born at ‘The Hall’ at Yafforth in 1641 (Ingledew, Hist. of Northallerton, p. 288). The father, ‘possessed of a good estate,’ was, according to Clarendon, ‘of the quality of the better sort of grand jury men, who was esteemed a wise man, and was known to be trusted by the greatest men who had been in rebellion’ (Continuation of Life, 1759, p. 461). An ardent roundhead, he was made treasurer of his district during the Commonwealth, and he was granted the estate at Yafforth and Wickmore, Yorkshire, which he had previously rented at 200l. a year of the royalist owner, Sir Edward Osborne. At the Restoration Sir Edward's son, Thomas, compelled him to surrender these lands. Ralph Rymer, resenting this treatment, joined ‘the presbyterian rising’ in the autumn of 1663. He was arrested on 12 Oct., was condemned to death for high treason on 7 Jan., and was hanged at York. A son Ralph, who also engaged in the conspiracy, was detained in prison till 16 July 1666.
Thomas was educated at the school kept by Thomas Smelt, a loyalist, at Danby-Wiske. George Hickes [q. v.] was a schoolfellow. He was admitted a ‘pensionarius minor’ at Sidney-Sussex College, Cambridge, on 29 April 1658, at the age of seventeen. On quitting the university without a degree, he became a member of Gray's Inn on 2 May 1666, and was called to the bar on 16 June 1673 (cf. Foster, Reg. p. 300).
But literature rather than law occupied most of his attention. In 1668 he first appeared as an author by publishing a translation of a Latin anthology from Cicero's works called ‘Cicero's Prince;’ this he dedicated to the Duke of Monmouth. The special study of his early life was, however, dramatic literature, and he reached the conviction that neglect of the classical rules of unity had seriously injured the dramatic efforts of English writers. In 1674 he published, with an elaborate preface in support of such views, an English translation of R. Rapin's ‘Reflections on Aristotle's Treatise of Poesie.’ In 1677 he not only prepared an essay critically examining some typical English dramas in the light of his theories, but also wrote a play in which he endeavoured to illustrate practically the value of the laws of the classical drama. The play, which was not acted, was licensed for publication on 13 Sept. 1677, and was published next year (in 4to) under the title ‘Edgar, or the English Monarch: an Heroick Tragedy.’ It was in rhymed verse. The action takes place between noonday and ten at night. The plot was mainly drawn from William of Malmesbury. Abounding in strong royalist sentiments, the volume was dedicated to the king (other editions are dated 1691 and 1692). The only service that the piece rendered to art was to show how a play might faithfully observe all the classical laws without betraying any dramatic quality. Addison referred to it in the ‘Spectator’ (No. 692) as a typical failure.
Meanwhile Rymer's critical treatise was licensed for the press on 17 July 1677. It was entitled ‘The Tragedies of the Last Age consider'd and examin'd by the Practice of the Ancients, and by the Common Sense of all Ages, in a letter to Fleetwood Shepheard, esq.,’ 1678, sm. 8vo. Here Rymer promised to examine in detail six plays, viz. Fletcher's ‘Rollo,’ ‘King or no King,’ and ‘Maid's Tragedy,’ Shakespeare's ‘Othello’ and ‘Julius Cæsar,’ and Ben Jonson's ‘Catiline,’ as well as to criticise Milton's ‘Paradise Lost’ ‘which some are pleased to call a poem.’ But he confined his attention for the present to the first three of the plays only. He is uniformly hostile to the works criticised. Most of his remarks are captious, but he displayed wide reading in the classics and occasionally exposed a genuine defect. The tract was republished, with ‘Part I’ on the title-page, in 1692. He returned to the attack on ‘Othello’ in ‘A Short View of Tragedy: its Original Excellency and Corruption; with some Reflections on Shakespeare and other Practitioners for the Stage.’ This was published late in 1692, but bears the date 1693. In Rymer's eyes ‘Othello’ was ‘a bloody farce without salt or savour.’ He denies that Shakespeare showed any capacity in tragedy, although he allows him comic genius and humour. Both works attracted attention. Dryden wrote on the first volume some appreciative notes, which Dr. Johnson first published in his ‘Life of Dryden.’ The second volume was reviewed by Motteux in the ‘Gentleman's Journal’ for December 1692, and by John Dunton in the ‘Compleat Library,’ December 1692 (ii. 58). Dunton in his ‘Life and Errors’ (1818, p. 354) calls Rymer ‘orthodox and modest.’ Pope described him as ‘a learned and strict critic,’ and ‘on the whole one of the best critics we ever had … He is generally right, though rather too severe in his opinion of the particular plays he speaks of’ (Spence, Anecdotes). Comparing Rymer's critical efforts with Dryden's ‘Essay on Dramatic Poetry’ (1668), Dr. Johnson wrote that Dryden's criticism had the majesty of a queen, Rymer's the ferocity of a tyrant (Johnson, Lives of the Poets, ed. Cunningham, i. 341). Macaulay judged him to be the worst critic that ever lived. It is fairer to regard him as a learned fanatic, from whose extravagances any level-