Juan Ruiz de Alarcón had four brothers: Pedro Ruiz de Alarcón, who was rector at the College of Saint John Lateran, Hernando Ruiz de Alarcón who was a priest and is known for having written a treatise documenting the non-Christian religious practices of the Nahua Indians of central Mexico, Gaspar and García, about whom little is known.
He went to Spain in 1600, where he studied law at the University of Salamanca. He continued his studies towards a Licentiate in Law—roughly equivalent to a modern Master’s degree—which he finished in 1605, without, however, taking the degree. Instead, he practiced law for a while in Seville, then in 1608 went back to Mexico, and in 1609 received the licentiate from the University of Mexico. He completed his studies for his doctorate fairly soon thereafter, but never received the degree, in all likelihood because of the rather substantial costs attached to the ceremony. He worked as a legal adviser for a while, as an advocate, and as an interim investigating judge, all the while trying repeatedly and unsuccessfully to gain a teaching chair at the University.
Returning to Spain about 1611, he entered the household of the marquis de Salinas, and began a frustrating life of job-seeking at court. At the same time, purely as a way of making money apparently, he threw himself into the heady literary and theatrical life of the capital, eventually having a number of his plays performed. His first play, El semejante de sí mismo was unsuccessful, yet it attracted attention to him. By some, he was ridiculed and criticized; from others he obtained support.
For ten years, he pursued this double life, until he finally secured first an interim and then a permanent appointment to the Royal Council of the Indies (1626)—rather like an appeals court for Spanish colonies in the New World. Apparently, when political success came, he all but stopped his literary efforts—although he did have two volumes of his plays published (in 1628 and 1634), perhaps because some of them had been pirated and previously published with false attributions to his theatrical rival Félix Lope de Vega. After thirteen years of legal service to the crown, he died at Madrid in 1639.
He wrote at least twenty dramas, the most famous of which is La Verdad sospechosa, published in 1634). The first great French comedy in modern French literature, Corneille's Le menteur (The Liar), was confessedly modeled after La Verdad sospechosa. Embittered by his deformity, he was constantly engaged in personal quarrels with his rivals; but his attitude in these polemics is always dignified, and his crushing retort to Lope de Vega in Los pechos privilegiados is an unsurpassable example of cold, scornful invective.
More than any other Spanish dramatist, Alarcón was preoccupied with ethical aims, and his gift of dramatic presentation is as brilliant as his dialogue is natural and vivacious. It has been alleged that his non-Spanish origin is noticeable in his plays, and there is some foundation for the observation; but his workmanship is exceptionally conscientious, and in El Tejedor de Segovia he produced a masterpiece of national art, national sentiment and national expression.