William Davenant (1)

William Davenant (1606-1668), from The Works of Sir William Davenant, 1673. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Sir William Davenant or D'Avenant (baptised 3 March 1606 - 7 April 1668) was an English poet and playwright, who served as Poet Laureate.



Davenant was born at Oxford, where his father kept an inn, which Shakespeare was in the habit of visiting. This had some influence on the future poet, who claimed to be Shakespeare's natural son. Davenant was educated at Oxford, and was afterwards in the service of Lord Brooke, became involved in the troubles of the Civil War, in which he took the Royalist side, and was imprisoned in the Tower, escaped to France, and after returning was, in 1643, knighted. Later Davenant was employed on various missions by the King and Queen, was again in the Tower from 1650 to 1652, when he published his poem Gondibert. He is said to have owed his release to the interposition of Milton. In 1656 he practically founded English opera by his Siege of Rhodes (1656). In 1659 he was again imprisoned, but after the Restoration he seems to have enjoyed prosperity and Royal favor, and established a theatre, where he was the 1st habitually to introduce female players and movable scenery. Davebabt wrote 25 dramatic pieces; none of them are now read; and the same may be said of Gondibert, considered a masterpiece by contemporaries. Davenant succeeded Ben Jonson as Poet Laureate, and collaborated with Dryden in altering (and debasing) The Tempest. He collected his miscellaneous verse under the title of Madagascar. He is said to have had the satisfaction of repaying in kind the good offices of Milton when the latter was in danger in 1660. He joined with Waller and others in founding the classical school of English poetry.[1]

Davenant was one of the rare figures in English Renaissance theatre whose career spanned both the Caroline and Restoration eras and who was active both before and after the English Civil War and during the Interregnum.


Davenant was born at the Crown Inn, Oxford, of which his father, a wealthy vintner, was proprietor. It was stated that Shakespeare always stopped at this house in passing through the city of Oxford, and out of his known or rumored admiration of the hostess, a very fine woman, there sprang a scandalous story which attributed Davenant’s paternity to Shakespeare, a legend which there is reason to believe Davenant himself encouraged,[2] but which later criticism has cast aside as spurious.[3]

In 1621 the vintner was made mayor of Oxford, and in the same year his son left the grammar school of All Saints, where his master had been Edward Sylvester, and was entered as an undergraduate of Lincoln College, Oxford.[3]

He did not stay at the university, however, long enough to take a degree, but was hurried away to appear at court as a page, in the retinue of the gorgeous duchesse of Richmond. From her service he passed into that of Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke, in whose house he remained until the murder of that eminent man in 1628. This blow threw him upon the World, not altogether without private means, but greatly in need of a profitable employment.[3]

Early careerEdit

Davenant turned to the stage for subsistence, and in 1629 produced his first play, the tragedy of Albovine. It was not a very brilliant performance, but it pleased the town, and decided the poet to pursue a dramatic career. The next year saw the production at Blackfriars of The Cruel Brother, a tragedy, and The Just Italian, a tragicomedy.[3]

Inigo Jones, the court architect, for whom Ben Jonson had long supplied the words of masques and complimentary pieces, quarrelled with his great colleague in 1634, and applied to Davenant for verses. The result was The Temple of Love, performed by the queen and her ladies at Whitehall on Shrove Tuesday, 1634, and printed in that year. Another masque, The Triumphs of the Prince D’Amour, followed in 1636.[3]

The poet returned to the legitimate drama by the publication of the tragicomedy of The Platonic Lovers, and the famous comedy of The Wits, in 1636 (the latter of which, however, had been licensed in 1633). The masque of Britannica Triumphans (1637) brought him into some trouble, for it was suppressed as a punishment for its first performance having been arranged for a Sunday.[3]

By this time Davenant had thoroughly ingratiated himself with the court; and on the death of Jonson in 1637 he was rewarded with the office of poet-laureate, to the exclusion of Thomas May, who considered himself entitled to the honour. It was shortly after this event that Davenant collected his minor lyrical pieces in a volume entitled Madagascar, and other poems, 1638.[3]

War and exileEdit

In 1639 he became manager of the new theatre in Drury Lane. The civil war, however, put a check upon this prosperous career; and he was among the most active partisans of royalty through the whole of that struggle for supremacy. As early as May 1642, Davenant was accused before the Long Parliament of being mainly concerned in a scheme to seduce the army to overthrow the Commons.[3]

He was accordingly apprehended at Faversham, and imprisoned for 2 months in London; he then attempted to escape to France, and succeeded in reaching Canterbury, where he was recaptured. Escaping a 2nd time, he made good his way to the queen, with whom he remained in France until he volunteered to carry over to England some military stores for the army of his old friend the earl of Newcastle, by whom he was induced to enter the service as lieutenant general of ordnance. He acquitted himself with so much bravery and skill that, after the siege of Gloucester, in 1643, he was knighted by the king.[3]

After the battle of Naseby he retired to Paris, where he became a Roman Catholic, and spent some months in the composition of his epic poem of Gondibert. In 1646 he was sent by the queen on a mission to Charles I, then at Newcastle, to advise him to “part with the church for his peace and security.” The king dismissed him with some sharpness, and Davenant returned to Paris, where he was the guest of Lord Jermyn.[3]

In 1650 he took the command of a colonizing expedition that set sail from France to Virginia, but was captured in the Channel by a parliamentary man-of-war, which took him back to the Isle of Wight. Imprisoned in Cowes castle until 1651, he tempered the discomfort and suspense of his condition by continuing the composition of Gondibert. He was sent up to the Tower to await his trial for high treason, but just as the storm was about to break over his head, all cleared away. It is believed that the personal intercession of Milton led to this result. Another account is that he was released by the desire of 2 aldermen of York, once his prisoners, whom he had allowed to escape.[3]

Davenant, released from prison, immediately published Gondibert,[3]

Opera impresarioEdit

During the civil war one of his plays had been printed, the tragedy of The Unfortunate Lovers, in 1643. One of his best plays, Love and Honour, was published in 1649, but appears to have been acted long before. He found that there were many who desired him to recommence his theatrical career. Such a step, however, was absolutely forbidden by Puritan law. Davenant, therefore, by the help of some influential friends, obtained permission to open a sort of theatre at Rutland House, in Charterhouse Yard, where, on 21 May 1656, he began a series of representations, which he called operas, as an inoffensive term. This word was then 1st introduced into the English language.[3]

The opening piece was a kind of dialogue defending the drama in the abstract. This was followed by his own Siege of Rhodes, printed the same year, which was performed with stage decorations and machinery of a kind hitherto quite unthought of in England. 2 other innovations in its production were the introduction of recitative and the appearance of a woman, Mrs. Coleman, on the stage. He continued until the Restoration to produce ephemeral works of this kind, only one of which, The Cruelty of the Spaniards in Peru, in 1658, was of sufficient literary merit to survive.[3]

In 1659 Davenant suffered a short imprisonment for complicity in Sir George Booth’s revolt.[3]


In 1660 Davenant had the infinite satisfaction of being able to preserve the life of that glorious poet who had, 9 years before, saved his own from a not less imminent danger. The mutual relations of Milton and Davenant do honour to the generosity of 2 men who, sincerely opposed in politics, knew how to forget their personal anger in their common love of letters.[3]

Under [[Charles II of England}Charles II]], Davenant flourished in the dramatic world; he opened a new theatre in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, which he called the Duke’s; and he introduced a luxury and polish into the theatrical life which it had never before known in England. Under his management, the great actors of the Restoration, Betterton and his coevals, took their peculiar French style and appearance; and the ancient simplicity of the English stage was completely buried under the tinsel of decoration and splendid scenery.[3]

Davenant brought out 6 new plays in the Duke’s Theatre, The Rivals (1668), an adaptation of The Two Noble Kinsmen; The Man’s the Master (1669), comedies translated from Scarron; News from Plymouth, The Distresses, The Siege, and The Fair Favourite, tragicomedies; all of which were printed after his death, and only 1 of which survived their author on the stage. His last work had been to travesty Shakespeare’s Tempest in company with Dryden.[3]

He died at his house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields on the night of 7 April 1668, and 2 days afterwards was buried in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey, with the inscription “O rare Sir William Davenant!”[3]


The personal character, adventures and fame of Davenant, and more especially his position as a leading reformer (or rather debaser) of the stage, have always given him a prominence in the history of literature which his writings hardly justify. His plays are utterly unreadable, and his poems are usually stilted and unnatural. With Cowley he marks the process of transition from the poetry of the imagination to the poetry of the intelligence; but he had far less genius than Cowley, and his influence on English drama must be condemned as wholly deplorable.[3]

Gondibert, the work on which his fame mainly rests, is a chivalric epic poem in the 4-line stanza which Sir John Davies had made popular by his Nosce teipsum, the influence of which is strongly marked in the philosophical passages of Gondibert. It is a cumbrous, dull production, but is relieved with a multitude of fine and felicitous passages, and lends itself most happily to quotation.[3]

Critical introductionEdit

by Edmund Gosse

There is not a more hopelessly faded laurel on the slopes of the English Parnassus than that which once flourished so bravely around the grotesque head of Davenant. The enormous folio edition of his works, brought out in 1673 in direct emulation of Ben Jonson, is probably the most deplorable collection of verses anywhere to be found, dead and dusty beyond the wont of forgotten classics. The critic is inclined to say that everything is spurious about Davenant, from the legend that connects his blood with Shakespeare’s to the dramatic genius that his latest contemporaries praised so highly. He is not merely a ponderous, he is a nonsensical writer, and having begun life by writing meaningless romantic plays in imitation of Massinger, and insipid masques in the school of Ben Jonson, he closed his long and busy career by parodying the style of Dryden. But he really deserves to be classed with none of these authors, but with Sir William Killigrew and Sir Robert Stapleton, the dullest crew of pedants and poetasters which our literature has seen.

From this wide condemnation of the writings of Davenant, his romantic epic of Gondibert must be excepted. It is a poem of chivalry, the scene of which is laid in Lombardy, but which the author grew tired of before it had occurred to him to construct a plot. It is, accordingly, nothing but an incoherent, rambling fragment, through which the reader toils, as if through a quicksand, dragging his steps along, and rewarded every now and then by a firmer passage containing some propriety of thought or a beautiful single line. The form of Gondibert is borrowed from the Nosce Teipsum of Sir John Davies, and was soon afterwards employed again by Dryden for his Annus Mirabilis.[4]


Following the death of Ben Jonson in 1637, Davenant was named Poet Laureate in 1638. He was knighted in 1643 by Charles I

On 9 April 1668, Davenant was buried in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey, in the grave from which Thomas May had been removed following the Restoration. The inscription on his gravestone reads "O rare Sir William Davenant."[5]

3 of his poems ("Aubade," "To a Mistress Dying," and "Praise and Prayer") were included in the Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900.[6]



  • Madagascar, with other poems. London: Iohn Haviland for Thomas Walkley, 1638.
  • London: King Charles his Augusta; or, City royal. London:William Leybourn, 1648.
  • Gondibert: An heroick poem. London: Theo. Newcombe for John Holden, 1651.
  • A Panegyrick to his Excellency, the Lord Generall Monck. London: 1660.
  • Poem upon His Sacred Majesties Most Happy Return to His Dominions. London: Henry Herringman, 1660.
  • Poem to the King's Most Sacred Majesty. London: Henry Herringman, 1663.
  • Selected Poems (edited by Bruce Rogers). Cambridge, MA: Willow Press, 1943.


  • The Temple of Love: A masque, presented by the Queenes Majesty, and her ladies, at White-hall. London: Thomas Walkley, 1634.
  • Britannia triumphans: A masque, presented at White Hall. London: Iohn Haviland for Thomas Walkley, 1638.
  • The Man's the Master: A comedy in five acts. London: T. Evans, 1775.
  • Dramatic Works. (4 volumes), Edinburgh: W. Paterson / London: H. Sotheran, 1872; New York: Russell & Russell, 1964.


  • To the Honourable Knights, Citizens, and Burgesses of the House of Commons, assembled in Parliament. The humble remonstrance of William Davenant, anno 1641. London: 1641.

Collected editionsEdit

  • The Works of Sir William D'Avenant: Consisting of those which were formerly printed and those which he design'd for the press now published out of the authors originall copies. London: T.N. for Henry Herringman, 1672; New York: Benjamin Bloom, 1968.


  • Wit and Drollery: Joviall poems (by Sir John Mennis, James] Smith, Sir William Davenant, John Donne et al; edited by E.M.). London: 1661).

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy WorldCat.[7]

Plays performedEdit

Original plays, masques and operasEdit

Listed in chronological order.

Revisions, adaptations, other productionsEdit

See alsoEdit

Preceded by
Ben Jonson
English Poet Laureate
Succeeded by
John Dryden


Praise and Prayer William Davenant Audiobook

Praise and Prayer William Davenant Audiobook

  • PD-icon.svg Gosse, Edmund (1911). "Davenant, William". In Chisholm, Hugh. Encyclopædia Britannica. 7 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 851.  Wikisource, Web, Jan. 2, 2018.
  • Terence P. Logan and Denzell S. Smith, eds., The Later Jacobean and Caroline Dramatists: A Survey and Bibliography of Recent Studies in English Renaissance Drama, Lincoln, Nebraska, University of Nebraska Press, 1975.


  1. John William Cousin, "Davenant or D'Avenant, Sir William," A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature, 1910, 108. Web, Jan. 2, 2018.
  2. Gosse 1911, 851.
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 3.12 3.13 3.14 3.15 3.16 3.17 3.18 3.19 3.20 Gosse 1911, 852.
  4. from Edmund W. Gosse, "Critical Introduction: Sir William Davenant (1606–1668)," The English Poets: Selections with critical introductions (edited by Thomas Humphry Ward). New York & London: Macmillan, 1880-1918. Web, Feb. 14, 2016.
  5. [1], People, History, Westminster Abbey. Web, July 11, 2016.
  6. Alphabetical list of authors: Daniel, Samuel to Hyde, Douglas, Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900 (edited by Arthur Quiller-Couch). Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919., Web, May 16, 2012.
  7. Search results = au:William Davenant, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Feb. 15, 2016.

External linksEdit

Audio / video

PD-icon.svg This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain, the 1911 Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. Original article is at "Davenant, Sir William"

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