George Etherege was born in Maidenhead, Berkshire, around 1635, to George Etherege and Mary Powney, as the eldest of six children. Educated at Lord Williams's School, he was also rumored to have been educated at Cambridge as well; however, John Dennis assures that to his certain knowledge he understood neither Greek nor Latin, thus rising doubts that he could hardly have been there. He served as apprentice to a lawyer and later studied law at Clement's Inn, London, one of the Inns of Chancery. He probably travelled abroad to France with his father who stayed with the exiled queen Henrietta Maria. It is possible that he witnessed in Paris the performances of some of Molière's earliest comedies; and he is thought, from an allusion in one of his plays, to have been personally acquainted with Roger de Rabutin, Comte de Bussy.
The success of this play was very great, but Etherege waited four years before he repeated his experiment. Meanwhile he gained the highest reputation as a poetical beau, and moved in the circle of Sir Charles Sedley, Lord Rochester and the other noble wits of the day. His temperament is best known by the names his contemporaries gave him, of "gentle George" and "easy Etheredge." In 1668 he brought out She would if she could, a comedy full of action, wit and spirit, although by some thought to be frivolous and immoral. But in this play Etherege first shows himself a new power in literature. We move in an airy and fantastic world, where flirtation is the only serious business of life. At this time Etherege was living a life no less frivolous and unprincipled than those of his Courtals and Freemans.
Between 1668 and 1671 Etherege went to Constantinople as secretary of the English ambassador Sir Daniel Harvey. After a silence of eight years, he came forward with one more play, unfortunately his last. The Man of Mode or, Sir Fopling Flutter, indisputably the best comedy of manners written in England before the days of Congreve, was acted and printed in 1676, and enjoyed an unbounded success. Besides the merit of its plot and wit, it had the personal charm of being supposed to satirize, or at least to paint, persons well known in London. Sir Fopling Flutter was a portrait of Beau Hewit, the reigning exquisite of the hour; in Dorimant the poet drew the Earl of Rochester, and in Medley a portrait of himself (or, equally plausible, of his fellow playwright and wit Sir Charles Sedley); while even the drunken shoemaker was a real character, who made his fortune from being thus brought into public notice.
After this brilliant success Etheredge retired from literature; his gallantries and his gambling in a few years deprived him of his fortune, and he looked about for a rich match. He was knighted before 1680, and gained the hand and the money of a rich widow. In March 1685 he was appointed resident minister in the imperial German court at Regensburg. After three and a half-year's residence and after the Glorious Revolution, he left for Paris to join James II in exile. His manuscript despatches are preserved in the British Museum, where they were discovered and described by Gosse in 1881; they are available in editions by Sybil Rosenfeld (1928) and Frederic Bracher (1974). He died in Paris, probably in 1691, for Narcissus Luttrell notes in February 1692 that Sir George Etherege, the late King James' ambassador to Vienna, had died recently in Paris.
Etherege holds a distinguished place in English literature as one of the "big five" of Restoration comedy. He inaugurated a period of genuine wit and sprightliness. He invented the comedy of manners, and led the way for the masterpieces of Congreve and Sheridan.
Etherege's portraits of fops and beaux are considered the best of their kind. His wit is sparkling and frivolous, his style picturesque. Etherege is noted for his delicate touches of dress, furniture and scene; he vividly draws the fine airs of London gentlemen and ladies, perhaps better than Congreve; but he has less insight and less energy than Congreve. His biography was first written in detail by Edmund Gosse in Seventeenth Century Studies (1883).