Biography of Henrik Ibsen


Authored by Olivia Mansfield

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Norway experienced a multitude of economic, social and political changes. In 1841, just fourteen years before Ibsen was born, the Napoleonic wars were coming to an end and in the spring, the first liberal constitution and capital were created (Beyer 8). Because of the vast political changes surrounding Norway, Sweden and Denmark, Norway was not yet a developed country and relied heavily on agriculture. For another few years, 80-90% of Norwegians were involved in agriculture, whether owners, farmers or laborers. Because of this economic system, an upperclass had never flourished in Norwegian society (Beyer 8). However, due to the new political advances in 1814, Norway began establishing itself as a competitive and progressive country in Europe. By the mid 1870s when Ibsen began writing plays critiquing society, Norway was making significant economic progress, especially compared to other Western countries (Beyer 9).

Henrik Johan Ibsen was born to Knud Ibsen and his wife Marichen on March 20, 1828 in the small town of Skien on the coast of Norway (Meyer 17). His mother nurtured a life-long love of the theater and encouraged Ibsen with his artistic endeavors, and his father enjoyed great successful in his schnapps distillery; only sixteen others in the industry had a higher income than Knud Ibsen (27). However, this success unexpectedly was cut short when Ibsen’s father was “the victim of unfortunate financial transactions” and, because of the setback, struggled to pay taxes (“Short”). In 1834, Ibsen’s father’s distillery was shut down by the authorities, and because they were no longer able to afford or legally remain in their home, the family of six moved to a small country house in Venstop in June of 1835 (Meyer 28-29). This abrupt transition into poverty heavily influenced Ibsen’s childhood and strained Ibsen’s relationship with his father (34-35).

Ibsen’s artistic career began, ironically, when he left home at age fifteen to go to school for apothecary studies. His love for writing led him to publish his first drama in 1849. In the next fifteen years, Ibsen worked in various positions of artistic direction at multiple theatre, and in 1864 he left Norway and would continue to travel and write for nearly three decades (“Short”). Later in his career, Ibsen’s relationships became strained due to the fact that he grew increasingly focused on his writing and spent much of his time alone (Gilman 25).

suzannah thoresonHenrik Ibsen married Suzannah Thoreson, his beautiful and intelligent housewife and life partner (Templeton 46). They were married for 48 years, and she cooked, cleaned, sewed, nursed and kept the house for her husband, but she also participated in the intellectual conversation of their marriage, and the couple was said to seem unhappy because they were so commonly arguing (46). “But,” Templeton explains, “Ibsen loved and appreciated his strong-minded wife, whom he liked to call by the nickname, [“the eagle”] (Templeton 47).” Due to Ibsen’s history with financial instability, months after their son was born, Ibsen suffered from severe depression and anxiety about their financial situation. He was forced to borrow money, potentially from money-lenders, and sank lower into depression after going into debt and receiving lots of criticism from the theater (60).

Throughout his career Ibsen wrote one collection of poetry and 26 dramatic works, including Hedda Gabler, Pillars of Society, Pyre Gynt, and Ghosts (“A Listing”). Many, if not most, of Ibsen’s plays dealt with the complications of sexuality, the relationships between men and women, and the role of each gender in a marriage. Just two of Ibsen’s earlier plays,  Love’s Comedy and its preceding play, The Vikings at Helgeland, comment on the relationship between love and marriage (Templeton 62). Other plays, including Ghosts, show Ibsen’s protagonist as a woman who married out of convenience , and deal with issues of money and power (82). In several more of Ibsen’s plays, he questions a woman’s role in marriage and the definition of what it means to be a wife. 

Ibsen, hailed as the “Father of Realistic Contemporary Drama,” is credited with giving the “theatrical art a new vitality by bringing into European bourgeois drama an ethical gravity, a psychological depth, and a social significance which the theater had lacked since the days of Shakespeare” (Hemmer).


Works Cited

“A Listing of Ibsen’s Works.” National Library of Norway. N.p., 7 Apr. 2006. Web. 4 Apr. 2014.

Beyer, Edvard. Ibsen: The Man and His Work. Trans. Marie Wells. London: Souvenir (E & A), 1978. Print.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Henrik Ibsen. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1999. Print.

Gilman, Richard. The Making of Modern Drama: A Study of Büchner, Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, Pirandello, Brecht, Handke. Yale University Press, 2000.

Hemmer, Bjorn. Great Norwegians. University of Olso, n.d. Web. 12 April 2014.

Meyer, Michael. Henrik Ibsen: The Making of A Dramatist (1828 – 1864). London: Hart-Davis, 1967. Print.

“Short Ibsen Biography.” National Library of Norway. n.p., 30 May 2005. Web. 12 April 2014.

Templeton, Joan. Ibsen’s Women. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. Print.