The Spotting of Lady Conscience in The Three Ladies of London

Andrea Stevens

The allegorical figure of ‘Usury’ brings on stage a ‘paynted boxe of incke’ out of which Lady ‘Lucre’ paints the face of Lady ‘Conscience’, possibly in full view of the audience. The ‘painted box’ likely contained black face paint: by 1581, besmirching the face with black paint was a common method for signaling ugliness and moral corruption. In scripting this scenario from beauty to blackness, Wilson was invoking a complex performance tradition, from the symbolic use of blackface in late medieval drama, to the similarly symbolic use of blackness in Tudor interludes and morality plays, and finally to the use of blackface paint to signify racial difference in court masques and popular plays. This paper considers the dramatic analogues for this scene (in performances that both pre- and post-date The Three Ladies of London) before addressing how Wilson exploits the real-world religious, cultural, and medical associations of face paints to reinforce his allegorical narrative of the fall of Conscience.

In Robert Wilson’s 1581 morality play The Three Ladies of London, the allegorical figure of ‘Usury’ brings on stage a ‘painted box of ink’ out of which Lady ‘Lucre’ paints the face of Lady ‘Conscience’, probably in full view of the audience, the stage direction stipulating ‘Here let [Lady] Lucre open the box and dip her finger in it, and spot Conscience[’s] face’ (10.104 sd 1-3). As Lucre paints Conscience, she praises the ‘reds’ and ‘whites’ of Conscience’s face even as she is, in fact, ‘spotting’ or blotting those colors ‘with all abomination’ (125). After this face-painting scene Conscience exits, re-entering at the play’s conclusion when she, along with Lady Lucre, are summoned for judgment. At a trial presided over by Judge ‘Nemo’, Conscience identifies Lucre as the author of her ‘deformity’ and, although penitent, is nevertheless sent to prison ‘there to remain until the day of the general session’ (17.82; 99). Once spotted, Conscience is never again seen fair and beautiful. The scene is among the play’s most theatrical episodes; it clearly struck one viewer, the strident anti-theatricalist Stephen Gosson, who in his Plays Confuted in Five Actions (1582) recalls ‘the play termed the three Ladies of London’ and the degeneration of Lady Conscience from virtuous gentlewoman to ‘filthie, corrupt, spotted, and defiled’ sinner (D2r).

The ‘painted box’ likely contained black face paint: by 1581, besmirching the face with black paint was a common method for signalling ugliness and moral corruption. Wilson’s earliest audiences would thus have read Conscience’s black spots as indelible marks of spiritual disease and, to be sure, of physical disease, the spots also evoking the black patches worn by men and women alike to hide the tell-tale marks of venereal disease. If the scene is theatrically vibrant, it is also richly metadramatic in that Lady Conscience is played by a boy whose ‘femininity’ is created by the iconic red and white cosmetics to which Lucre calls attention as she paints Conscience’s face: ‘This face is of favour, these cheeks are reddy and white. / These lips are cherry-red, and full of deep delight’ (10.107-8). In watching the black paint overlay the reds and whites, the audience is perhaps reminded of the material constructedness of all theatrical identities.

By scripting this scenario from beauty to blackness, Wilson was invoking a complex performance tradition, from the symbolic use of ‘blackface’ in late medieval drama, to the similarly symbolic use of blackness in Tudor interludes and morality plays, and finally to the use of black face paint to signify racial difference in court masques and popular plays.1 In what follows, I will first examine some dramatic analogues for this scene (in performances that both pre- and post-date The Three Ladies of London) before addressing how Wilson exploits the real-world religious, cultural, and medical associations of face paints to reinforce his allegorical narrative of the fall of Conscience. I will conclude by addressing the practical issues involved in performing this scene in 2015, in front of audiences with radically different horizons of expectation about what it might mean to watch an actor (male or female) spotted with black face paint.

Black and White

The trope of blackness recalls the tradition of black-faced devils and doomed souls in the medieval cycle drama. Guild records list any number of payments to painters for their work in ‘blackening’ the faces of performers, the contrastive use of blackness against whiteness an important part of the visual vocabulary of pre-Reformation religious drama. The York pageant of the Creation of the Angels and the Fall of Lucifer, for example, takes as its plot the rebel angels’ visible transformation from fair brightness to ‘loathsome’ blackness:

LUCIFER, DEIABOLUS IN INFERNO     Owte, owte! harrowe!
        Helples, slyke hote at es here!
        This es a dongon of dole that I am to dyghte!
        Whare es my kynde become, so cumly and clere?
        Nowe am I laytheste, allas, that are was lighte.
        My bryghtnes es blakkeste and blo nowe;
        My bale es ay betande and brynande:
        That gares ane go gowlande and gyrnande.
        Owte, ay walaway! I well enew in wo nowe! (97-104)2

Elsewhere in the York cycle, much as Conscience is left spotted until ‘the day of the general session’, so too do the damned souls summoned before God in the Doomsday pageant appear visibly blackened, the evidence of their sins in life clearly blazoned on their faces:

Oure wikkid werkis thei will us wreye
That we wende never schuld have bene weten;
That we did ofte full pryvely,
Appertely may we se them wreten.
Allas, wrecchis, dere mon we by,
Full smerte with helle fyre be we smetyn.
Nowe mon nevere saule ne body dye,
But with wikkid peynes evermore be betyne. (129-38)

In the fifteenth-century morality play Wisdom Who Is Christ Anima or the ‘soul’ progresses from innocence, through a period of defacement in which she appears visibly blackened ‘in þe most horrybull wyse, fowlere þan a fende,’ before – unlike Conscience – reappearing restored to whiteness.3 The play explains this black-against-white color scheme as follows:

Thes tweyn do sygnyfye
Yowr dysgysynge and yowr aray,
Blake and wyght, fowl and fayer verily,
Euery sowll here, þys no nay,
Blake by sterynge of synne þat cummyth all-day,
Whych felynge cummythe of sensualyte,
And wyghte by knowenge of reson veray
Off þe blyssede infeynt Deyte. (149-56)

The anonymous author of the explicitly secular, rather than religious, pseudo-history The Trial of Chivalry (1605) may well have had these examples in mind when he invents a plot in which a woman, like Anima and Conscience, finds her beauty blighted – although here, through no fault of her own, but rather through the agency of a jealous lover who, because he can’t have her, ‘forces the sparkling beauty from [her] face’:

BURBON     Seing neyther words, kind letters, hearty sighes,
        Humble intreaty, nor a world of payne,
        Can moue you to take pitty of my loue:
        But Tyrant-like, your beauty seeks my life,
        I will blot out that beauty with this iuice.
        Thus, thus I wipe away my passions:
        Thus doe I heale the torments of my loue:
        Thus doe I ransome my inthralled eye,
        And by depriuing of the cause of life,
        Kill th’effect, which was a world of sorrow.
        Farewell, foule Bellamira, I am pleasde
        In this reuenge, that no way could be eased…

BELLAMIRA     Poyson my face! oh most inhumane wretch!
        Reuenge more vile, then to abbridge my life.
        What, Thomasin, what, brother Ferdinand:
        My kingly father: is there none that heares?
        Then Treason, treason, let that waken you:
        For capitall is this offence to me.

        Enter Navar, Pembrooke, Ferdinand, and Thomasin

THOMASIN     O Jesu, mistris, what ayles your face!

NAVAR     Her face!

FERDINAND     Tis spotted like a Panthers skin.

PEMBROKE     O, were those spots as kindly beautifull,
        Then were fayre Bellamira vndeform'd.

NAVAR     O, what divine power hath sent this Leprosy? (831-59)

The reaction of the onstage spectators suggests that Burbon, in order to ‘wipe’ the beauty from Bellamira’s face, has in fact blotted the boy actor’s reds and whites with black spots that are then taken for signs of disease (as mentioned above, the effect of spotting also mimics the real-world use of black patches). Of course, had Burbon actually ‘wiped’ the cosmetics from the boy actor’s face, an altogether different sort of transformation would have taken place: the undoing of the fiction of Bellamira’s femininity.

If, in the examples above, the use of black face paint is predominantly symbolic or aesthetic, I suggest that any instance of the use of black face paint (especially by the 1590s, in the wake of such plays as The Battle of Alcazar and Titus Andronicus) cannot help but evoke the use of paint to signify racial difference. To be sure, even within pre-Reformation religious drama, colour symbolism coexisted uneasily alongside notions of racial difference – consider, for example, the occasional devils also referred to as ‘ethiops’. The most well-known case of a performance that purposefully merges these narratives of beauty, so-called ‘ugliness’, and transformation to a consideration of actual racial identities is Ben Jonson’s notorious Masque of Blackness (1605). Featuring Queen Anna and members of her court wearing black paint on their faces and bodies, the masque tells the story of the daughters of Niger who travel to ‘Albion’ to wash themselves white in English waters (although the masque does not contain a final revelation scene in which audiences actually see this wish fulfilled).

My final example of the analogous use of black face paint to mar beauty comes from Thomas Heywood’s 1634 comedy Love’s Mistress, or the Queen’s Masque (incidentally, Heywood, who praises Wilson in his Apology for Actors, has occasionally been suggested as the author of The Trial of Chivalry).4 Performed at court and later on the public stage, the play includes two episodes that clearly allude to the spotting of Conscience in The Three Ladies of London. In the first, Psyche is defaced with black face paint for the sin of looking at Cupid; in the second, a rustic clown, thinking he has stolen a magical ‘box of beauty’, mistakenly spots himself with black paint taken from a stage device similar to Wilson’s box of ‘all abomination’.

When Psyche disobeys her husband’s command never to look upon his face, Cupid orders the figure of ‘Boreas’ to destroy the paradise in which they live and ‘blast’ Psyche’s beauty:

Lay waste and barren this faire flow’ry grove,
And make this paradise a den of snakes.
For I will have it uglier then hell,
And none but ghastly screech-owls here shall dwell.
Breathe winter’s storms upon the blushing cheeks
Of beauteous Psyche; with thy boisterous breath,
Rend off her silks, and clothe her in torn rags;
Hang on her loathed locks base deformity,
And bear her to her father; leave her there,
Barren of comfort, great with child of fear. (3.1.66-75)

Exiting ‘with a great storme’, Psyche re-enters approximately 140 lines later with ravaged clothing and a ‘disfigured’ face (the blackening is evident from the text):

PSYCHE     Where art thou Psyche, how art thou deformed?
       What air affords thee breath? What men be these?
       Where shall I hide me? Let no human eye
       Behold me thus disfigured, and ashamed.
       My Father, Brothers, and my Sisters too,
       That wrought my fall, what shall poor Psyche do?


Astioche     Spurn her away,
       ‘Tis some infectious strumpet, and her breath
       Will blast our cheeks; her sight is worse than death. (3.2.140-52)

Psyche reappears in the final scene of the play triumphantly restored to beauty, her entrance cued with the line, ‘Her leprosy, through labour, is made clear / And beauteous in your eye she’ll now appear’ (5.3.53-4).

If Pysche’s dramatic changes of face and clothing take place in lengthy intervals spent offstage, the Clown plot stages the transformation in full view of the audience. The clown thinks he has in his possession a magical ‘box of beauty’ that Psyche, at Venus’s command, retrieved from Hell, not knowing that Cupid has in fact substituted a ‘box of ugly painting’ in its place. Instead of becoming the ‘Adonis’ or ‘the white boy of Arcadia’ of his fantasy, then, the clown unknowingly blackens his face:

Come box of beauty, and for white and red.
Put down Jove’s Page, the smooth-faced Ganymed.
Daub on, daub on, as thick as thou canst lay on,
Till thou exceed the ferryman called Phaon.
Cupid compared with me, shall be a toy,
And look but like the sign of the black boy.
My face shall shine just as my hand disposes:
In one cheek I’ll plant lilies, in t’other roses. (5.2.55-78)

When the clown’s fellow rustics arrive on the scene they ask, horrified, ‘what is that upon thy face’?

CLOWN Beauty, boys, beauty.

2ND SWAIN Beauty dost call it! I prithee from whence came it?

CLOWN Marry, from Hell.

2ND SWAIN From Hell, I believe it, for it hath made thee look like a devil already. (5.2.89-100)

Unlike Psyche, the clown is never shown restored (and, given the references to blackened devils, once again we see how long the memory of cycle drama persists after the Reformation).

Face Painting as Blasphemy

I have read the device of ‘black ink’ as a category of cosmetics. If throughout The Three Ladies of London we explore the vices of dissimulation, luxury, hypocrisy, and deceit at length, these were the very vices that anti-cosmetic tracts attributed to women’s use of face paints; to provide one brief example, Philip Stubbes in his Anatomy of Abuses (1583) accuses painted women of ‘turning truth into falshoode, with painting and sibbersawces’.5 Both Lady Lucre, who wields the brush, and Conscience, who becomes painted, can therefore be seen as examples of the corrupt ‘designing women’ condemned by sixteenth-century moralists like Stubbes and Thomas Tuke, who likens face painting to blasphemy: ‘What shal God say to such in the last Judgement, when they shal appeare thus masked before him with these antifaces: Friends, I know you not, neither do I hold you for my creatures: for these are not the faces that I formed’.6 To be sure, for Wilson’s Protestant audience the threat of the ‘designing woman’ suggests the most dangerous painted woman of them all: that ‘strumpet of all strumpets, the Mother of Whoredome’, the Catholic Church.7 The painting of Conscience, then, can be considered as evidence of the play’s anti-Catholic sentiment that Erin Kelly discusses elsewhere on this site.8

Finally, as I have argued at length elsewhere, whenever paint is introduced as a special effect in early modern drama, its real-world associations come into play. Medical and moral tracts depicted paint as an agent of disease and spreading contamination, threats explored in many of the examples above. Not only, then, does the device produce the theatrical illusion of illness or defilement, given the often literally poisonous ingredients of early modern cosmetics such as mercury and lead, face paints could actually cause physical injury.9 In other words, what early modern audiences knew or believed about paint’s material properties gives force to the idea of Conscience’s ‘corruption’, of Psyche’s ‘infectious’ condition, and of Bellamira’s ‘leprosy’ (see also the ‘death by poisoned kiss’ plot device in which tyrants die after kissing the painted lips skulls). Disease, plague, corruption, idolatry: Wilson’s ‘painted box of ink’ is more than a discrete prop and the mechanism by which Conscience’s deterioration is made visible; it is part of the very fabric of the play and its complex network of associations.

Paint and Transformation

It is far easier for early modern actors to transform themselves with readily detachable prosthetics: the donning or doffing of a mask, a cloak, a patch, a wig. When transformations take place using paint, these transformations must be timed more carefully, especially instances of the paint’s removal: given their physical constitutions, early modern paints were easier to apply than to wash away.10 Given that, once spotted, Conscience is never seen restored to whiteness (that transformation takes place in the sequel), I see no particular challenge in staging The Three Ladies of London with respect to timing; furthermore, the appeal of the spotting scene is that it takes place in view of the audience rather than backstage. That said, I note that once Conscience is spotted she disappears from the play only to return at the very end, this lengthy absence offering the opportunity for the actor to amplify the special effects backstage and return in the final scene even more visibly deteriorated when summoned for judgment.

The spotting of Conscience does, however, have implications for the play’s doubling scheme. As Helen Ostovich argues, for the majority of the play the boy who plays Lucre can handily double the part of Love (this doubling scheme is also evident in the stage direction ‘Let Lady Lucre make ready for [Lady] Love quickly, and come with Diligence’ (17.62 sd 2-3).11 However, in scene 15, which takes place after the spotting scene, Love and Lucre must appear together, and so we can speculate that it falls to the boy actor playing Conscience to take this part of Love. That Love enters the scene wearing a ‘vizard’ (or indeed a mask as well as a hood or headdress, given the references to Love’s ‘swelled’ head) is therefore as much of a practical necessity as a symbolic choice unto itself. This fact – that Conscience, now signifying ‘Love’, is spotted with black paint – intersects in provocative ways with Lucre’s claim to see, under Love’s mask, a face that is ‘fair and well-favoured, with a countenance smooth and good’ (15.13-14). The irony is rich; and well might Lucre admire this face – she’s also admiring her own handiwork, since it is she who painted Conscience in the first place.

Because cosmetics similarly produced the appearance of femininity, any scene of the blackening of a boy actor circa 1581 would involve the collision of competing sign systems sharing the same materiality, as I discussed above; performed now with a female actor, this scene of the spotting of Conscience would necessarily be less metadramatic or self-reflexive (for good or ill). What is perhaps most important to recognize, though, is that in 2015 we no longer share the same horizon of expectation for interpreting black paint: it is unlikely that contemporary viewers would immediately associate cosmetics with sin and spiritual and physical decay or connect black spottedness to the visual rhetoric of medieval religious drama. I also suggest that, for the most part, we no longer share with the early modern subject the same concept of what it is to have a body in the first place, a porous or ‘leaky’ body vulnerable to influence from without – a body more at risk, then, from undergoing the sort of bodily transformation that Wilson envisions for Conscience.12

Finally, The Three Ladies of London explores racial and religious difference in a way that might make contemporary viewers ‘uneasy’. Is it possible that the spectacle of black spottedness might strike at least some twenty-first century viewers as a form of ‘minstrelsy’ within a play that also, at least in its Mercadore-Gerontus ‘turning Turk’ subplot, emphasizes the corrupting influence of ‘foreigners’, as Anders Ingram discusses; in other words, the subject matter of the subplot forces to our attention questions of race and identity that will, in turn, potentially impact the audience’s perception of the degradation of the Conscience narrative.13 Or, to contemporary eyes, will the blackened face of Conscience be seen in allegorical and symbolic terms, without any ‘ghosted’ trace of racialized blackface performance – a reading perhaps ensured by the play’s overt didacticism, together with what Jeremy Lopez describes as its ‘peculiar verse form’, the anything-but-naturalistic succession of rhyming couplets written in an awkward, not-quite-fourteener meter?14

The challenge to potential directors of Three Ladies of London, then, is to decide whether to try to ‘update’ it by somehow translating for contemporary audiences the lost contexts I enumerated above (if such transformation is even possible), or whether to embrace the play’s historical distance (granting the fact that audiences are not, of course, homogenous entities and that directors are not limited to choosing one approach to the total exclusion of any other).


[1] I have written about some of these examples in my chapter ‘Cosmetic Transformations’, Farah Karim-Cooper and Tiffany Stern (eds), Shakespeare’s Theatres and the Effects of Performance (London, 2013); see also my monograph Inventions of the Skin: The Painted Body in Early English Drama, 1400-1642 (Edinburgh, 2013). On the topic of early modern cosmetics see also Karim-Cooper, Cosmetics in Shakespearean and Renaissance Drama (Edinburgh, 2006). References to The Three Ladies of London are from Lloyd Edward Kermode’s Revels edition Three Renaissance Usury Plays (Manchester, 2009). Unless otherwise stipulated, references to the other plays I cite are to electronic editions on the Chadwyck-Healey database of English Drama,

[2] All references to the York cycle drama are taken from Clifford Davidson’s edition for the Medieval Institute Publications (Kalamzoo, 2011),

[3] See David Bevington, ‘“Blake and wyght, fowl and fayer”: Stage Picture in Wisdom Who Is Christ’, Comparative Drama 19.2 (Summer, 1985): 136-50.

[4] Heywood, Love’s Mistress, ed. Raymond C. Shady (Salzburg, 1977).

[5] I located Stubbes on Early English Drama Online (EEBO), but the pages had no signatures: in the photographed document, it is on image 44.

[6] Thomas Tuke, A Treatise Against Painting and Tincturing of Women (London, 1616), B3v (on EEBO, document image 8). For her discussion of ‘designing women’, see Frances Dolan, ‘Taking the Pencil Out of God’s Hand: Art, Nature, and the Face-Painting Debate in Early Modern England’, Publications of the Modern Languages Association of America 108.2 (1993 March), 224-39.

[7] From An Homilie Against perill of Idolatrie, and superfluous decking of Churches (London, 1571), 2678-9. For her astute analysis of this homily, see Susan Zimmerman, The Early Modern Corpse and Shakespeare's Theatre (Edinburgh, 2007).

[8] See Kelly’s ‘Anti-Catholicism and Protestant Polemic in Robert Wilson’s Three Ladies of London’.

[9] On paints as poisons, see also Karim-Cooper, Cosmetics in Shakespearean and Renaissance Drama, and Tanya Pollard’s chapter on “Cosmetic Theater” in Drugs and Theater in Early Modern England (Oxford, 2005).

[10] We shouldn’t think of early modern paints as supple or flexible along the lines of contemporary cosmetics; Karim-Cooper, for example, argues that players may have applied the same pigments to their bodies as they did to the walls of the playhouse (Cosmetics in Shakespearean and Renaissance Drama, 136-7).

[11] See Helen Ostovich's essay on ‘Doubling Love’ on this website.

[12] In Inventions of the Skin I argue that ‘the actor’s physiology is a ‘potentiality’ within the play that is activated when players are painted or stripped of paint in view of the audience, or when players metadramatically comment upon what it feels like to inhabit their painted bodies’, 64. On early modern conceptions of embodiment, see Gail Kern Paster, Humoring the Body: Emotions and the Shakespearean Stage (Chicago, 2004).

[13] See Ingram's ‘Turks, Trade, and ‘Turning’ on this website.

[14] See Lopez's analysis of ‘The Poetry and Prosody of Robert Wilson’ on this website.