The first indications of young Lope's genius became apparent in his earliest years. At the age of five he was already reading Spanish and Latin, by his tenth birthday he was translating Latin verse, and he wrote his first play when he was 12.
His fourteenth year found him enrolled in the Colegio Imperial, a Jesuit school in Madrid, from which he absconded to take part in a military expedition in Portugal. Following that escapade, he had the good fortune of being taken into the protection of the Bishop of Ávila, who recognized the lad's talent and saw him enrolled in the University of Alcalá de Henares. Following graduation Lope was planning to follow in his patron's footsteps and join the priesthood, but those plans were dashed by his falling in love and realizing that celibacy was not for him.
In 1583 Lope enlisted in the army, and he saw action with the Spanish Navy in the Azores. Following this he returned to Madrid and began his career as a playwright in earnest. He also began a love affair with Elena Osorio, an actress and the daughter of a leading theater owner. When, after some five years of this torrid affair, Elena spurned Lope in favor of another suitor, his vitriolic attacks on her and his family landed him in jail for libel and, ultimately, earned him the punishment of eight years' banishment from Castile.
Lope's luck again served him well, and his ship, the San Juan, was one of the few vessels to make it home to Spanish harbors in the aftermath of that failed expedition. Back in Spain, he settled in the city of Valencia to live out the remainder of exile and to recommence, as prolifically as ever, his career as a dramatist.
In 1590 he was appointed to serve as the secretary to the Duke of Alba, which required him to relocate to Toledo.
In 1595, following Isabel's death, he left the Duke's service and – eight years having passed – returned to Madrid. There were other love affairs and other scandals: Antonia Trillo de Armenta, who earned him another lawsuit, and Micaela de Luján, who inspired a rich series of sonnets and rewarded him with four children. In 1598 he married Juana de Guardo, the daughter of a wealthy butcher. Nevertheless, his trysts with others – including Micaela – continued.
The 1600s were the years when Lope's literary output reached its peak. He was also employed as a secretary, but not without various additional duties, by the Duke of Sessa. Once that decade was over, however, his personal situation took a turn for the worse. His favorite son, Carlos Félix (by Juana), died and, in 1612, Juana herself died in childbirth. Micaela also disappears from the history around this point. Deeply affected, Lope gathered his surviving children from both unions together under one roof.
His writing in the early 1610s also assumed heavier religious influences and, in 1614, he joined the priesthood. The taking of holy orders did not, however, impede his romantic dalliances, although it is somewhat unclear what role his employeer the duke, fearful of losing his secretary, played in this by supplying him with various female companions. The most notable and lasting of his relationships during this time was with Marta de Nevares, who would remain with him until her death in 1632.
Further tragedies followed in 1635 with the loss of Lope, his son by Micaela and a worthy poet in his own right, in a shipwreck off the coast of Venezuela, and the abduction and subsequent abandonment of his beloved youngest daughter Antonia. Lope de Vega took to his bed and died of Scarlet Fever, in Madrid, on 27 August of that year.
A rapid survey of Lope's nondramatic works can begin with those published in Spain under the title Obras Sueltas (Madrid, 21 vols., 1776-79). The more important elements of this collection include the following: La Arcadia (1598), a pastoral romance, is one of the poet's most wearisome productions; La Dragontea (1598) is a fantastic history in verse of Sir Francis Drake's last expedition and death; El Isidro (1599) is a narrative of the life of Saint Isidore, patron saint of Madrid, composed in octosyllabic quintillas; La Hermosura de Angélica (1602), in three books, is a sort of continuation of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso. Lope de Vega is one of the greatest Spanish poets of his time, along with Luis de Góngora and Francisco de Quevedo. In the 1580s and 1590s his poems of moorish and pastoral themes were extremely popular, in part because Lope --who appears in these poems as a moor called Zaide or a shepherd called Belardo-- portrayed elements of his own love affairs. In 1602 he published two hundred sonnets with his La Hermosura de Angélica and in 1604 he republished them with new material in his Rimas. In 1614 his religious sonnets appeared in a book entitled Rimas sacras, which was another huge bestseller. Finally, in 1634 a third book of similar name, Rimas humanas y divinas del licenciado Tomé de Burguillos, which has been considered his masterpiece as a poet and the most modern poem book of the 17th century: Lope created a heteronym, Tomé de Burguillos, a poor scholar who is in love with a maid called Juana and who observes society from a cynical and disillusional position.
Lope belonged in literature to what may be called the school of good sense: he boasted that he was a Spaniard pur sang, steadfastly maintained that a writer's business is to write so as to make himself understood, and took the position of a defender of the language of ordinary life. Unfortunately, the books he read, his literary connections, and his fear of Italian criticism all exercised an influence upon his naturally robust spirit and, like so many others, he caught the prevalent contagion of mannerism and of pompous phraseology.
His literary culture was chiefly Latin-Italian and, while he defends the tradition of the nation and the pure simplicity of the old Castilian, he still did not wish to be taken for an uninformed person, a writer devoid of classical training: he especially emphasizes the fact that he has passed through university, and he continually accentuates the difference between those who know Latin and ignorant laymen.
Another reason for him to speak deprecatingly of his dramatic works was the fact that the vast majority of them were written in haste and to order. Lope does not hesitate to confess that "more than a hundred of my comedies have taken only twenty-four hours to pass from the Muses to the boards of the theatre." His biographer Pérez de Montalbán, a great admirer of this kind of cleverness, tells how on certain occasion in Toledo, Lope composed fifteen acts in as many days: that is to say, five entire comedies in two weeks.
In spite of some discrepancies in the figures, Lope's own records indicate that by 1604 he had composed, in round numbers, as many as 230 three-act plays (comedias). The figure had risen to 483 by 1609, to 800 by 1618, to 1000 by 1620, and to 1500 by 1632. Montalbán, in his Fama Póstuma (1636) set down the total of Lope's dramatic productions at 1800 comedias and more than 400 shorter sacramental plays. Of these 637 plays are known to us by their titles, but only the texts of some 450 are extant. Many of these pieces were printed during Lope's lifetime, either in compilations of works by various authors or as separate issues by booksellers who surreptitiously bought manuscripts from the actors or had the unpublished comedy written down from memory by persons they sent to attend the first performance. Therefore such pieces that do not figure in the collections published under Lope's own direction – or under that of his friends – cannot be regarded as perfectly authentic, and it would be unfair to hold their author responsible for all the faults and defects they exhibit.
Among the best known works of this class are El perro del hortelano ("The Dog in the Manger"), La viuda de Valencia ("The Widow from Valencia"), and El maestro de danzar. In some of these Lope strives to set forth some moral maxim and to illustrate its abuse by a living example. Thus, on the theme that poverty is no crime, we have the play entitled Las Flores de Don Juan. Here, he uses the history of two brothers to illustrate the triumph of virtuous poverty over opulent vice, while simultaneously (but indirectly) attacking the institution of primogeniture, which often places in the hands of an unworthy person the honor and substance of a family when the younger members would be much better qualified for the trust. Such morality pieces are, however, rare in Lope's repertory; generally, his sole aim is to amuse and stir his public, not troubling himself about its instruction. His focus remains fixed on the plot.
To sum up, Lope found a poorly organized drama: plays were composed sometimes in four acts, sometimes in three, and though they were written in verse, the structure of the versification was left far too much to the caprice of the individual writer. Because the Spanish public liked it, he adopted the style of drama then in vogue. Its narrow framework, however, he enlarged to an extraordinary degree, introducing everything that could possibly furnish material for dramatic situations: the Bible, ancient mythology, the lives of the saints, ancient history, Spanish history, the legends of the Middle Ages, the writings of the Italian novelists, current events, and everyday Spanish life in the 17th century. Prior to Lope, playwrights barely sketched the conditions of persons and their characters; with fuller observation and more careful description, Lope de Vega created real types and gave to each social order the language and accoutrements appropriate to it. The old comedy was awkward and poor in its versification; Lope introduced order into all the forms of national poetry, from the old romance couplets to the rarest lyrical combinations borrowed from Italy. He was thus justified in saying that those who should come after him had only to go on along the path which he had opened.