Congreve, William (1670–1729), playwright and poet, was born 24 January 1670 at Bardsley, Yorkshire, the son of William Congreve (1637–1708), an army officer, and Mary Browning (d. 1715) of Doncaster. In 1674 his father gained a commission as lieutenant in the army in Ireland, and moved with his family to the garrison port of Youghal, Co. Cork, where they remained until 1678. After a brief period at Carrickfergus, they moved in 1681 to Kilkenny, where William senior was assigned to the duke of Ormond's regiment. This service entitled Congreve to a free education at the renowned Kilkenny College, where Jonathan Swift (qv) was also a student, and where he received an excellent schooling in classics. Congreve formed a lasting friendship with another pupil, Joseph Kelly (d. 1713), lawyer and MP for Doneraile (1705–13), with whom he later maintained a lengthy correspondence. In April 1686 he entered TCD as a classical scholar and, again like Swift, was taught by St George Ashe (qv). It seems likely that his degree was disrupted by the political upheaval of 1688: the college was forced to close in 1689 and his BA is not recorded.
At this point Congreve left Ireland and spent the spring and summer of 1689 with relatives in Staffordshire. He subsequently moved to London, and in March 1691 entered the Middle Temple. He was not assiduous in his legal studies, preferring to socialise with intellectuals and writers, notably John Dryden, to pursue literary projects. In 1692, under the pseudonym ‘Cleophil’, he published Incognita, or, Love and duty reconciled, a romantic novella reputedly written while he was a student in Dublin. He also contributed some verse to Charles Gildon's Miscellany (1692), as well as two translations from Homer and three odes to Dryden's Examen poeticum (1693). Dryden evidently thought highly of the young writer (whom he praised in the dedication of the Examen), and with his advice and approbation Congreve's first play, ‘The old batchelor’, was recommended by the Irish playwright Thomas Southerne (qv) to Thomas Davenant, manager of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. A fast-paced and witty comedy, concerning amorous appetites, ‘The old batchelor’ was accepted and opened on 9 March 1693 to popular acclaim, enjoying an unusually long run of fourteen nights. Among the cast were Thomas Doggett (qv), still relatively unknown, as Fondlewife, and a young English actress and singer, Anne Bracegirdle (as Amarinta), with whom Congreve fell in love and began a prolonged relationship. The play was dedicated to his friend Charles Boyle, eldest son of the 2nd earl of Cork (qv) (whose estates Congreve's father had begun to manage in 1690).
After this early success, Congreve was dismayed by the poor reception of his next play, a domestic comedy with dark undertones entitled ‘The double dealer’, which was staged in December 1693 and criticised as immoral and unflattering in its representation of women. Its popularity improved somewhat when Queen Mary, soon after its undistinguished debut, commanded a performance. When the queen died the following year, Congreve eulogised her in The mourning muse of Alexis, a pastoral; regarded by contemporaries as his finest literary work, it was rewarded by a gift of £100 from King William (qv). Production of Congreve's next play was delayed by the revolt of the Drury Lane actors against the management of Christopher Rich. Congreve supported the actors and their petition to the lord chamberlain to reopen the theatre at Lincoln's Inn Fields. When their request was granted, the renovated theatre opened on 30 April 1695 with Congreve's enduring romantic comedy ‘Love for love’, and the playwright was made a shareholder in the new company. A characteristically witty and well-plotted comedy, the production of ‘Love for love’ was particularly notable for Doggett's sparkling performance as Sailor Ben. Congreve's dramatic success also brought political advancement, as he received in this year his first government appointment (though one of modest salary), as commissioner for hackney coaches.
Congreve almost certainly returned to Ireland for most of 1696, where, with Southerne, he received an MA from TCD, and probably visited his parents (then living at Lismore Castle, Co. Waterford). He also began work on a tragedy entitled ‘The mourning bride’, which became an instant hit at Lincoln's Inn Fields when it was first performed in February 1697 and ran for thirteen nights. Despite his considerable success and popularity, he was deeply disconcerted by Jeremy Collier's aggressively anti-theatrical pamphlet, Short view of the immorality and profaness of the English stage (1698), which targeted John Vanbrugh, Dryden, and Congreve. Congreve was stung into a response, publishing Amendments of Mr. Collier's false and imperfect citations (1698), which eloquently defended his dramatic methodology, but was rendered less effective by an emotional and ill-judged tone. His theatrical acumen seemed to be at odds with the times, for in the dedication to his next play, ‘The way of the world’, he observed that ‘little of it was prepar'd for that general taste which seems now to be predominant in the pallats of our audience’. Nevertheless, he was still bitterly disappointed by the disparaging response to its first performance on 12 March 1700. Dryden, however, realised the merit of the play, which is now recognised as Congreve's masterpiece and a landmark in the dramatic tradition of the comedy of manners.
Disheartened, Congreve abandoned play-writing, but he maintained his theatrical connections and embarked upon several collateral projects, producing a libretto for ‘The judgement of Paris’ (1701), and collaborating with Vanbrugh and the poet William Walsh on a translation of Molière's ‘Monsieur de Pourceaugnac’, staged as ‘Squire Trelooby’ at the Lincoln's Inn Fields theatre in 1704. Less successfully, he made an ill-advised investment with Vanbrugh in a new theatre and opera house in the Haymarket, from which he withdrew with financial losses in 1705. His opera libretto ‘Semele’, written for the opening of the new theatre, was not performed until 1744, when it was scored by G. F. Handel (qv), though John Eccles wrote a score in 1707 which remained unperformed until 1972. In the early 1700s his relationship with Anne Bracegirdle faltered, though they remained lifelong friends.
In 1710 Congreve published The works of Mr. William Congreve in three volumes. He continued throughout his life to write poetry, ballads, essays, and other miscellaneous pieces (notably a dedication to Dryden's Dramatick works, 1717, and the poem Letter to Cobham, 1728). He remained active and influential in literary and theatrical circles, often assisting young writers such as Charles Hopkins, son of Ezekiel Hopkins (qv), the bishop of Derry, and Alexander Pope, who dedicated to him The Iliad (1715). Financially, however, he became increasingly dependent upon various minor government posts. He belonged for many years to the celebrated Kit-Cat Club, alongside such prominent writers, wits, and whigs as Richard Boyle, the 2nd earl of Cork, Richard Steele (qv), Joseph Addison (qv), Walsh, and Vanbrugh. Through the good offices of his friend Swift, Congreve retained his government position as commissioner of wines during the tory administration of 1710–14. His party loyalty was rewarded in 1714 when he received a lucrative government appointment as secretary of the island of Jamaica. His personal life also improved around this time, as a friendship with Lady Henrietta Godolphin developed into a love affair that lasted for the rest of his life; they had one daughter, Mary (1723–64).
Congreve suffered for much of his life from gout and failing eyesight; these afflictions worsened with age, though friends remarked that his cheerful temper survived unaffected. He was involved in a coach accident in September 1728, and died 19 January 1729 at his home in Surrey Street, probably from a related injury. He named the earl of Godolphin, his lover's husband, as his executor, and bequeathed almost his entire estate to Henrietta, thereby discreetly leaving his property to his daughter. He was buried in Poet's Corner, Westminster Abbey, on 26 January.
Letters and manuscripts of Congreve are held in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, the British Library, London, and the National Register of Archives, Scotland. Several likenesses are in the National Portrait Gallery, London, including a portrait in oils by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1709).