Colley Cibber was born in Bloomsbury, London, the eldest son of a distinguished Danish sculptor. He was given his mother’s maiden name as his Christian name. He was educated at the King’s School, Grantham where his mother had previously lived, leaving at the age of sixteen. In 1688 he joined the service of his father’s patron, Charles Cavendish, 1st Duke of Devonshire, one of the main supporters of the Glorious Revolution which saw King James II deposed.
He started work as an actor in 1690 at Drury Lane, becoming throughout his career one of the best comedy actors in England for his parts as a fop but his performance in tragic parts was considered poor. He went on to become the owner of this theatre in 1710, retaining it until 1733, the year after he retired as an actor. He was also a prolific playwright, producing around thirty plays, around half of which were adaptations from plays written by other playwrights. His first and best known play is Love’s Last Shift, the tale of a woman who reforms her rakish husband after masquerading as a prostitute and seducing him. Other popular ones were She Would and She Would Not (1702), The Careless Husband (1704) and The Non-Juror (1717).
He got married in 1693 to Katherine Shore, the daughter of the Sergeant trumpeter to the King. She bore him twelve children, six of whom died in infancy. Two of the surviving ones, his son Theophilus and his daughter Charlotte became successful actors.
Cibber also wrote poetry, most of which was poorly regarded, in spite of which to the general outrage of the literary community, he was appointed poet laureate in 1730. This was a political rather than a meritocratic decision based on his untiring support for Robert Walpole’s Whig cause, as contemporary poets of the calibre of John Donne and Jonathan Swift, both Tories, were clearly superior. This and other issues sparked a long-running feud between Donne and Cibber, Donne later ridiculing him in his revised Dunciad as the King of Dunces. Cibber also wrote an autobiography in 1740 which, although full of self-praise, gives an interesting insight into the theatrical world of that period. Cibber died in 1757, having been cared for in his old age by his eldest daughter who was the principal beneficiary in his will.