Davenant, Or D'Avenant. I. Sir William, an English dramatist, born at Oxford in February, 1605, died in April, 1668. Shakespeare on his journeys from London to Stratford often stopped at the inn kept by the father of Dave-nant, and took considerable notice of the boy, who while still a child wrote an ode to his memory. Leaving college without a degree, he became page to the duchess of Richmond, and afterward to Lord Brooke, who encouraged his literary talents. About 1628 he began to be known by his masques, which the nobility of both sexes played at court. In 1637, on the deafh of Ben Jonson, he was appointed poet laureate. During the civil wars he adhered to the royal cause, and was arrested as a royalist in 1641, but effected his escape to France, where he became a Roman Catholic. Returning to England with forces for the relief of the king, he was knighted at the siege of Gloucester in 1643. In 1651 he undertook to convey a colony of French artisans to Virginia; but his ship was captured by a parliamentary cruiser, and he was imprisoned in the tower. His life was saved, it is said, by the intercession of Milton, and after two years he was released.
He now tried to introduce a modification of the drama suited to the moral views of the time, and his "entertainments" are considered by some to be the beginning of the representation of operas in England. At the restoration he formed a new company of comedians, and as manager of the court theatre of Charles II. introduced from France many improvements in theatrical representation. His works consist of dramas, of which the best is " The Siege of Rhodes," masques, an unfinished epic called "Gondibert," and fugitive verses. They were published by his widow in 1673. On his tomb in Westminster abbey is inscribed, in imitation of Jonson's epitaph, "O rare Sir William Davenant." In his own day it was currently reported that he was the natural son of Shakespeare, and he encouraged the impression himself. The chief foundation of the story seems to have been his strong personal resemblance to the great dramatist. II. Charles, an English political writer, son of the preceding, born in 1656, died Nov. 14, 1714. He graduated as doctor of civil law at Oxford, and was a member of parliament in 1685, 1698, and 1700. In 1685 he was appointed inspector of plays, in conjunction with the master of the revels, and from 1703 to the time of his death he officiated as inspector general of exports and imports.
In his youth he composed a tragedy, called "Circe," in which he himself acted. A selection of his political and commercial works was published by Sir Charles Whitworth (5 vols. 8vo, London, 1771).