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William Congreve

Congreve, William, 1670–1729, English dramatist, b. near Leeds, educated at Trinity College, Dublin, and studied law in the Middle Temple. After publishing a novel of intrigue, Incognita (1692), and translations of Juvenal and Persius (1693), he turned to writing for the stage. His first comedy, The Old Bachelor (1693), produced when he was only 23, was extremely successful and was followed by The Double Dealer (1693) and Love for Love (1695). In 1697 his only tragedy, The Mourning Bride, was produced. About this time Congreve replied to the attack on his plays made by Jeremy Collier, who in a famous essay attacked the English stage for its immorality and profaneness. Congreve reached his peak with his last play, The Way of the World (1700), which has come to be regarded as one of the great comedies in the English language. The leading female roles in Congreve's plays were written for Anne Bracegirdle, who was probably his mistress. He never married. After 1700, Congreve did little literary work, perhaps because of the cool reception accorded his last play or because of his failing health—he suffered from gout. He subsequently held various minor political positions and enjoyed the friendships of Swift, Steele, Pope, Voltaire, and Sarah, duchess of Marlborough. The plays of Congreve are considered the greatest achievement of Restoration comedy. They are comedies of manners, depicting an artificial and narrow world peopled by characters of nobility and fashion, to whom manners, especially gallantry, are more important than morals. Congreve's view of mankind is amused and cynical. His characters are constantly engaged in complicated intrigues, usually centering around money, which involve mistaken identities, the signing or not signing of legal documents, weddings in masquerade, etc. His plays are particularly famous for their brilliance of language; for verbal mastery and wit they have perhaps been equaled only by the comedies of Oscar Wilde.

See his works, ed. by F. W. Bateson (1930) and by D. F. McKenzie (3 vol., 2011); biographies by M. E. Novak (1971) and E. W. Fosse (1888, repr. 1973); D. Mann, ed., A Concordance to the Plays of William Congreve (1973).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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