The father of our poet was John Davenant, who kept the Crown Tavern or Inn at Oxford, but owing to an obscure insinuation in Wood's account of his birth, it has been supposed that he was the natural son of Shakspeare; and to render this story probable, Mrs. Davenant is represented as a woman of beauty and gaiety, and a particular favourite of Shakspeare, who was accustomed to lodge at the Crown on his journies between Warwickshire and London. Modern inquirers, particularly Mr. Steevens, are inclined to discredit this story, which indeed seems to rest upon no very sound foundation.
Young Davenant, who was born Feb. 1605, very early betrayed a poetical bias, and one of his first attempts, when he was only ten years old, was an Ode in remembrance of Master William Shakspeare. This is a remarkable production for one so young, and one who lived, not only to see Shakspeare forgotten, but to contribute with some degree of activity to that instance of depraved taste. Davenant was educated at the grammar school of All Saints, in his native city, under Mr. Edward Sylvester, a teacher of high reputation. In 1621, the year in which his father served the office of mayor, he entered of Lincoln College, but being encouraged to try his success at court, he appeared there as page to Frances dutchess of Richmond, a lady of great influence and fashion. He afterwards resided in the family of the celebrated sir Fulke Greville, lord Brooke, who was himself a poet and a patron of poets. The murder of this nobleman in 1628, depriving him of what assistance he might expect from his friendship, Davenant had recourse to the stage, on which he produced his first dramatic piece, the Tragedy of Albovine, King of the Lombards.
This play had success enough to procure him the recommendation, if nothing more substantial, of many persons of distinction, and of the wits of the times, and with such encouragement he renewed his attendance at court, adding to its pleasures by his dramatic efforts, and not sparingly to the mirth of his brethren, the satirists, by the unfortunate issue of some of his licentious gallantries. For several years his plays and masks were acted with the greatest applause, and his character as a poet was raised very high by all who pretended to be judges. On the death of Ben Jonson in 1638, the queen procured for him the vacant laurel, which is said to have given such offence to Thomas May, his rival, as to induce him to join the disaffected party, and to become the advocate and historian of the republican parliament. In 1639, Davenant was appointed " Governor of the King and Queen's Company acting at the Cockpit in Drury-lane, during the lease which Mrs. Elizabeth Beeston, alias Hutcheson, hath or doth hold in the said houses."
When the civil commotions had for some time subsisted, the peculiar nature of them required that public amusements should be the decided objects of popular resentment, and Davenant, who had administered so copiously to the pleasures of the court, was very soon brought under suspicions of a more serious kind. In May 1641, he was accused before the parliament of being a partner with many of the king's friends in the design of bringing the army to London for his majesty's protection. His accomplices effected their escape, but Davenant was apprehended at Feversham, and sent up to London. In July following he was bailed, but on a second attempt to withdraw to France, was taken in Kent. At last, however, he contrived to make his escape without farther impediment, and remained abroad for some time.
The motive of his flight appears not to have been cowardice, but an unwillingness to sacrifice his life to popular fury, while there was any prospect of his being able to devote it to the service of his royal master. Accordingly when the queen sent over a considerable quantity of military stores for the use of the earl of Newcastle's army, Davenant resolutely ventured to return to England, and volunteered his services under that nobleman who had been one of his patrons. The earl made him lieutenant general of his ordnance, a post for which if he was not previously prepared, he qualified himself with so much skill and success that in September 1643, he was rewarded with the honour of knighthood for the service he rendered to the royal cause at the siege of Glocester. Of his military prowess, however, we have no farther account, nor at what time he found it necessary, on the decline of the king's affairs, to retire again into France. Here he was received into the confidence of the queen, who in 1646 employed him in one of her importunate and ill-advised negociations with the king, who was then at Newcastle. About the same time Davenant had embraced the popish religion, a step which probably recommended him to the queen, but which, when known, could only tend to increase the animosity of the republicans against the court already too closely suspected of an attachment to that persuasion. The object of his negociation was to persuade the king to save his crown by sacrificing the church, a proposition which his majesty rejected with becoming dignity, and this as lord Clarendon observes, "evinced an honest and conscientious principle in his majesty's mind, which elevated him above all his advisers." The queen's advisers in the measure were, his majesty knew, men of no religious principle, and he seems to have resented their sending an ambassador of no more consequence than the manager of a play-house.
During our poet's residence at Paris, where he took up his habitation in the Louvre, with his old friend lord Jermyn, he wrote the first two books of his Gondibert, which were published in England, but without exciting much interest. Soon after he commenced projector, and hearing that vast improvements might be made in the loyal colony of Virginia, by transporting good artificers, whom France could at that time spare, he embarked with a number of them, at one of the ports in Normandy. This humane and apparently wise scheme ended almost immediately in the capture of his vessel on the French coast by one of the parliamentary ships of war, which carried him to the Isle of Wight, where he was imprisoned at Cowes Castle. After endeavouring to reconcile himself to this unfortunate and perilous situation, he resumed his pen, and proceeded with his Gondibert; but being in continual dread of his life, he made but slow progress. His fears, indeed, were not without foundation. In 1650, when the parliament had triumphed over all opposition, he was ordered to be tried by a high commission court, and for this purpose was removed to the Tower of London. His biographers are not agreed as to the means by which he was saved. Some impute it to the solicitations of two aldermen of York, to whom he had been hospitable when they were his prisoners, and whom he suffered to escape. Others inform us that Milton interposed. Both accounts, it is hoped, are true; and it is certain, that after the Restoration he repaid Milton's interference in kind, by preserving him from the resentment of the court. He remained, however, in prison for two years, and was treated with some indulgence, by the favour of the lord keeper Whitlocke, whom he thanked in a letter written with peculiar elegance of style and compliment.
By degrees he obtained complete enlargement, and had nothing to regret but the wreck of his fortune. In this dilemma, he adopted a measure which, like a great part of his conduct throughout life, shows him to have been a man of an undaunted and unaccommodating spirit, fertile in expedients, and possessed of no common resources of mind. Indeed, of all schemes, this seemed the most unlikely to succeed, and even the most dangerous to propose. Yet, in the very teeth of national prejudices or principles, and at a time when all dramatic entertainments were suspended, discouraged by the protectoral court, and anathematised by the people, he conceived that, if he could contrive to open a theatre, it would be sure to be well filled. Viewing his difficulties with great precaution, he proceeded by slow steps, and an apparent reluctance, to revive what was so generally obnoxious. Having, however, obtained the countenance of lord Whitlocke, sir John Maynard, and other persons of rank, he opened a theatre in Rutland-house, Charter-house-yard, on the 21st of May, 1656, and performed a kind of non-descript entertainments, as they were called, which were dramatic in every thing but the names and form, and come of them were called operas. When he found these relished and tolerated, he proceeded to more regular pieces, and with such advantages in style and manner, as, in the judgment of the historians of the stage, entitle him to the honour of being not only the reviver, but the improver, of the legitimate drama. These pieces he afterwards revised, and published in a more perfect state, and they now form the principal part of his printed works, although modern taste has long excluded them from the stage.
On the Restoration, he received the patent of a playhouse, under the title of the Duke's Company, who first performed in the theatre in Portugal-row, Lincoln's Inn Fields, and afterwards in that in Dorset Gardens. Here he acted his former plays, and such new ones as he wrote after this period, and enjoyed the public favour until his death, April 7, 1668, in his sixty-third year. He was interred with considerable ceremony, two days after, in Westminster Abbey, near the place where the remains of May, his once rival, had been pompously buried by the parliament, but were ordered to be removed. On his gravestone is inscribed, in imitation of Ben Jonson's short epitaph, "O rare sir William Davenant!" His son, Dr. Charles Davenant, was afterwards a well-known civilian and political writer.
The life of Sir William Davenant occupies an important space in the history of the stage, to which he was in many respects a judicious benefactor, by introducing changes of scenery and decorations; but he assisted in banishing Shakspeare, to make way for dramas that are now intolerable. He appears to have been, in his capacity of manager, as in every part of life, a man of sound and original sense, firm in his enterprises, and intent to gratify the taste of the public, with little advantage to himself, as he died insolvent. The greater part of his works was published in his lifetime in quarto; but they were collected in 1673 into one large folio volume, dedicated by his widow to the duke of York.
As a poet, his fame rests chiefly on his Gondibert; but the critics have never been agreed in the share he derives from it. The reader, who declines to judge for himself, may have ample satisfaction in the opinions of the late bishop Hurd, and of Dr. Aikin, as detailed in the conclusion of his life in the Biographia Britannica. It will probably be found, on an unprejudiced perusal of this original and very singular poem, that the opinions of Dr. Aikin and Mr. Headley are founded on those principles of taste and feeling which cannot be easily opposed: yet, in considering the objections of Dr. Hurd, allowance is to be made for one who is so powerful and elegant an advocate for the authorised qualities of the epic species, and for arguments which, if they do not attach closely to this poem, may yet be worthy of the consideration of those whose inventive fancy leads them principally to novelty of manner, and who are apt to confound the arbitrary caprices with the genuine powers of a poet.
His miscellaneous pieces, of which we have been obliged to confine ourselves to a selection, are of very unequal merit. Most of them were probably written in youth, and but few can be reprinted with the hope of satisfying a polished taste. Complimentary poetry, so much the fashion in his times, is now perused with indifference, if not disgust; and although the gratitude which inspired it may have been sincere, it is not highly relished by the honest independence which belongs to the sons of the Muses.