Steele, Sir Richard

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.
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Steele, Sir Richard

Sir Richard Steele, 1672–1729, English essayist and playwright, b. Dublin. After studying at Charterhouse and Oxford, he entered the army in 1694 and rose to the rank of captain by 1700. His first book, a moral tract entitled The Christian Hero, appeared in 1701. The same year saw a production of his first play, The Funeral, a sentimental comedy, which he followed with two more comedies, The Lying Lover (1703) and The Tender Husband (1705). In 1722 he produced his last and most important play, The Conscious Lovers. A year after the death of his first wife in 1706, he married Mary Scurlock, the "dear Prue" of his famous letters. Steele, however, was not made for a domestic life, and much of his time was spent carousing with his companions. He held several minor government positions before beginning his famous periodical, the Tatler (1709–11), the writing of which was soon joined by his close friend Joseph Addison. This was followed by the Spectator (1711–12), the Guardian (1713), and later periodicals of lesser importance. The partnership of Steele and Addison was one of the most successful in the history of English letters. Although they differed greatly in temperament, their aims and tastes were in the main united. They were Whig partisans, and sympathetic with the moral attitude of the rapidly growing middle class. Although Steele's prose lacks the polished grace of Addison's, his writing reflects his charm, spontaneity, wit, and imagination. In 1713, Steele carried on a celebrated political controversy with Swift, the chief Tory spokesman, in the course of which he wrote his pamphlet The Crisis. He became a Whig member of Parliament in 1713, was expelled by his political enemies the following year, but returned under the Hanoverians, and was knighted in 1715. His opposition to the Peerage Bill in his weekly, the Plebeian (1719), involved him in a quarrel with Addison, and Steele's attempt at reconciliation was frustrated by his friend's death. He founded the first theatrical paper, the Theater, in 1720. His improvidence and free-living finally caught up with him, and debts forced his retirement to Wales in 1724, where he spent his remaining years in obscurity.

See his plays edited by G. A. Aitken (1894, repr. 1968); The Spectator, complete ed. by D. F. Bond (1966); his correspondence (1941, repr. 1971); biographies by G. A. Aitkin (1889, repr. 1968) and C. Winton (2 vol., 1964 and 1970).

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