Performing Gender in Robert Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London

Claire Jowitt

The ethical dilemma that the play attempts to resolve is the competition between the female characters (Lucre, Conscience, and Love) for mastery over the behaviour and morals of Englishmen, and by so doing it initiates a battle of the sexes. But the terms of the debate make it clear that there can only be one eventual winner: the men. The text evaluates women morally by their sexual continence, but simultaneously it demonstrates that women can achieve power only through promiscuity. The inevitable result is that the women cannot win the battle of the sexes set up as the play's central psycho-sexual dilemma. The play lays a trap: Conscience and Love participate in a competition where success on one level means certain failure on another. Performance options (how these roles are gendered) will inevitably shape the ways an audience experiences the ethical dilemma, and interprets its gender politics.

Performance decisions about whether male and/or female actors undertake male and/or female roles in Robert Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London, and how the gender behaviour of each character is performed, will inevitably shape how modern audiences experience the play’s central concern: to weigh up the values, ethics, and choices by which Londoners live. I want to begin to explore how performance choices might enable, and shape, the range of interpretations concerning how men and women viewing this play, historically and in our own time, witness and participate in its gender politics, and start to think through how these issues might be played out in a new production.

By gendering wealth or money (‘Lucre’) as a female in The Three Ladies of London, Wilson makes ‘her’ ‘handling’ by the male characters in the play inevitably a highly sexualized practice.1 From the opening scene Lady Lucre is repeatedly associated with lust (she is ‘filthy lucre’ in its sexualized sense),2 as it becomes apparent that Lady Conscience – correctly – fears that ‘Love and Conscience by Lucre’s lust shall catch an overthrow’ (1.21). Furthermore, right from the beginning, Lady Love describes how Lucre is an object of widespread male longing:

For Lucre men come from Italy, Barbary, Turkey,
From Jewry: nay, the pagan himself
Endangers his body to gape for her pelf. (13-15)

From these opening lines, Three Ladies represents men’s desires to possess Lucre as greedy and unrestrained, and such desires encourage them to put themselves at risk physically in order to have the opportunity to satisfy their appetites. Noticeably at the play’s outset, longing for Lucre is not universal; specifically early modern ‘others’ – Italians, Muslims, Jews, and heathens of all kinds (‘the pagan’) – are described as in her thrall at that moment.3 In other words, Love implicitly suggests, Protestant Londoners at the beginning of the play are not as yet in Lucre’s power, thereby neatly establishing what is at stake in the drama to come: control over Englishmen concerning the values and ethics which guide their lives. As Conscience laments to Love, ‘Men ought be ruled by us’ (11), but they clearly find Lucre more attractive as they attentively ‘lean on Lucre’s chair’ (10).

Given the topical focus on the ethics of early modern Londoners, The Three Ladies of London was – unsurprisingly – popular in performance. Probably written between 1581 and 1582, performed first by Leicester’s Men, and then by the Queen’s Men, whom Wilson joined in 1583, and published twice in 1584 and again in 1592, the play also provoked a sequel The Three Lords and Three Ladies of London (ca 1588-90) and (a lost) rebuttal, London Against the Three Ladies (ca 1582).4 Boys would have acted all female roles in these early performances.5 Furthermore, building on David Bevington’s work, Alan C. Dessen describes how ‘seven is the absolute minimum of actors needed’ to perform the play, seeing the play as important in connecting earlier plays which required only four or five actors, with the next generation of playscripts where a cast of up to fourteen was needed.6 As there were only two qualified boy actors in the company, they most likely performed the three female roles between them, with the same young actor playing Love and Lucre, except briefly when both characters appear together in scene 15: here the boy playing Conscience could take Love’s part since Love, deformed by this point in the play, wears a mask – performing the role ‘with a vizard behind’ (initial sd). Of course, having boy actors play female roles, and the audience complicit in the onstage impersonation of women can, as Stephen Orgel and others have shown, be seen in contradictory ways, as both disarming and/or empowering to women.7 A new performance of the play in 2015 offers the opportunity to cast roles differently and explore the contrasting meanings that emerge: adult women or adult men could play Lucre, Love, and Conscience, or girls; likewise youthful or mature female actors as well as men or boys could perform ‘male’ roles, such as the powerful characters of Usury and Dissimulation. Each choice would create a different, perhaps contradictory, impression of what is the play’s normalizing attitude to appropriate gender behaviour. For reasons of space, in what follows, my analysis concentrates on exploring how a modern audience might experience the play’s gender politics if women played all three female characters and men all male roles.

The opening scene of The Three Ladies of London establishes the dynamics and significance of what is at issue: international vices besiege the newly wealthy, and hence desirable, city of London and its inhabitants, and the play uses noticeably sexualized and gendered language to describe the attack. London’s Lucre is both a corrupting force on and a sinful lure to all men. By casting the key ethical dilemma for the play to resolve as a competition between Lucre, Love, and Conscience for control over the behaviour and morals of London’s citizens, Wilson initiates a battle between the sexes, as well as one between the women. From the play’s outset, it is apparent that the sexualized and patriarchal terms – evident in the language – upon which the contest is based mean that there can only ever be one winner: men. In Wilson’s drama the three women suffer repeated moral evaluation (by both male and female characters) concerning their sexual continence, but simultaneously these opening lines make it clear that power for women is only possible through their promiscuity with men. Lucre’s popularity and influence rests on the fact that she is indiscriminate and open to all advances – with the inevitable result that women cannot win the battle of the sexes set up as the central psycho-sexual dilemma. When Lucre forces Love into a marriage with Dissimulation, with the result that she is deformed into Lust (thus imitating ‘lusty’ Lucre), her morality is undermined, represented physically when she becomes a two-headed monster. An equal loss of moral standing and authority occurs when Conscience, made destitute and naked by Lucre’s machinations, accepts the latter’s employment as the keeper of her brothel. Her transformation is physically marked by Lucre placing spots on her face to make her ugly and thereby signifying her sexual contamination and disease. The dice are loaded against all the women from the start; in order to rule over men they must be promiscuous like Lucre, but they will also be morally condemned and physically deformed for it. In other words, the play lays a trap for women: they participate in a competition where success on one level means certain failure on another. And, significantly, Wilson represents the gender of the instigator of Love and Conscience’s downfall as another female. The play’s anti-feminism is striking; women are not only corrupt and corrupting but also at war with one another.

Their shared powerlessness, however, tempers the women’s antagonism. As each woman represents an allegorical quality/property, her power resides in shaping men’s behaviour rather than in her own active agency. Hence, even Lucre, the woman Love and Conscience describe as influential through her desirability at the beginning of the play, appears increasingly passive through much of its action. Though the male characters claim they wish to ‘serve’ her, Lucre’s power is clearly fleeting and illusory unless they enact it for her. The language of the men’s quest hints at this ambiguity of status; they repeatedly state that they desire ‘to get entertainment’ (2.19, 38, 95) from one of the Ladies, which means both employment and pleasurable gratification.8 In order to undermine the authority of her female rivals through sexual exploitation, Lucre employs a male agent, the vice figure Usury. As Lloyd Edward Kermode writes: ‘money needs facilitation in order to be politically and morally usable and abusable’, Usury ‘as an activator of money ... is the force that makes Lucre work’.9 A recent immigrant from Venice (widely perceived as the most cosmopolitan but financially corrupt city),10 where – we are told – he worked for ‘old Lady Lucre’ until her death (216), after Usury’s introduction to Lucre via Dissimulation, he takes the role of her principal henchman. Though Love and Conscience clearly have a pre-existing relationship with Lucre since they rent a house from her, Usury’s activity on behalf of Lucre (as her ‘man’) is the actual reason that they lose their home. The two women’s resulting penury is what forces Love to marry Dissimulation, becoming monstrous as a result, and Conscience to become a bawd. Noticeably, as the play progresses Lucre becomes more reliant on, and controlled by, an increasingly dominant and violent Usury. By acting for her, Usury in effect stops Lucre circulating, and when Lucre then allies with Dissimulation (‘stay Dissimulation, I myself will go with thee’ she says (259)), wealth becomes unproductive and elusive to many Londoners.

The inhabitants of the capital are thus shown to be under threat from Usury’s violence and from his and Dissimulation’s manipulation of Lucre in sex-specific ways. For the play’s male characters – Liberality, Hospitality, Good Neighbourhood, and True Friendship – the threat from Usury is severe, but it is straightforwardly physical as he quickly dispatches each man, either through violent assault or murder. In contrast, the menace Usury poses to the female characters of Love and Conscience is a specifically sexual one and, in terms of timescale, the threat is far more drawn-out and long-term; both women are sexually corrupted by his actions over time. The economic hardship Usury causes takes control of the women gradually so that he – through cutting their direct access to Lucre – is able to dictate their sexual behaviour. Indeed, Usury’s attitude to women in the play is focused on putting them to use sexually.11 Specifically Usury makes the women vehicles for ‘unnatural’ promiscuous sex, or lust, rather than for the sexual statuses which patriarchal discourse considered ‘natural’: chaste virginity or widowhood, or married love.12 Love’s mutation into Lust through her marriage with Dissimulation, and Conscience’s transformation into a bawd confers on them a new sexualized status which imitates that of Lucre, who from the outset the play represents as promiscuous.

The play’s conclusion – when Judge Nemo punishes all the female characters and none of the miscreant male ones – is inevitable given the terms on which the play’s action has been established. Judge Nemo tries Lucre, Love, and Conscience for their actions, condemning Lucre and Love to ‘torment without end’ (17.58) and to ‘be dying, yet never dead’ (95), while Conscience is carried ‘to prison, / there to remain until the day of the general session’ (98-9). Since the play’s key dilemma condemned them to fail, and the four male vice figures of Dissimulation, Fraud, Usury, and Simony evade all punishment, it seems that in The Three Ladies of London the female characters are actually disciplined for being female. By making Lucre powerful and promiscuous, The Three Ladies of London reveals considerable anxieties about the control women and money can exert over men. As a result, by linking both money and women to sex, and then demonizing and punishing them for it, the play is able to reassert mastery, imaginatively at least, over these unruly objects of desire.

The fact that it is ‘Nemo’, Latin for ‘No man’ or ‘No one’, who metes out the sentences on the women complicates both the status of the punishment and how we should see it. To be sentenced by such a figure might, perhaps, mean the women are not punished at all, and hence we might ultimately perceive the play’s rampant anti-feminism as toothless. Alternately, if we understand ‘Nemo’ to mean that the judge is not human, then we might understand the Ladies as being punished by God, a far more morally significant judge, and one that would considerably reinforce the play’s earlier anti-feminism.13 If we understand ‘Nemo’ literally as ‘No Man’, however, the role becomes available to be played as female. Casting the play’s most obvious authority figure as female might be seen as empowering women, but ‘her’ punishment of the only other women simultaneously disarms a feminist reading.

On the page The Three Ladies of London reads as explicitly anti-feminist, but performance options allow a host of other plausible interpretations to be acted out on stage. It would be particularly interesting to explore the effect of a cross-dressed adult male performing the role of Lucre, where the different sex of the actor to his role was apparent, through facial hair or other such explicitly ‘manly’ markers. I end with a series of questions that actors could explore in workshop or rehearsal. If money was ‘manly’ how would we interpret ‘his’ handling, and how would it impact on the issues of productivity and circulation that are naturalized when money is portrayed as female? How would such a performance shape audience reactions to the depiction of male characters’ sexual desires for her/him? How should s/he interact with Love and Conscience, if women played these roles? Would the latters’ femaleness mean that an audience experienced ‘his’ relationship with them as heterosexual? How would s/he interact with the dominant male characters of Usury and Dissimulation? In sum, would the use of a cross-dressed male actor to play Lucre make the play more or less misogynist, and how would his impersonation of a woman play out against one of the play’s dominant textual concerns, to make money productive?


The ways performance choices shape how an audience experiences the gender politics of Three Ladies of London was most prominently addressed by Peter Cockett’s production (23 June 2015) through the choice of using two actors to play the three female principal characters of Lady Lucre, Lady Love, and Lady Conscience. Cathy Huang played Lucre and Love, and Roxana Teymourian performed the roles of Conscience and Love (after being ‘spotted’ by Lucre, and wearing a vizard and hood). The issue of ‘Doubling Love’ in the play is addressed in the contextual essay by Helen Ostovich but what became apparent in performance was how it affects the ways female morality was experienced. As Edel Semple put it in Seminar 4 on ‘Two 1592 Plays and the Performance of Gender’, ‘does this doubling point to an idea that women’s morality is inconstant?’. In other words, does the sharing of one female role between two actors suggest that all women have the capacity to be good and/or evil? If so, this performance option could be viewed as championing women’s morality – all women can be good – or misogynistic, as women share their corruption to ‘fall’ one by one.

Of course the doubling of female roles in performance raises an issue that was a major focus of discussion during the conference: the extent to which female (and indeed male) characters were individualized rather than symbolic in Three Ladies of London (the allegorical nature of the play is addressed in the essays under ‘Allegory’ and by Jessica Dell in ‘Classroom Performance of Robert Wilson’s Three Ladies of London: A Case Study’. The doubling by actors in Cockett’s production enabled some interesting and surprising pairings, parallels, and counterpoints between characters to emerge. Taha Arshad played both Sincerity and the Judge of Turkey, for instance, thus emphasizing the similarly well-intentioned but somewhat limited understanding of both characters. In one of the production’s potentially most interesting directorial moves, a female actor (Sasha Stevenson) played a range of male and female roles: Fame was played as attractively female in neo-Grecian attire, but Hospitality was depicted as male, chiefly through the use of the ‘manly’ marker of a beard. Yet Stevenson had a comedy beard; it was obviously false, and indeed its performative fakery was emphasized as ‘she’ moved it out of the way to speak at several points. Given that Hospitality is murdered in the play (and is the only character shown to die) the use of a cross-dressed female actor for the role stood out in an otherwise largely traditionally gendered production. The director’s choice of a female actor’s body for a murder victim might have made it harrowing for an audience, graphically emphasizing the way the play can be seen are punishing women for being women in the play. Yet, the production’s emphasis on physical clowning – Stevenson’s Hospitality refused to die, crawling across the floor repeatedly gesturing to the audience with beard awry – had the effect of reducing the tension that the depiction of the murder of a woman by men might engender.

Stevenson’s assumption of male roles (she also played Wily Will) was only matched in the production by one other actor (Claudia Spadafora, who played both Cogging and Tom Beggar). None of the principal female characters were played by male actors, and neither was the issue of gender performance explored during the conference’s Workshop on Three Ladies of London, hosted by Cockett (which concentrated on the play’s depiction of ‘race’, using male actors to play characters that the production gendered traditionally – Mercadorus, Gerontus, The Judge of Turkey). As a result, the suggestion in my discussion paper that the production could explore and create new meanings if the role of Lady Lucre was performed by a cross-dressed adult male, especially if the different sex of the actor to his role was apparent, was not something that was followed-up on by this production. For me, the issues that this play centrally confronts are the questions of whether London’s female inhabitants are powerful or powerless, and the extent and parameters of its anti-feminism. The use of a cross-dressed male actor to play Lucre could provide us with a useful interpretive tool to address these topics in new ways. Huang played the role of Lucre with style and verve, her (dyed) long ‘gold’ hair acting as a marker of opulence and desire, with her repeated use of a caressing touch designed to encourage all characters to hunger for her ‘pelf’. But it did mean that the production was largely heteronormative, with opportunities to disrupt gender and sexual relationships overlooked: Lucre’s ‘female’ body was the principal object of desire for all characters played as male by male actors. The production’s emphasis on heterosexual desire as ‘natural’ was given pause in the physical closeness and intimacy between Conscience and Lucre, but this was a rare moment.

It was a real treat to see Three Ladies of London in performance, though this production did not focus centrally on my PAR questions. At a conference that sought to address a variety of issues, with limited time and resources, this omission is of course understandable. For anyone interested, however, in gender performance I alert them to an upcoming production: in October 2015, The Rose Theatre, Bankside, is staging Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night four ways over a 25-day run as a ‘gender experiment’. For different performances the cast will be all female, all male, own gender, and opposite gender allowing the audience to compare the effect the gendering of a role has on the play’s meanings across the performances. I can’t wait.


[1] Lloyd Edward Kermode provides a comprehensive overview of The Three Ladies of London in the ‘Introduction’ to Three Renaissance Usury Plays (Manchester, 2009), 1-78. All quotations from the play discussed in the essay are from Kermode’s edition and are given parenthetical references. For a discussion of the play’s cultural contexts, including gender politics, see also Claire Jowitt, ‘Robert Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London and its Theatrical and Cultural Contexts’, Thomas Betteridge and Greg Walker (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Tudor Drama, (Oxford, 2012), 309-23.

[2] See lucre 1, Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

[3] For discussion of the play’s depiction of early modern racial relations see Alan Stewart, ‘“Come from Turkie”: Mediterranean Trade in late Elizabethan London’, Goran Stanivukovic (ed.), Remapping the Mediterranean World in Early Modern English Writings (London, 2007), 157-77; Alan C. Dessen, ‘The Elizabethan Stage Jew and the Christian Example: Gerontus, Barabas and Shylock’, Modern Language Quarterly 35 (1974), 231-45; Daryl Palmer, ‘Merchants and Miscegenation: The Three Ladies of London, The Jew of Malta, and The Merchant of Venice’, Joyce Green MacDonald (ed.), Race, Ethnicity and Power in the Renaissance (London, 1997), 33-66; Lloyd Edward Kermode, ‘The Playwright’s Prophecy: Robert Wilson’s Three Ladies of London and the “Alienation” of the English’, Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England 11 (1999), 60-87; Matthew Dimmock, New Turkes: Dramatizing Islam and the Ottomans in Early Modern England (Aldershot, 2005), 87-102.

[4] For discussion of the Queen’s Men, and Wilson’s theatrical career see, in particular, Scott McMillin and Sally-Beth MacLean, The Queen’s Men and Their Plays (Cambridge, 1998); Helen Ostovich et al (eds), Locating the Queen’s Men, 1583-1603: Material Practices and Conditions of Playing (Aldershot, 2009); Richard Dutton, Mastering the Revels: The Regulation and Censorship of English Renaissance Drama (Basingstoke, 1991), 65-73.

[5] David Kathman, ‘How Old Were Shakespeare's Boy Actors?’ in Shakespeare Survey 58 (2006), 246.

[6] David Bevington, From ‘Mankind’ to Marlowe: Growth of Structure in the Popular Drama of Tudor England (Cambridge, MA, 1962); Alan C. Dessen, ‘On-stage Allegory and its Legacy: The Three Ladies of London’, Locating the Queen’s Men, 147-58.

[7] The literature on this topic is immense but see, in particular, Stephen Orgel, Impersonations: The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare’s England (Cambridge, 1996); Jean Howard, ‘Cross-dressing, the Theatre, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England’, Lesley Ferris (ed), Crossing the Stage: Controversies on Cross-Dressing (New York, 1993), 19-50.

[8] See entertain 10, OED. The sexual dynamic became explicit later, but was implicit in the word’s connection with disport 1. and 2. from the fourteenth century.

[9] Lloyd Edward Kermode, ‘Money, Gender, and Conscience in Robert Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London’, Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 52.2 (2012), 265-91, at 268-9.

[10] On perceptions of Venice see Daniel Vitkus, Turning Turk: English Theater and the Multicultural Mediterranean 1570-1630 (Basingstoke and New York, 2003), 163-98.

[11] The play’s anti-feminism is also evident elsewhere. Lady Lucre instructs the Italian merchant Mercadorus to import into England ‘amber, jet, coral, crystal, and every such bauble’ since ‘every day gentlewomen of England do ask for such triffles from stall to stall’ (scene 3, 45-6), and the Levantine Jewish moneylender Gerontus describes English women as rampant consumers of luxury items – ‘green-headed wantons’ (9.34) – a phrase that implies sexual promiscuity.

[12] See Celeste Turner Wright, ‘Some Conventions Regarding the Usurer in Elizabethan Literature’, Studies in Philology 31 (1934), 176-97; Norman Jones, God and the Moneylenders: Usury and Law in Early Modern England (Cambridge, MA, 1989); Teresa Nugent, ‘Usury and Counterfeiting in Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London and The Three Lords and Three Ladies of London, and Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure’, Linda Woodbridge (ed.), Money in the Age of Shakespeare (New York, 2003), 201-17.

[13] For a discussion of ‘Nemo’ as ‘God within and without’ see Kermode, ‘Money, Gender, and Conscience’, 281-3.