Sir William Davenant (or D'Avenant), dramatist and theater manager, poet and courtier, is a link between the older Elizabethan and Jacobean drama and the new Restoration drama. From his innovations improving the platform stage our modern playhouse is derived; he refined the genre of the heroic drama with the accompanying themes of love and honor; by tradition he first brought women onto the English stage; and his dramas influenced those of the next several generations, particularly John Dryden's. If he is remembered only for his "adaptations" of Shakespeare we do him disservice.
Davenant was born in Oxford in late February 1606, the son of John Davenant, vinter and proprietor of the Crown Tavern, who at his death was mayor of Oxford, and Jane Shepherd Davenant. William Shakespeare, who lodged at the Crown "once a year," according to John Aubrey, may have been his godfather and, according to subsequent gossip, his natural father as well. The source of this rumor seems to have been Samuel Butler, whose report of a comment by Davenant was recorded by Aubrey: "it seemed to him [Davenant] that he writ with the very same spirit that Shakespeare [did], and seemed content enough to be called his son." Davenant never claimed he was Shakespeare's son, and his reference to the kinship is probably an acknowledgment of literary debtedness.
Davenant was educated in Oxford at St. Paul's Parish under Edward Sylvester, "a noted Latinist and Grecian," according to Anthony à Wood; Aubrey adds that Davenant "was drawn from school before he was ripe enough," but at twelve he had written an "Ode in Remembrance of Shakespeare." In 1620-1621 he went to Lincoln College at Oxford, leaving, because of his father's death, to become page to the Duchess of Richmond. Wood says Davenant "wanted much of university learning"; but he also remarks on the playwright's "high and noble flights in the poetical faculty" and styles him the "Sweet swan of Isis."
After several years of service to the Duchess, Davenant entered the household of Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke, friend of Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser, where he served most likely as a clerk until Greville's murder in 1628. During his intermittent stay at Brooke House, broken by his residence in the Middle Temple, Davenant's dramatic career began. Here he wrote four plays: The Tragedy of Albovine, King of the Lombards, a revenge tragedy completed in 1627, which the actors declined to produce (it was published in 1629), and The Cruel Brother, another tragedy of the same year which was acted in Blackfriars; also The Colonel, a tragicomedy that was retitled The Siege when it was published in 1673, and The Just Italian, both acted in 1629.
His career as courtier, begun with service in the houses of Richmond and Brooke, led to his joining the blundering first expedition of the Duke of Buckingham in the 1627 siege of the Isle of Rhé; he may have been in the second, 1628 expedition as well. For the rest of his life, save during a three-year illness, he served the court in various ways--in literature and in military and diplomatic service.
After he was cashiered out of Buckingham's forces, riddled as they were by incompetence and contagion, he contracted syphilis, or, as it was called then, the Grand Pox. For three years, probably in poverty, he endured a treatment of mercury that saved his life but marked him for the rest of it. His disfigured nose, a consequence of the disease and its treatment, was an object of ridicule by his enemies and of tolerant acceptance by his friends. They recognized that "His art was high, though his nose was low." At least one person who commented on his nose suffered for it. During his recuperation, probably incensed by a low jest, Davenant attacked a tapster, Thomas Warren of Braintree, with his rapier and wounded him several times. Warren died a few days later. Davenant, who fled to Holland, was convicted of murder and his property sequestrated. But because the King was petitioned for his pardon, he was able to return to England in 1633. A full pardon was not granted until five years later. Despite his nose, Queen Henrietta Maria received him into her service through the intercession of his friend Endymion Porter.
His first play presented before the court on 28 January 1634, The Wits, was "well liked." One of his most successful plays, it reflects Jonsonian humors and satire and anticipates the Restoration wits and witwouds. Another Jonsonian realistic comedy, News from Plymouth , was written in 1635 for a vacation audience at the Globe and for the replenishment of a lean purse; as he wrote in a burlesque poem,
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