Charles Lamb was the youngest child of John Lamb, a lawyer's clerk. He was born in the Inner Temple and spent his youth there, later going away to school at Christ's Hospital. There he formed a friendship with Samuel Taylor Coleridge which would last for many years. After leaving school in 1789, he went to work for the South Sea House, whose subsequent downfall in a pyramid scheme after Lamb left would be contrasted to the company's prosperity in the first Elia essay. In 1792 he went to work for British East India Company, the death of his father's employer having ruined the family's fortunes. Charles and his sister Mary both suffered periods of mental illness, and Charles spent six weeks in an asylum during 1795. He was, however, already making his name as a poet.
In 1799, John Lamb died and Charles became guardian to Mary, whose mental instability prevented her from looking after herself. Lamb continued to work as a clerk for the East India Company and doubled as a writer in various genres, his tragedy, John Woodvil, being published in 1802. His farce, Mr H, was performed at Drury Lane in 1807. In the same year, Tales from Shakespeare (Charles handled the tragedies and Mary the comedies) was published, and became a best-seller for William Godwin's "Children's Library".
Charles, who had never married because of his family commitments, fell in love with an actress, Fanny Kelly, of Covent Garden, but she refused him and he remained until his death a bachelor. His collected essays, under the title, Essays of Elia, were published in 1823 ("Elia" being the pen-name Lamb used as a contributor to The London Magazine). A further collection was published ten years later, shortly before Lamb's death. He died of an infection, erysipelas, contracted from a cut on his face. His sister, who was ten years his senior, survived him.