He was the son of a magistrate in whom Ferdinand VII placed special confidence, and was born at Valladolid. He was educated by the Jesuits at the Real Seminario de Nobles in Madrid, wrote verses when he was twelve, became an enthusiastic admirer of Scott and Chateaubriand, and took part in the school performances of plays by Lope de Vega and Calderón.
In 1833 he was sent to read law at the University of Toledo, but, after a year of idleness, he fled to Madrid, where he horrified the friends of his absolutist father by making violent speeches and by founding a newspaper which was promptly suppressed by the government. He narrowly escaped transportation to the Philippines, and passed the next few years in poverty.
The death of the satirist Larra brought Zorrilla into notice. His elegiac poem, declaimed at Larra's funeral in February 1837, served as an introduction to the leading men of letters. In 1837 he published a book of verses, mostly imitations of Lamartine and Hugo, which was so favourably received that he printed six more volumes within three years. His subjects are treated with fluency and grace, but the carelessness which disfigures much of his work is prominent in these juvenile poems.
After collaborating with García Gutiérrez in a piece entitled Juán Dondolo (1839) Zorrilla began his individual career as a dramatist with Cada cual con su razón (1840), and during the following five years he wrote twenty-two plays, many of them extremely successful. His Cantos del trovador (1841), a collection of national legends versified with infinite spirit, showed a decided advance in skill, and secured for the author the place next to Espronceda in popular esteem.
National legends also supply the themes of his dramas, though in this department Zorrilla somewhat compromised his reputation for originality by adapting older plays which had fallen out of fashion. For example, in El Zapatero y el Rey he recasts El montanés Juan Pascual by Juan de la Hoz y Mota; in La mejor Talon la espada he borrows from Moreto's Travesuras del estudiante Pa-atoja; in Don Juan Tenorio he adapts from Tirso de Molina's Burlador de Sevilla and from the elder Dumas's Don Juan de Marana (which itself derives from Les dames du purgatoire of Prosper Mérimée). But his rearrangements usually contain original elements, and in Sancho García, El Rey loco, and El Alcalde Ronquillo he apparently owes little to any predecessor. The last and (as he himself believed) the best of his plays is Traidor, inconfeso y mártir (1845).
Upon the death of his mother in 1847 Zorrilla left Spain, resided for a while at Bordeaux, and settled in Paris, where his incomplete Granada, a striking poem of gorgeous local colour, was published in 1852. In a fit of depression, the causes of which are not known, he emigrated to America three years later, hoping, as he says, that yellow fever or smallpox would carry him off. During eleven years spent in Mexico he produced little, and that little was of no merit. He returned in 1866, to find himself a half-forgotten classic. His old fertility was gone, and new standards of taste were coming into fashion.
A small post, obtained for him through the influence of Jovellar and Cánovas del Castillo, was abolished by the republican minister. He was always poor, and for some twelve years after 1871 he was in the direst straits. The law of copyright was not retrospective, and, though some of his plays made the fortunes of managers, they brought him nothing. In his untrustworthy autobiography, Recuerdos del tiempo viejo (1880), he complained of this. A pension of 30,000 reales secured him from want in his old age, and the reaction in his favour became an apotheosis.
In 1885 the Spanish Academy, which had elected him a member many years before, presented him with a gold medal of honour, and in 1889 he was publicly crowned at Granada as the national laureate. He died at Madrid on the January 23 1893.
Zorrilla is so intensely Spanish that it is difficult for foreign critics to do him justice. It is certain that the extraordinary rapidity of his methods seriously injured his work. He declares that he wrote El Caballo del Rey Don Sancho in three weeks, and that he put together El Puñal del Godo (which, like La Calenture, owes much to Southey) in two days; if so, his deficiencies need no other explanation.
An improvisator with the characteristic faults of redundance and verbosity, he wrote far too much, and in most of his numbers there are numerous technical flaws. Yet the richness of his imagery, the movement, fire and variety of his versification, will preserve some few of his poems in the anthologies. His appeal to patriotic pride, his accurate dramatic instinct, together with the fact that he invariably gives at least one of his characters a most effective acting part, have enabled him to hold the stage. It is by Don Juan Tenorio, the play of which he thought so meanly, that Zorrilla will be best remembered.