The critic Edmund Gosse wrote, "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." Despite the later unkind treatment by his critics, Sir William Davenant, also spelled D'Avenant, remained enormously popular during his era, a theater manager, playwright, and poet. Apparently William Shakespeare's godson, he was rumored also to have been the bard's illegitimate offspring, born to Jane Shepherd Davenant, wife of an innkeeper at oxford's Crown Tavern, frequented by Shakespeare. The rumor may have arisen from a remark made by Samuel Butler that Davenant strove to imitate Shakespeare and would have been pleased to be called the poet's son; the rumor was later discredited. Davenant's father became mayor of Oxford in 1621, later sending his son to Lincoln College, which he left before taking a degree in order to begin service at court. He first served the duchess of Richmond, and later Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke, who encouraged Davenant's interest in the stage.
After Greville's murder Davenant left service and in 1629 wrote and staged his first play, The Tragedy of Albovine. He was asked to write a royal masque, and Queen Henrietta Maria and her ladies performed his The Temple of Love at Whitehall on Strove Tuesday 1634. Davenant then took charge of all such court entertainments. His playwright career was launched, and his best known romances included The Wits, The Platonic Lovers, and Love and Honour, all appearing between 1634 and 1639. In 1638 he published Madagascar, with Other Poems and he became, after BEN JoN-SoN's death, poet laureate.
As a Royalist Davenant was accused in 1642 before the Puritan Parliament of activity in a scheme to overthrow the Commonwealth, leading to a two-month internment in the Tower of London. His successive acts in support of the Royalist cause led to a knighthood after the 1643 siege of Gloucester. He lived in France with the queen and other political exiles from 1646 until 1649, when he received an appointment as governor of Maryland. Not far off England's coast, his ship was captured by Cromwell's forces. He used the time of his imprisonment (some reports say in Cowes Castle on the Isle of Wight and others in the Tower) from 1650 to 1652 to write a romantic epic poem titled Gondibert. Davenant's 1654 pardon was probably due in part to the interference on his behalf by the poet and statesman John Milton.
When Charles II was restored to the throne, he granted Davenant one of the few patents available to form an acting company. Davenant is generally considered the first composer of the English opera, his most famous titled The Siege of Rhodes, the first part of which appeared in 1656, and the second part produced in 1659. Its performance marked the return of theater to England after 14 years of suppression under Cromwell. Davenant and John Dryden adapted Shakespeare's The
Tempest to the opera for its first production in 1667 and followed its performance with several additional adapted Shakespeare plays. Their productions angered many because of their variance from the originals, but historians credit Davenant for the return of Shakespeare to the stage. Despite such reaction to his work by his contemporaries, Davenant was later included among those important playwrights aiding the transition from Elizabethan to Restoration drama.
Davenant continued to produce poetry along with his plays. He would be remembered partly for Madagascar, which focused on the plan of the prince of the Rhenish Palatinate, Charles I's nephew, to colonize the island of Madagascar. His poetry appeared in a large folio edition of works published posthumously in 1673. Critics later held that application of the grand term works in the fashion of Jonson to Davenant's poetry proved the only parallel that could be drawn between the two poets; everything positive the reader has been led to expect from poetry by Jonson is absent in Davenant's extraordinarily derivative verse. He imitated widely, including Jonson and Shakespeare as models, and he best enjoyed writing in the classical mode. By the 19th century he became important for his historical significance, rather than for his art.
While many of his works proved ponderous and pedantic, Davenant's unfinished Gondibert is generally thought of more positively. Its narrative of chivalry in Lombardy contains individual strong lines, with some inspired imagery, although its plot is at times difficult to follow because of its narrative incoherence. The 70-page preface to Gondibert is an address to Thomas Hobbes, to whom the poem was dedicated. It focused on the art and nature of poetry and was followed by 19-page reply from Hobbes. Gondibert also contained prefatory poems by Edmund Waller and Abraham Cowley and later inspired an 18-line satirical poem by John Denham that makes reference to Hobbes, Cow-ley, and Waller, and to the destructive effect of syphilis on Davenant's nose.
Selected quotations from Davenant, including, from Gondibert, "The assembled souls of all that men held wise," appeared in John Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th edition (1919). Seldom anthologized in depth, Davenant's poetry remains available in printed and
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