Article Title

"Lamentable tragedy mixed full of pleasant mirth": The Enigma of Cambises


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

When Falstaff prepares to play the role of King Henry IV to a penitent Hal, he asks for a cup of sack to make his eyes look red from weeping, for, he says, "I must speak in passion, and I will do it in King Cambyses' vein" (I Henry IV Il.iv.386- 87). Falstaff's subsequent parody of Cambises' stilted, old-fashioned style coupled with the rude mechanicals' burlesque rendition of ''The most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisby," which recalls the mixture of tragedy and mirth promised in the title of Cambises, suggests Shakespeare's scorn for the popular tragedy printed a generation earlier; and for modern critics Cambises is the epitome of bad taste and "dramatic ineptitude."1 Yet the Thomas Preston identified as the author of the play both on the title page and at the end of the epilogue of the two undated quarto editions of the play is generally believed to be the well-known Cambridge academic who, after receiving his B.A. in 1557 and his M.A. in 1561 from King's College, became a Fellow at King's, then in 1584 Master of Trinity College, and finally in 1589-90 Vice- Chancellor of the University. Critics have wondered how such a distinguished scholar could have written such a crude play, particularly a Fellow who was recognized by Queen Elizabeth on her visit to Cambridge in 1564 for his skill in disputation and for his excellent performance in Halliwell's Dido.2 In the earlier twentieth century E. K. Chambers, J. M. Manley, and J. Q. Adams thought the Cambridge scholar's association with the play so incredible that they hypothesized that another Thomas Preston perhaps with connections to popular performance may have been responsible for the extant text of the play.3

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