The Three Ladies of London


Robert Wilson wrote The Three Ladies of London apparently for the earl of Leicester’s Men in 1581. We know it was performed because it set off a strong reaction including an alternate ending (lost) and a response play called London Against the Three Ladies, also unfortunately lost, but recorded by Stephen Gosson in his Plays Confuted in Five Actions (1582),1 arguing that we do not punish players enough for the wickedness of their performances, as they did in ancient times:

Whether this be the practise of Poets in these dayes you may perceiue by the drift of him that wrote the play termed the three Ladies of London, which in the Catastrophe maketh Loue and Conscience to be examined how thrie good ladishippes like of playes? Loue answeres that she detesteth them, because her guttes are tourned outward, and all her secret conueighaunce, is blazed with colours to the peoples eye. Conscience like a kindharted gentlewoman doth alow them.
In this pointe the Poet makes so much hast to his iorneyes end, that he throwes him selfe headlong downe the hill. For neither Loue disliked them, before he had maried her to Dissimulation, whose propertie is to say one thing and thinke another: nor Conscience allowed them, before he had spotted her with all abhomination, whose nature is to allowe that which is like her selfe, filthie, corrupt, spotted, and defiled. The writer of the plaie called London against the three Ladies confesseth in his prologe that he made it partly for enuie, partly for a vaine glorious minde. For enuie: because his stomack would not beare the commendations, that other men gaue to the three Ladies in his hearing.
For vaine glorie: because he straue to do better himselfe, and misd the cushion; somewhat I graunt he bettered it in shewe, touching the substance he doth but cauill as I woulde declare, if it were not from the matter I take in hand. By these fewe you may gather of all the rest, and perswade your selues that as stages and Theaters are not allowed by the lawes of God, or man, to medle with disorders: so is it not the marke that theire authours shoote at when they fill those roomes If any deformity be reprehended there. it is to be done by the players mouth, he that will shewe another man his fault, must purge him selfe first. For as they were forbidden in old time to expounde anie Oracles which had anie infection about theire bodies: so haue they no grace in rebuking others, that nourish a canker in their owne soules. How are they able to pull vs vp that grouel as flatte in the dust as we? what credit, hath any good counsell in Players lippes, when it workes no amendment in themselues?

The play’s continuting popularity, however, is obvious, not only in its publication, after Wilson moved to the Queen’s Men (1584) but also in the sequel, Three Lords and Three Ladies of London (1590), prompting a fuller second edition of the original play in 1592, which adds and changes lines. Lloyd Kermode points out the continuing popularity of the play in later contemporary references as well, such as Edward Guilpin’s Skialetheia (1598), which comments on how virtue has become

                               vice's bawd,
Like the old moral of the comedy,
Where Conscience favours Lucar's harlotry.2

Robert Wilson stood on the cusp of economic and social change, and wrote the kind of biting satire that became more popular at the end of the 1590s, when city comedy took up the challenge of chastising London for the depravity of the day, correlating prostitution, gambling, trade, immigration, personal failings, as well as political and judicial bribes, to prompt a recognition of self as responsible for the corruptions affecting the population as a whole. Its liveliness on stage certainly had repercussions, and we hope our production will engage you in similar ways.

The contextual essays in the 'Contexts' web-section of the website deal with a wide variety of topics, in preparation for the discussions that will take place at the conference 23-25 June 2015 along with the performance of the play. For your convenience, in the Contexts section we list the essays in an index of citations, alphabetically ordered by author. The opening page index by images and themes allows you to access the essays by interrelated topics. The essays may appear several times to help readers locate the continuation of one thread of argument. The Performance as Research discussions are on a separate webpage in this section, but the keynote addresses and the critical play reviews will not be published until August 2015.


[1] Stephen Gosson, Playes Confuted in fiue Actions Chadwyck-Healey Literary Theory Full-Text Database (Cambridge, 1999), using this source-text: Gosson, Playes Confuted in fiue Actions (London, 1582).

[2] Lloyd Edward Kermode (ed.), ‘Introduction’, Three Renaissance Usury Plays, The Revels Plays Companion Library (Manchester, 2009), 28.