Sir William Davenant



  • (1606 - 68) English playwright, poet, and manager who claimedvariously to be either the godchild or illegitimate son of WilliamShakespeare (see Crown Tavern). Davenant's first play,The Cruel Brother, was staged in 1627; during the 1630s heproduced a number of masques for the court, several plays,including The Wits (1633), and a volume of poetry, Madagascar(1638). In 1638 he also succeeded Jonson as the poet laureate.

    Davenant supported King Charles during the Civil War, beingknighted for his services to the royalist cause in 1643. While stayingwith the exiled Stuart court in France, he began to write his epicGondibert. Having been sent by Queen Henrietta Maria on a missionto America, Davenant was captured by the Parliamentarians and suffereda spell of imprisonment in the Tower of London. He was released in1654, according to tradition through the intervention of John Milton.Two years later he staged The Siege of Rhodes, a play thatevaded the Puritan ban on drama by being set to music; it thus becamethe first English opera.

    Following the Restoration, Davenant and Thomas Killigrewobtained royal patents from Charles II, which effectively gave thema theatrical monopoly in London. Killigrew moved his company to DruryLane, while Davenant moved his Duke's Company, which included theyoung Betterton, into the Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre.It was in this former tennis court that Davenant installed the firstproscenium arch to be seen in a London theater. His laterworks include several adaptations of Shakespeare, amongst them anoperatic version of The Tempest (1667) written in conjunctionwith Dryden. He planned to move his company to the DorsetGarden Theatre but died before the building was completed.

    As a young man Davenant contracted syphilis from a prostitute,one physical consequence of this being the loss of his nose. His misfortunebecame the subject of many jokes. On one occasion he was accosted by a beggarwoman who repeatedly expressed hope that the writer's eyesight would never fail. When Davenant asked why she was so concerned about his eyesight, she replied: "Ah! good Sir! I wish you never may, for should your sight ever fail you, you must borrow a Nose of your Neighbour to hang your Spectacles on."