Hugo Laurenz August Hofmann Elder von Hofmannsthal was born into a cultivated Viennese family that attended the opera, dominated by Wagner, and kept a box at the Burgtheater, where the repertoire included ancient tragedy, Shakespeare, and Calderón. His father was a prominent bank director and prodigious reader; his mother, the daughter of a judge. He was educated privately to age ten, then entered the prestigious Vienna Academic Gymnasium, where he demonstrated a precocious intellect and read indefatigably. By age eighteen he had read Homer, Virgil, Dante, Voltaire, Shakespeare, Byron, and Browning in the original; he had also published his first poem, his first literary essay, and his first lyric play, Gestern (1891); and he had begun to move in a group of young writers including Felix Salten, Hermann Bahr, and Arthur Schnitzler. The elitist Stefan George, symbolist poet and arbiter of German poetic taste, sought Hofmannsthal out as a collaborator for a planned literary journal, Blätter für die Kunst. Its first issue (1892) featured Hofmannsthal's verse play Der Tod des Tizian.
Having entered Vienna University's law school at the behest of his father in 1892, he left in dissatisfaction and enlisted in the army in 1893, but returned to the university, where he completed his doctorate (1899) with a dissertation on language use among the French Pléiade poets. He married Gertrud Schlesinger in 1901 and fathered three children.
He achieved fame in an improbable range of literary genres and a similar range of forms within them. An already-accomplished lyric poet and literary critic, seen by some as a contender for Goethe's laurels, he turned to stage and narrative writing, producing as well over two hundred essays on a wide range of subjects—literature, art, music, drama, history, politics, and travel. Interest in reanimating Austria's performing arts led him, along with Max Reinhardt,