Steele is born to Richard Steele, an attorney, and Elinor Symes (née Sheyles). He is largely raised by his uncle and aunt, Henry Gascoigne and Lady Katherine Mildmay. A member of the Protestant gentry, he is educated at Charterhouse School, where he first meets Addison. After starting at Christ Church, Oxford, he goes on to Merton College, Oxford, then joins the Life Guards of the Household Cavalry in order to support King William’s wars against France. He is commissioned in 1697, and rises to the rank of captain within two years. Steele leaves the army in 1705, perhaps due to the death of the 34th Foot’s commanding officer, Robert Lucas, which limits his opportunities of promotion.
Steele’s first published work, The Christian Hero (1701), attempts to point out the differences between perceived and actual masculinity. Written while he serves in the army, it expresses his idea of a pamphlet of moral instruction. The Christian Hero is ultimately ridiculed for what some thought was hypocrisy because Steele did not necessarily follow his own preaching.
Steele writes a comedy that same year entitled The Funeral. This play meets with wide success and is performed at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, bringing him to the attention of the King and the Whig party. Next, Steele writes The Lying Lover, one of the first sentimental comedies, but a failure on stage. In 1705, he writes The Tender Husband, and later that year writes the prologue to The Mistake, by John Vanbrugh.
The Tatler, Steele’s first journal, is first published on April 12, 1709, and appears three times a week. Steele writes this periodical under the pseudonym Isaac Bickerstaff and gives Bickerstaff an entire, fully developed personality. Steele describes his motive in writing Tatler as “to expose the false arts of life, to pull off the disguises of cunning, vanity, and affectation, and to recommend a general simplicity in our dress, our discourse, and our behavior.”
Steele becomes a Whig Member of Parliament in 1713, for Stockbridge. He is soon expelled for issuing a pamphlet in favour of the Hanoverian succession. When George I of Great Britain comes to the throne in the following year, Steele is knighted and given responsibility for the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London. He returns to parliament in 1715, for Boroughbridge.
While at Drury Lane, Steele writes and directs the sentimental comedy The Conscious Lovers, which is an immediate hit. However, he falls out with Addison and with the administration over the Peerage Bill (1719), and in 1724 he retires to his wife’s homeland of Wales, where he spends the remainder of his life.
Steele remains in Carmarthen after his wife Mary’s death, and is buried there, at St. Peter’s Church. During restoration of the church in 2000, his skull is discovered in a lead casket, having previously been accidentally disinterred during the 1870s.