Christian Dietrich Grabbe was born in Detmold, the capital of Lippe, a small duchy in Westphalia (now in Germany), on December 11, 1801, the only son of a jail warden. A frail child, one of his earliest somber experiences consisted of conversations with a prisoner on death row. He always considered it his great misfortune to have been born in a provincial town in which an educated man was regarded as simply “a run-down fatted ox.” At the age of sixteen, he discovered the works of Shakespeare, and the direction of his literary career was decided: “I can only write . . . what Shakespeare did: dramas.” A grant from the duchy enabled him to study philosophy and history, first at the University of Leipzig, then at Berlin, where Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Wilhelm von Humboldt were then on the faculty. In both cities, he frequented literary salons and associated with young authors of the time, including Heinrich Heine and other Sturm und Drang, Romantic, and post-Romantic celebrities. Later, Heine gave Grabbe a rather left-handed compliment, praising him as “one of the greatest German dramatists, . . . a drunken Shakespeare.”
Grabbe often went to the theater, drank excessively, and visited houses of prostitution, where he probably contracted syphilis. After failing to get his first plays published or to obtain a job as an actor, the disheartened young man returned to Detmold, where, following a brief period of stagnation, he surprised everyone by passing his bar examinations. In 1826, he became a legal officer for the duchy’s small military contingent, a post he held until two years before his death, when he voluntarily retired because of ill health, alcoholism, and overwork, all of which impeded his literary productivity. In 1827, four of Grabbe’s plays were finally published; only one of his plays, however, Don Juan und Faustus, was ever performed during his lifetime, in 1829. In 1833, Grabbe married Louise Christiane Clostermeier, daughter of a local archivist and historian who had been instrumental in his obtaining the opportunity to go to the university; the marriage proved disastrous for both. Before a year was over, Grabbe began a wandering existence, first to Frankfurt, then to Düsseldorf. Finally, a sick and penniless man and an alcoholic, he borrowed money to return home to Detmold, an unwelcome patient in his wife’s house, only a few months before his death on September 12, 1836, in his mother’s arms.