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MonkeyNotes-The Way of the World by William Congreve
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Background Information


William Congreve (1670-1729) was born on January 24, 1670,
at Bardsey, near Leeds, in Yorkshire. He was the son of an army
officer who became the steward to the Earl of Cork. Congreve
studied at Kilkenny School, where he received a classical
education. At the same time, Jonathan Swift, who was two years
his senior, was a student at Kilkenny College. Congreve then
entered Trinity College in Dublin at the age of sixteen; he was
again a contemporary of Jonathan Swift at Trinity. Congreveís
interest in drama developed at Trinity.

It is significant that the formative years of Congreveís life were
spent in Ireland, since Ireland has become almost synonymous
with comic writers in English literature, such as Swift, Sterne,
Sheridan, Wilde, and Shaw. He, however, left Ireland before he
could complete his degree. Civil disturbances during the
Jacobite War of 1688 resulted in James IIís losing the throne
and forced the temporary closure of Trinity College. Congreve
went to England, where he first stayed with his dying
grandfather at Stretton in Staffordshire and then moved in with
his family in London. In 1691, Congreve published some
translations of Juvenal (a Roman satirical poet) and other
poetry; he also published a novel, entitled Incognito or Love and
Duty Reconciled under the pseudonym of Cleophil. The same
year, he entered the Middle Temple, where he studied law for
four years. In spite of his studies, his chief interest was the
theater. As a result, he worked his way into the London literary
scene and made the acquaintance of John Dryden, a famous
poet, playwright, and critic. In 1696, he finally received an MA
from Trinity.

Congreveís importance as a writer derives from his five plays
written in his late twenties and produced in London between
1693 and 1700. His first play, The Old Bachelor, was staged at
the Theater Royal, Drury Lane, in March of 1693. A simple and
conventional comedy, it was a huge success and a remarkable
accomplishment for such a young playwright. His second play,
The Double Dealer, appeared in December of the same year.
Dryden wrote a moving tribute in verse entitled "To my Dear
Friend, Mr. Congreve, on his Comedy, called The Double
Dealer which states, "Thy first Attempt an early promise made;
that early promise this has more than paid. The English
audience, however, did not seem to share Drydenís enthusiasm;
although The Double Dealer was better written than The Old
Bachelor, it took some time before it became established as a
stock comedy. The play was criticized for the uncommon
gullibility of the hero and also for the unconventional use of
soliloquy in the representation of the villain, Maskwell.

In 1694, Congreve commemorated the death of Queen Mary in
The Mourning Muse of Alexis, for which he received a gift of
one hundred pounds from King William. Congreveís next
comedy, Love for Love, was performed at Lincolnís Inn Fields
in April of 1695 and was a huge success. Congreve had been
instrumental in setting up this theater, which was controlled by
the actors themselves. He became the manager of the new acting
company and was active in attracting new writing talent. This
left little time for his own writings. His next play and only
tragedy, The Mourning Bride, was performed at Lincolnís Inn
Fields Theater in February of 1697, and was very well received.
In April of 1698 Jeremy Collier published his pamphlet, A Short
View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage, in
which he attacked the moral licentiousness of the Restoration
dramatists and of Congreve in particular. In July of 1698,
Congreve responded with his Amendments to Mr. Collierís
False and Imperfect Citations in which he attempted to clarify
his position and restore the reputation of the comic dramatists.
Congreveís last play, which represents the height of his
achievement, The Way of the World, was performed at Lincolnís
Inn Fields in March of 1700. Unfortunately, this masterpiece
received only moderate success.

The rest of Congreveís life was spent in various occupations. He
earned a steady income from the proceeds of commissionership
for wine and for licensing hackney coaches. In 1714, he was
appointed the Secretary to the Island of Jamaica. In his forties,
he won the love of Henrietta, Duchess of Marlborough, and
fathered a child by her at the age of fifty-three. His health,
however, was not good, for he was overweight and suffered
from gout. He died on January 19, 1729, in London, leaving his
fortune to the Duchess of Marlborough. He was buried in
Westminster Abbey.

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MonkeyNotes-The Way of the World by William Congreve

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