Klinger was born of humble parentage at Frankfort-On-Main, on the 17th of February 1752. His father died when he was a child, and his early years were a hard struggle. He was enabled, however, in 1774 to enter the university of Gießen, where he studied law; and Goethe, with whom he had been acquainted since childhood, helped him in many ways. In 1775 Klinger gained with his tragedy Die Zwillinge a prize offered by the Hamburg theatre, under the auspices of the actress Sophie Charlotte Ackermann (1714-1792) and her son the famous actor and playwright, Friedrich Ludwig Schröder (1744-1816). In 1776 Klinger was appointed Theaterdichter to the "Seylersche Schauspiel-Gesellschaft" and held this post for two years. In 1778 he entered the Austrian military service and took part in the Bavarian war of succession. In 1780 he went to St. Petersburg, became an officer in the Russian army, was ennobled and attached to the Grand Duke Paul, whom he accompanied on a journey to Italy and France. In 1785 he was appointed director of the corps of cadets, and having married a natural daughter of the empress Catharine, was made praeses of the Academy of Knights in 1799. In 1803 Klinger was nominated by the emperor Alexander curator of the university of Dorpat, an office he held until 1817; in 1811 he became lieutenant-general. He then gradually gave up his official posts, and after living for many years in honourable retirement, died at Dorpat on the 25th of February 1831.
Klinger was a man of vigorous moral character and full of fine feeling, though the bitter experiences and deprivations of his youth are largely reflected in his dramas. It was one of his earliest works, Sturm und Drang (1776), which gave its name to this literary epoch. In addition to this tragedy and Die Zwillinge (1776), the chief plays of his early period of passionate fervour and restless "storm and stress" are Die neue Arria (1776), Simsone Grisaldo (1776) and Stilpo und seine Kinder (1780). To a later period belongs the fine double ragedy of Medea in Korinth and Medea auf dem Kaukasos (1701). In Russia he devoted himself mainly to the writing of philosophical romances, of which the best known are Fausts Leben, Taten und Höllenfahrt (1791), Geschichte Giafars des Barmeciden (1792) and Geschichte Raphaeis de Aquillas (1793). This series was closed in 1803 with Betrachtungen und Gedanken über verschiedene Gegenstände der Welt und der Literatur. In these works Klinger gives calm and dignified expression to the leading ideas which the period of Sturm und Drang had bequeathed to German classical literature.
Klingers works were published in twelve volumes (1809-1815), also 1832-1833 and 1842. The most recent edition is in eight volumes (1878-1880); but none of these is complete. A selection will be found in A. Sauer, Stürmer und Dränger, vol. 1. (1883). See E. Schmidt, Lenz und Klinger (1878); M. Rieger, Klinger in der Sturm- und Drangperiode (1880); and Klinger in seiner Reife (1896).