve’s The Way of the World." In The Culture of the Gift in Eighteenth-Century England, ed. Linda Zionkowski and Cynthia Klekar. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009.
  • Macaulay, Thomas Babington. The Comic Dramatists of the Restoration. London, Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1853.

External links[edit]