Charles Lamb was born in Crown Office Row, Inner Temple, London, on February 10, 1775. His father, described under the name Lovel in Lamb’s essay “The Old Benchers of the Inner Temple,” was an assistant and servant to Samuel Salt, a member of Parliament. Through the generosity of Salt, Lamb in 1782 was allowed to enroll in the celebrated charity school, Christ’s Hospital, where he continued for seven years. Among his fellows was Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
In 1789 he left school and, in 1791, became a clerk in the South Sea House. In 1792 he went to work for the East India Company, where, except for a six-week period (1795-1796), when he was confined in an asylum, he was employed for thirty-three years, the span of time coinciding with his principal literary activities.
In 1796 his sister Mary, ten years his senior, who shared with him a hereditary mental disorder marked by recurrent mania, stabbed their mother to death. The responsibility of caring for Mary devolved upon Charles, who lived the rest of his life with her in what he called “a kind of double singleness.” They were devoted to each other, and she was both a good companion and a valuable literary collaborator during her long periods of lucidity. Her recurring intervals of instability, however, provided a source of anxiety for the rest of Lamb’s life. Mary appears as Bridget Elia in Lamb’s essays.
To Lamb’s close friendship with Coleridge is to be credited his emergence as a poet, and in Coleridge’s Poems on Various Subjects (1796) were included four sonnets by Lamb. Through Coleridge, Lamb established friendships with Dorothy and William Wordsworth, with Robert Southey, and with Charles Lloyd. In 1798 Lamb and Lloyd published a volume titled Blank Verse, assembling some of Lamb’s best lyrics, among them “The Old Familiar Faces.” The same year saw the publication of his prose romance A Tale of Rosamund Gray and Old Blind Margaret, a melodramatic and sentimental story with sources in Lamb’s family misfortunes. The income from his clerkship at the East India House, though assured, was small, and Lamb augmented his means by writing humorous sketches for newspapers. Aspiring to less transitory fame, he composed and offered to the actor John Kemble a tragedy, John Woodvil, which drew heavily on his favorites, the Elizabethans. Undeterred by indifference to this effort, he wrote a farce, Mr. H.: Or, Beware a Bad Name, a Farce in Two Acts, and enjoyed enthusiastic hopes when it was scheduled to be staged at Drury Lane. Produced in December, 1806, it was greeted with derision; Lamb added his own hisses to those of the audience.
Mary Lamb had been approached by the wife of William Godwin (later Percy Bysshe Shelley’s father-in-law) with the request that she prepare for Godwin, who was publishing books for children, a collection of prose versions of William Shakespeare’s plays. Accordingly, with her brother’s help, she wrote Tales from Shakespeare. The work achieved instant success, and Godwin got out a complete two-volume edition of the twenty tales as well as several illustrated sixpenny pamphlets each containing one. Charles Lamb wrote paraphrases of six tragedies; Mary Lamb, the remainder. He had already conceived one slight juvenile story for Godwin’s list, and afterward he furnished others, including Adventures of Ulysses, based on the Odyssey, and Mrs. Leicester’s School, the latter being chiefly the work of Mary Lamb.
In 1808 Lamb published Specimens of English Dramatic Poets, Who Lived About the Time of Shakespeare, with Notes. This volume prints brief excerpts from English Renaissance drama with Lamb’s often brilliant critical commentaries. This work demonstrated his originality as a critic and was an important contribution to the Romantic rediscovery of Tudor-Stuart drama.
Leigh Hunt, in 1810, began to edit a quarterly magazine, The Reflector . To this Lamb contributed some of his finest critical pieces, notably essays on William Hogarth and on...
(The entire section is 1,665 words.)