Thomas Preston
The Lamentable Tragedy of

(Same play as Huff, Suff, and Ruff
played in Court during Christmas 1560/61 and now thought lost?)

circa 1558–1569

a synoptic, alphabetical character list

Full synopsis available, click here


The Vice character, Ambidexter enters the play dressed in mock armor and promises to corrupt all those with whom he comes in contact. Aids Sisamnes in his corruption and addresses his cousin the cutpurse who is in the audience. Lies to Cambyses that Lord Smerdis is anxious to inherit the throne from him, thus setting up Cambyses' treachery toward his brother. Upon hearing of the impending marriage of the King, he proposes to a young woman in the audience, and then, after fighting with and making up with Preparation, invites his cousin the cutpurse to attend the King's wedding banquet. Foretells the accidental death of Cambyses.


Agrees with Lord Smerdis and Diligence that the King drinks too much.


King of Persia. After inheriting the throne from his father, Cyrus, declares war with the Egyptians. Upon his victorious return, he hears charges of corruption against Sisamnes, and after a trial finds him guilty and sentences him to death. After being accused of drunkenness by Praxaspes, seeks to prove his sobriety by shooting an arrow through the heart of Sisamnes' youngest son. To calm his nerves, Cambyses has a drink of wine and proceeds to kill Sisamnes' son. After being lied to by Ambidexter, he has his younger brother executed by Cruelty and Murder. Dies, remorsefully, after accidently stabbing himself with his own sword while riding his horse.


Complaint seconds the charges leveled by Common's Cry against Sisamnes. To support the charges, Complaint brings along Proof and Trial.


Reveals Sisamnes' corruption to the returning King Cambyses.


Serves to second every proclamation made by Cambyses.


Along with Murder, executes Lord Smerdis and later, the new Queen.


At the behest of his mother, Venus, causes Cambyses to fall in love with the Lady, a first cousin to Cambyses.


Agrees with Attendance and Lord Smerdis that Cambyses drinks too much, but that the three of them should remain quiet about it until Smerdis inherits the throne.


At the behest of Cambyses, beheads and flays Sisamnes.


A clownish countryman, who along with Lob, gossips and complains of the King's cruelty, only to be overheard by Ambidexter. He is tricked by Ambidexter into fighting with his friend Lob, but is saved when Marian-May-Be-Good, Hob's wife, enters, beats and eventually chases off Ambidexter.


A ruffian soldier, Huf, along with Ruf and Snuf, fights briefly with Ambidexter, only to make up with the realization that Ambidexter can help them in their desire to gain from the war.


Vows to serve Cambyses, and his delegate Sisamnes during the war with Egypt.


Kinswoman of the King and later his Queen. Although initially reluctant to give in to Cambyses' advances, since she is his cousin, she ultimately gives in and marries him. On their wedding night she dares to question the morality of Cambyses' murder of his brother, and in a fit of anger, Cambyses has her executed.


A clownish countryman, who along with Hob, gossips and complains of the King's cruelty, only to be overheard by Ambidexter. He is tricked by Ambidexter into fighting with his friend Hob, but is saved when Marian-May-Be-Good, Hob's wife, enters, beats and eventually chases off Ambidexter.


Agrees with Cambyses' decision to go to war with Egypt and to leaving Sisamnes in charge for the duration of the war. Later warns Cambyses that the woman he is falling in love with is his own cousin.


Attendees at the King's wedding banquet, they plead with Cambyses to show mercy to his new wife. The three end the play celebrating the justice of Cambyses' accidental death.


Hob's wife, she reconciles Hob and Lob. She beats up and chases off Ambidexter.


A courtesan, she offers herself to the soldier with the most money, and then fights with Ambidexter, Ruf, Huf and Snuff when the four soldiers refuse to leave her alone. She concludes with Ruf agreeing to be her servant.


Mother of child and wife of Praxaspes. Laments the murder of her son by Cambyses.


Along with Cruelty, kills Lord Smerdis. Later, again at the behest of Cambyses, kills the new Queen.


The son of Sisamnes, he is called upon by Cambyses after Sisamnes is found guilty of corruption. He is warned by Cambyses not to repeat the sins of his father when he inherits his father's position as judge.


Announces the banquet and fights with Ambidexter, who knocks over a dish of nuts.


A counsel, he is present at the execution and flaying of Sisamnes. Warns Cambyses that despite his good judgement in ridding the realm of Sisamnes, Cambyses' own vices, namely drunkenness, are a hindrance to his rule.


Citing the classical tragic poet Agathon, notes that a good ruler must follow three rules: first, that he rule over men, second that he rule with justice, and third, that he acknowledge that he must not always reign. Continues by noting that Cambyses, in taking the throne from Cyrus, soon forgot the basic rules of kingship and ruled cruelly and unjustly.


Called upon by Common Complaint to prove the charges leveled against Sisamnes.


A ruffian soldier, Ruf, along with Huf and Snuf, fights briefly with Ambidexter, only to make up with the realization that Ambidexter can help them in their desire to gain from the war.


Returns from the underworld to reveal the wrongs and shameless deeds of Cambyses.


A judge who accepts the offer from Cambyses to serve in his place during the war with the Egyptians. Upon the departure of Cambyses, Sisamnes turns corrupt and uses his position for personal gain.


Complains to Sisamnes about how Sisamnes' corruption has ruined him and other simple men.


Younger brother of Cambyses, he complains to Ambidexter, Attendance and Diligence about his brother's drinking, but on the advice of Ambidexter, agrees to wait out his brother's reign. At his brother's command, and as a result of Ambidexter's lies, he is executed by Murder and Cruelty.


A ruffian soldier, Snuf, along with Ruf and Huf, fights briefly with Ambidexter, only to make up with the realization that Ambidexter can help them in their desire to gain from the war.


Verifies, along with Proof, the charges leveled against Sisamnes.


Makes her son Cupid cause Cambyses to fall in love with his cousin.


Waits upon the new Queen.


Killed with an arrow through his heart by Cambyses.


The Prologue enters and tells of the history of Cambises and of his noble father, Cyrus, who won great fame with his goodness and who left the kingdom to Cambises. Cambises was young when he took possession of the throne. He tells us that Cambises was a tyrant and did not rule two years.

Sc.I: Cambises enters and calls for his counselors to advise him upon the Egyptian campaign that he wishes to embark upon. He is told that the Egyptians are unruly, that he must crush them. But while he is at war he must leave a viceroy behind to rule Persia. He is also warned against the sin of drinking to excess and told that drunkenness makes poor kingship. He listens to their wise counsel and chooses Sisamnes to sit as Judge and viceroy while he is away fighting the Egyptians. The counselors know Sisamnes only by reputation, but he has a good reputation and they consent to Cambises' choice for viceroy. Sisamnes is called in and made viceroy. He is given a stern warning to rule fairly and well or face the consequences of his evil actions. Sisamnes swears his good intentions towards Cambises' domain. As soon as Cambises leaves Sisamnes alone, the viceroy plots how to take advantage of his new position.

Sc.II: Ambidexter "the Vice" enters the barracks where three soldiers prepare for the campaign. There is a humorous exchange and a fight between he and the soldiers (Huf, Ruf, and Snuf). The soldiers are mainly interested in winning loot in the war. The four are soon made friends. Ambidexter tells of his skill at using both of his hands in his affairs--"one must play with both hands" becomes a rallying cry in the play. Meretrix, a whore, enters and puts the men to flight, subdues Ruf and makes him her pander/protector.

Sc.III: Ambidexter meets his old friend, Sisamnes, whom he taught to play with both hands. The Judge gloats over "What abundance of wealth to me might I get." He is now accepts bribes in the cases that come before him. When Small Habilitie, a poor man, comes to him with a case and just cause he is dismissed summarily because he has no money with which to bribe the Judge.

Sc.IV: Shame enters with his trumpet. He tells of the change in Cambises. The king will no longer listen to counsel and has taken to drink. Cambises enters and hears from Commons Cry (e.g. "rumor") that Sisamnes has raped the kingdom. The judge denies the charge. Common Complaint brings a charge against the Judge of accepting bribes and oppressing the poor. Proof enters and verifies Common Complaint's charge. Sisamnes begs for mercy from Cambises. The king calls for the executioner and Otian, Sisamnes's son, to come to him. Otian begs for his father's life and offers his own instead. Cambises has Sisamnes executed in front of Otian as an object lesson. Otian then takes over his father's position in the court. Cambises orders that Sisamnes' corpse is to be flayed and his flesh pulled over his ears as a warning to Otian to avoid corruption.

Sc.V: Praxaspes, Cambises' counselor, advises the king that he is drinking too much. Cambises orders Praxaspes to fetch his own son to court. Cambises will prove by way of a test that he can hold his wine. He will drink a great amount and then attempting to shoot an arrow through the heart of Praxaspes's son. If he misses, he cannot hold his wine as Praxaspes says, and if he kills the boy, Praxaspes is wrong about the king's drunkenness.

Cambises drinks deeply, aims, and kills the boy. The king orders the boy's heart cut out so he can see where the arrow hit it. One of the guards does the king's bidding. Cambises leaves gloating about his ability to hold his liquor. Praxaspes and his wife mourn the death of the boy and take him from the stage.

Sc. VI: Ambidexter addresses the audience--especially his friends the pickpockets among the spectators. He foresees that Cambises will soon work a mischief against himself.

Smirdis, the king's younger brother, enters and announces his concern over Cambises' actions. Ambidexter advises him to stay clear of Cambises, as that is the only way to avoid trouble with the king. Smirdis' servants, Diligence and Attendance, agree. Cambises enters and professes his love for his brother and asks him to wait for him at the palace. Once Smirdis leaves, Ambidexter tells Cambises lies about Smirdis. He claims that Smirdis says awful things about Cambises, that Smirdis longs for Cambises' death. He suggests that Smirdis wants Cambises' throne. Cambises is enraged and calls for Cruelty and Murder to dispatch his brother at once.

Sc.VII: Cruelty and Murder overtake Smirdis and kill him on stage (here we are given insight into a Renaissance stage device: a bladder filled with vinegar allows them to spill his blood on stage).

Sc.VIII: Ambidexter enters lamenting the death of Smirdis, but soon begins to laugh. He is proud of his ability to work with both hands. He meets two clowns, Hob and Lob, who speak in the dialect familiar in rustic comedy such as Ralph Roister Doister and Gammer Gurton's Needle. Ambidexter tricks them into saying they wish their evil king were dead. He calls them traitors. He would extort a bribe from them to keep silent except that Hob's wife, Marian, enters and runs Ambidexter off with a broom. The clowns then go their way to market. Ambidexter returns, and Marian beats him again and chases him off stage.

Sc.IX: Venus enters with Cupid and causes Cambises to fall in love with a Lady kinsman. Despite the sin, Cambises forces her to accept his marriage proposal.

Sc.X: Ambidexter enters and expresses his surprise at the speed with which the wedding is readied and conducted. Preparation enters and makes a banquet ready. After a few more words addressed to his friends the pickpockets, Ambidexter retires to the banquet with the King, his new Queen, and guests.

The king tells a story of two whelps and a lion cub. He had one pup fight the cub; when it looked as though the pup would fail, the other whelp came to his rescue against the cub. This story makes the Queen cry to think how Cambises refused the protection to his own brother that dumb beasts show to their siblings. The Queen's judgment of Cambises' murder of Smirdis enrages the king. He orders the Queen's immediate execution. Two lords beg mercy for the Queen, but they are silenced by a threat that they, too, imperil their lives with their pleading. Murder and Cruelty are again called, and the Queen is left with them. Murder and Cruelty allow the Queen to sing a psalm forgiving the king before they take her off for execution.

Sc.XI: Ambidexter enters and tells of the deep mourning in the kingdom over the execution of the Queen. Cambises enters with a sword through his side. He was attempting to mount his horse when the sword came loose and pierced him. He lies down and dies horribly on stage with no one to help. Ambidexter fears he will be accused of killing the king and runs away. Three lords enter and find the body. They know what has happened to the king and see the accident as the working of God's will on the tyrant. Though he was evil, they say he will be given a burial befitting his title. They carry him from the stage.


Preston relies on Morality types (Murder, Cruelty, etc.) rather than the fully-developed psychological characters of latter Renaissance drama. When he needs absolute veracity in the trial of Sisamnes he relies on "Proof" as a character rather than taking the pains required to develop a complex character that would be accepted as reliable in court.

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Notes of Interest:

The playwright, Thomas Preston, is an enigma. We are not really certain who he was. Neither is the date of the play entirely certain. Cambises is a transition between the Morality play (with such characters as Ambidexter "the Vice," Murder, Cruelty, Preparation, Diligence, Attendance, Execution) and the chronicle play (because the character is based on an historical character drawn from Herodotus).

It has the elements of the later revenge play (indeed, Otian, Praxaspes, Smirdis's friends, the Queen's friends could all make good revengers). But this is a play about the Tudor idea of loyalty to the throne--no matter how bad the sovereign on the throne might be. The belief in the divine right of kings is strong here. The play's underlying theme returns to the notion that God put even this bad ruler on the throne (perhaps as a punishment for bad subjects). It would therefore be a mortal sin to conspire against the life of God's appointed minister. The perfect revengers types therefore become perfectly obedient subjects who trust in the will of God. What would today be considered dramatic tension is thereby lost.

Cambises begins as a good king. He listens to advice of counselors (although it may be argued that they are advising what he wants to hear and that is why he listens). He is absolute in his pursuit of justice, as when he has the corrupt Sisamnes executed. The circumstances surrounding the execution, however, (having Otian watch and having Sisamnes' body flayed) are extreme and cruel. He turns into a tyrant by his second appearance. He is a drunkard and will no longer listen to counsel. He goes so far as to kill one of his counselors' children when that counselor tries to do his duty to the king.

There is a well-constructed parallelism to the executions in the middle of the play. At first Cambises makes a son watch the brutal execution and dismemberment of a father. Next he makes a father watch the cruel murder and dismemberment of a son. The play, through the beginning at least, is in fourteeners written in rhyming couplets. When Ambidexter enters at Scene II his meter changes to iambic pentameter rhyming abab.

There are three interesting stage actions here involving on-stage violence. The execution of Sisamnes requires that the executioner "smite him in the neck with a sword to signify death" and that he flay Sisamnes "with a false skin." How this was accomplished would be an interesting examination. Second, the killing of Smirdis requires his blood to be spilt from a bladder filled with vinegar. This is another interesting bit of stagecraft betrayed off-handedly in a stage direction. In addition, the killing of Paxaspes's son with an arrow would be interesting to speculate upon. How was the boy is shot on stage? This is an action that is repeated later when Cupid shoots Cambises in view of the audience.

Plays to be compared:

Chronicle plays in general, since this would appear to be among the first of that tradition.

Shakespeare's Henry V (for several similar, albeit commonplace scenes--as the first in both plays where the sovereign asks for counsel about waging war abroad, the action of a messenger (French ambassador & Common Complaint) asking if he might speak freely or couch his message in "safe" terms and receiving permission to speak freely);

Shakespeare's Measure for Measure (for setting up a virtuous-seeming viceroy while the ruler is away and the viceroy proves to be a scoundrel);

Shakespeare's 1 Henry IV (for Falstaff's reference to Cambises and a quotation from the Queen's death scene);

Udall's (?) Respublica (for the vice element of a viceroy raping the land--Avarice and Sisamnes);

Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy (for the death of a son and the lamentation of father and mother over the boy's body);

Udall's Ralph Roister Doister and Stevenson's (?) Gammer Gurton's Needle (for the use of rural dialect);

Middleton's The Revenger's Tragedy (for the goading of a character over a slain ruler who cannot talk but only writhe in his death throes).

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