After preparatory education at Worplesdon and at Greenford, near Harrow, Kean is sent to Eton College, where he remains for three years. In 1827, he is offered a cadetship in the East India Company‘s service, which he is prepared to accept if his father would settle an income of £400 on his mother. The elder Kean refuses to do this, so he determines to become an actor. He makes his first appearance at Drury Lane on October 1, 1827 as Norval in John Home‘s Douglas, but his continued failure to achieve popularity leads him to leave London in the spring of 1828 for the provinces. In Glasgow, on October 1 of that year, father and son act together in Arnold Payne’s Brutus, the elder Kean in the title role and his son as Titus.
After a visit to the United States in 1830, where he is received with much favour, Kean appears in 1833 at Covent Garden as “Sir Edmund Mortimer” in George Colman‘s The Iron Chest, but his success is not pronounced enough to encourage him to remain in London, especially as he has already won a high position in the provinces. In January 1838, however, he returns to Drury Lane, and plays Hamlet with a success which gives him a place among the principal tragedians of his time. He marries the actress Ellen Tree (1805-1880) on January 25, 1842, and pays a second visit to the United States with her from 1845 to 1847.
Returning to England, Kean enters on a successful engagement at the Haymarket Theatre, and in 1850, with Robert Keeley, becomes lessee of the Princess’s Theatre, London. The most noteworthy feature of his management is a series of gorgeous Shakespearean revivals that aim for “authenticity.” He also mentors the young Ellen Terry in juvenile roles. In melodramatic parts such as the king in Dion Boucicault‘s adaptation of Casimir Delavigne‘s Louis XI, and Louis and Fabian dei Franchi in Boucicault’s adaptation of Alexandre Dumas‘s The Corsican Brothers, his success is complete. In 1854 the writer Charles Reade creates a play The Courier of Lyons for Kean to appear in, which becomes one of the most popular plays of the Victorian era.
From his “tour round the world” Kean returns to England in 1866 in broken health, and dies at the age of 57 in London on January 22, 1868. He is buried in All Saints Churchyard, Catherington, East Hampshire district, Hampshire.