In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section William Congreve

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Catalogues and Databases
  • Biographical Approaches
  • Bibliographic and Textual Studies
  • Collected Editions
  • Contextual Histories
  • Collections of Criticism
  • Religion and Society
  • Sexual Politics
  • Stage History and Dramatic Theory
  • Collier Controversy

British and Irish Literature William Congreve
Paul Baines
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 September 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0111


William Congreve (b. 1670–d. 1729) represents for many the refined culmination of the tradition of Restoration drama. Congreve’s short novella, Incognita: or, Love and Duty Reconciled appeared in 1692, and his poems brought him to the attention of John Dryden who, with Thomas Southerne, assisted him in completing his first comedy, The Old Batchelour. After a less successful second comedy, The Double Dealer (1693), Congreve’s Love for Love (1695), established him as one of the principle comic dramatists of his time. He published an essay “Concerning Humour in Comedy” in 1696, and a sentimental tragedy, The Mourning Bride, strikingly popular in its day but regarded as unperformably wordy and statuesque in modern times. He responded tetchily, like many of the dramatists attacked, to the clergyman Jeremy Collier’s A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage (1698), complaining that Collier had pruriently misinterpreted much of the text that he cited as bawdy. In his final comedy, The Way of the World (1700), however, he produced a comedy that was less exceptionable in the changing moral climate; though slow to gain approval, this is now regarded as his most interesting work. After this Congreve wrote little for the commercial theatre, and his sight began to fail. In 1710 he edited a three-volume collection of his own Works with the leading publisher Jacob Tonson, retouching the plays toward a more literary audience. He enjoyed cross-party literary acquaintance, including Swift, Pope, Addison, and Steele, and he contributed to a many-handed translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, edited by Sir Samuel Garth, in 1717. His last significant poem, the verse epistle, A Letter from Mr. Congreve to the Right Honourable the Lord Viscount Cobham (1728), on his genial literary retirement, was reprinted immediately after his death by the scavenging publisher Edmund Curll. The same publisher also produced, under a pseudonym, the first biography of Congreve, which, together with his will, attracted interest partly for its foregrounding of the women in Congreve’s life, which seemed to mirror the domesticated libertinage of his major plays. Congreve’s plays held the stage for much of the 18th century but declined under the Victorian moralistic censure that lingered over Restoration writing in general well into the 20th century. They began to be revived in the 20th century, as audiences became interested once more in style and wit. Academic criticism has found in the plays variously a deep moral seriousness, conflicted dramatization of social issues, and exemplary witness to changes in print culture.

General Overviews

Through the 20th century various attempts were made to establish a praxis of Restoration comedy, a grammar of conventions developed and used by individual dramatists: the comedy of manners, the comedy of intrigue, the comedy of wit. In part this was an attempt to establish a serious aesthetic ground for the enjoyment and study of this literature, in defense against post-Victorian critique of the supposed cynicism or depravity of the genre, often deemed merely representative of its degenerate time. This work tended to celebrate wit and structure, with an increasing attention to social critique and moral seriousness later in the century. The items listed here serve as key witnesses to the work of Congreve as a whole from different perspectives, accessible to new students and in some cases reference points for more developed research. Knights 1937 was in some ways essentially a latter-day attack on all of Restoration comedy from the point of view of F. R. Leavis’s doctrinaire Scrutiny group. At more or less the same time the novelist Virginia Woolf (Woolf 1947) was finding a proto-modernist energy of gesture and attention to the moment in Congreve. Knights’s assault provoked a series of critical responses, direct and otherwise, defending Congreve in particular on the grounds of the dramatist’s implied moral interest in realistic relationships and humane anxieties within and beyond the corruptions of wit, social gloss and artifice. Van Voris 1965 found a personal ethical stance (appropriate to a Whig hierarchy) in the aesthetics of the plays. Muir 1965 is a short, representative defense of the humanity and intelligence of the plays. Novak 1971, Love 1974, and Thomas 1992 all produced serious, sympathetic introductory studies to the plays in their milieu, still helpful places to start for new students of Congreve. More recently Hoffman 1993 offers a traditional single-author study showing the growth and development of dramatic technique and moral vision in Congreve’s career. Most of these studies are relatively untouched by theoretical positioning, but the growth of socio-historical approaches is also reflected in overviews, not least as a means of understanding literary work through its context. Modern accounts seek in the plays a dynamic sense of interaction between text and world rather than timeless and transcendent values.

  • Hoffman, Arthur W. Congreve’s Comedies. English Literary Studies 58. Victoria, BC: University of Victoria, 1993.

    A defense of the moral vision developed by Congreve through the four comedies, particularly in the mature use of a Shakespearean sense of design in Love for Love and The Double Dealer; The Way of the World is seen here (as often) as Congreve’s answer to a changing moral sensibility after the Jeremy Collier onslaught.

  • Knights, L. C. “Restoration Comedy: The Reality and the Myth.” Scrutiny 6 (1937): 122–143.

    A classic diatribe, reminiscent in its way of Collier’s pamphlet, A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage (1698), on the moral failings and lack of sincerity endemic in restoration comedy, seen as trivial, gross, and dull. Much of the subsequent history of Congreve criticism was devoted to rebutting this position.

  • Love, Harold. Congreve. Plays and Playwrights Series. Oxford: Blackwell, 1974.

    High-quality overview from an outstanding scholar of the period, describing the theatre for which Congreve wrote, then working through the four comedies. Love meets the objections of those who denigrate Congreve’s status as a dramatist, on both artistic and moral grounds, finding subtlety, generosity, and authenticity where others find banality, limitation, and evasion.

  • Muir, Kenneth. “The Comedies of William Congreve.” In Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 6: Restoration Theatre. Edited by John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris, 221–237. London: Edward Arnold, 1965.

    A lively chapter contributed to a set of essays on restoration drama at one of the key periods of interest in Congreve, defending his intelligence, wit, and relevance.

  • Novak, Maximilian E. William Congreve. New York: Twayne, 1971.

    Somewhat limited in scope but still a useful introduction that shows how the serious import of Congreve’s work is balanced with elements of comic play. Sees the plays more in the context of post-1688 culture than in the broad category of Restoration theatre.

  • Thomas, David. William Congreve. English Dramatists. New York: St Martin’s, 1992.

    Straightforward and accessible account of the plays and their literary, philosophical, and political implications, with useful material on performance issues and critical responses. Explains the plots of the plays in a way designed to be helpful to new students; overall sees Congreve using drama to explore contemporary social concerns with appetite and desire.

  • Van Voris, W. The Cultivated Stance: The Designs of Congreve’s Plays. London: Oxford University Press, 1965.

    One of the first really substantial monographs on the works, which are seen as embodying Congreve’s personal sense of values, which is that of an Epicurean (rather than simply Libertine or Libertarian) Whig gentleman. Shows how the plays delineate multifaceted characters in action, critiquing rather than reflecting social mores but offering the possibility of genuine ethical practice.

  • Woolf, Virginia. “Congreve’s Comedies: Speed, Stillness and Meaning.” In The Moment and Other Essays. By Virginia Woolf, 30–38. London: Hogarth, 1947.

    Originally published in the Times Literary Supplement, 25 September 1937. Lively modernist appreciation, exploring Congreve’s ability to catch large movements in tiny slivers of action, gesture, and speech; stands against hostile judgments based on fixed moral principles, such as those of Samuel Johnson and L. C. Knights.

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