Born: January 24, 1670, in Bardsey, near Leeds, England
Died: January 19, 1729, in London, England
Congreve was the son of a commissioned army officer. When his father joined the garrison in Ireland, William was sent to study at Kilkenny, one of the best schools in Ireland at the time. He went on to study at Trinity College in Dublin where he received his master of arts in 1696. Because of the revolution in Ireland in 1688, Congreve moved to Stretton, Staffordshire. He later went on to study law but abandoned his studies to pursue a career as a writer. Some of his work was published under the pseudonym Cleophil.
His first book, Incongnita, was published in 1691 but was neither a critical nor commercial success. After trying his hand at publishing a handful of poems and a novel, he found his niche writing plays.
The Old Bachelour launched his career as a playwright in 1693 and was performed at the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane. His next major play, Love for Love was equally successful. The comedy took a humorous look at the conflicts that arise between young and old, city dwellers and country residents, and servants and masters. The play was performed at a new theater in Lincoln's Inn Fields of which Congreve would later become manager.
His success brought him acceptance into the company of other literary contemporaries of his time including Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, and Voltaire.
In 1697, Congreve turned to writing tragedy. Mourning Bride was his only tragedy but it quickly became his most popular play. He adopted the traditional style of play that was common at the time, making use of music, rhetoric and exalted verse to craft the story.
Congreve's last major work was Way of the World in 1700 which developed its plot around the illusions of marriage and money. At the time, the play was unsuccessful due in part to the renewed assaults by the Puritan lobby on theaters. Today, the play is considered a comic masterpiece.
Many of Congreve's plays were written with his close friend, Anne Bracegirdle, in mind for the lead role. While there is speculation that they were romantically involved, it is still a subject for debate. He was, however, attached to the second Duchess of Marlborough. He is believed to be the father of the Duchess' second child, Lady Mary Godolphin. When he died, much of his estate was left to the Duchess.
After the Way of the World, Congreve retired from writing major works. He spent his time in the company of his literary contemporaries and enjoyed the benefits that come with success and wealth. He published a few minor works including some verse and literary critiques but slowly disappeared from the public eye.
He is best remembered for the sharp wit and grace with which he carved his cynical comedies. Congreve died following a carriage accident and was buried at Westminster Abby.