Born in Bardsey, West Yorkshire, England (near Manchester), Congreve spent his childhood in Ireland, where his father, a Cavalier, had settled during the reign of Charles II. Congreve was educted at Trinity College in Dublin; there he met Jonathan Swift, who would be his friend for the remainder of his life. Upon graduation, he matriculated in the Middle Temple in London to study law, but felt himself pulled toward literature, drama, and the fashionable life. Artistically, he became a disciple of John Dryden.
William Congreve wrote some of the most popular English plays of the Restoration period of the late 17th century. By the age of thirty, he had written four comedies, including Love for Love (premiered April 30, 1695) and The Way of the World (premiered 1700), and one tragedy, The Mourning Bride (1697)
Unfortunately, his career ended almost as soon as it began. After writing five plays from his first in 1693 until 1700, he produced no more as public tastes turned against the sort of high-brow sexual comedy of manners in which he specialized. He reportedly was particularly stung by a critique written by Jeremy Collier (A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage), to the point that he wrote a long reply, "Amendments of Mr. Collier's False and Imperfect Citations." A member of the Whig Kit-Kat Club, Congreve's career shifted to the political sector, where he held various minor political positions despite his stance as a Whig among Tories.
Congreve withdrew from the theatre and lived the rest of his life on residuals from his early work. His output from 1700 was restricted to the occasional poem and some translation (notably Molière's Monsieur de Pourceaugnac). Congreve never married or fathered children; in his own era and through subsequent generations, he was famous for his friendships with prominent actresses and noblewomen, including Anne Bracegirdle and Henrietta Godolphin, 2nd Duchess of Marlborough, daughter of the famous general, John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough.
As early as 1710, he suffered both from gout and from cataracts on his eyes. Congreve suffered a carriage accident in the summer of 1728, from which he never recovered; he died in January 1729, and was buried in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey.
Two of Congreve's turns of phrase have entered the English language.
ACT I. SCENE I. begins with these words:
A Room of State. - The Curtain rising slowly to soft Musick, discovers ALMERIA in Mourning, LEONORA waiting in Mourning. - After the Musick ALMERIA rises from her Chair, and comes forward.
ALM. Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.
I've read, that things inanimate have mov'd,
And, as with living Souls, have been inform'd,
By Magick Numbers and persuasive Sound.
What then am I? Am I more senseless grown
Than Trees, or Flint? O force of constant Woe!
'Tis not in Harmony to calm my Griefs.
Anselmo sleeps, and is at Peace; last Night
The silent Tomb receiv'd the good Old King;
He and his Sorrows now are safely lodg'd
Within its cold, but hospitable Bosom.
Why am not I at Peace?" 
Act 3, Scene 2 ends with these words:
ZARA. Thou shalt die.
OSM. I thank you.
ZARA. Thou ly'st; for now I know for whom thou'dst live.
OSM. Then you may know for whom I'd die.
ZARA. Hell! Hell!
Yet I'll be calm- Dark and unknown Betrayer!
But now the Dawn begins, and the slow Hand
Of Fate is stretch'd to draw the Veil, and leave
Thee bare, the naked Mark of Publick View.
OSM. You may be still deceiv'd; 'tis in my Pow'r.
ZARA. Ha! Who waits there? -
Enter PEREZ. - As you'll answer it, take heed
This Slave commit no Violence upon
Himself. I've been deceiv'd. The Publick Safety
Requires he should be more confin'd; and none,
No not the Princes self, permitted to
Confer with him. I'll quit you to the King.
Vile and ingrate! too late thou shalt repent
The base Injustice thou hast done my Love:
Yes, thou shalt know, spite of thy past Distress,
And all those Ills which thou so long hast mourn'd;
Heav'n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn'd,
Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorn'd.