The paper will show how The Three Ladies of London builds on the traditional moral drama of medieval and Tudor England, with its religious condemnation of covetousness and other vices, by invoking a new kind of moral panic inspired by the emergence and expansion in London of financial activity that undertook speculation in foreign trade and benefitted a new class of parasitical financial ‘dealers’ at home. The paper’s analysis of the play will refer to the late Tudor socio-economic crisis, and to the alarm caused by the decline of traditional forms of charity and patron-client relations that were being replaced by a new capitalist trade network reaching from London to Venice and on to Constantinople. The paper will show how the connection between domestic and foreign economies was imagined, and what these representations of a new dependence on invasive and parasitic foreigners had to do with the realities of class tension, poverty, and usurious lending in London itself.
Robert Wilson’s Three Ladies of London has been categorized as a ‘usury play’, but it is also a play that imagines a powerful connection between domestic and foreign economies – between the citizens of London and foreign merchants.1 This alliance between Fraud, Usury, Dissimulation, Lady Lucre, and the Italian merchant Mercadorus corresponds to the perception, which Elizabethan social critics and satirists frequently expressed, that the trade with ‘stranger’ merchants had contaminated England by introducing disease-bearing, invasive ‘foreign bodies’ into the English body politic.2 The Three Ladies of London depicts this combination of domestic moral corruption and foreign commercial villainy as a fundamental cause of the economic and social problems that were afflicting London when Wilson’s play was first performed.3 Through the medium of personification allegory, foreign, long-distance trade (that is, relations with mercantile foreigners – primarily Italian, Jewish, or Turkish) is linked to the problems of class tension, poverty, and usurious lending in London itself. One important example of how this rhetorical strategy works is the way that, in Wilson’s play, the downfall of Love and Conscience is connected, via the allegory, to the machinations of foreign agents whose activities bring about the abandonment of traditional Christian values. While Love and Conscience find few powerful allies, the rise of Lady Lucre is attributed to her alliances with characters like Usury, who worked for ‘the old Ladie Lucar of Venice’ (B1v),4 and the Italian merchant Mercadorus. In the play’s opening lines, Lady Love and Lady Conscience declare that the alliance of Lucre and Usury poses the greatest threat to their well-being. Lady Love is associated with the tradition of Christian charity (or caritas), a form of love that requires its practitioners to care for those in society who are most vulnerable. Love as charity is traditionally defined by a giving and sharing carried out in a spirit untainted by the profit motive or by a commodification of the means of subsistence. Lady Love prays ‘that Love be found in citie, towne & countrie, / Which causeth wealth and peace’, while Lady Conscience asks God to ‘grant that Conscience keep within the bounds of right’ in spite of ‘vile Lucar’ (A2v). Wilson’s play invokes these traditional Christian values as his primary moral authority for his attack on the new economic values and practices that were causing harm to London’s populace.
Wilson’s Three Ladies (ca 1581-2) and its sequel, The Three Lords and Three Ladies of London (ca 1588-9), were written and staged during a period of economic crisis in England that was marked by great suffering for the lower classes in London and elsewhere. Economic historians studying poverty in Elizabethan society have characterized that time as a period that saw ‘the de-sanctification of the poor’: after the Reformation, rather than being identified as objects of Christian charity, beggars were subjected to new statutes created to discipline and punish them.5 During the 1560s and 1570s there was a surge in population growth, a drop in real wages, and a large increase in food prices.6 The problem of a rapacious and exploitative usury accompanied these other difficulties. Usury was a current and ongoing controversy: for instance, a royal proclamation on 19 May 1581 was issued in an effort to restrain usurers. Soon the 1590s would present one of the worst crises of dearth and famine in English history, and the period leading up to that decade was a time when inflation and unemployment were on the rise in London. It was in this precarious economic context that Wilson’s play decried the decline of traditional charity and community redistribution of resources, and saw the rise of a new system based on monetary exchange and commodity fetishization.
As economic historians have noted, the Tudor economic malaise and specifically the problems of urban poverty and ‘the price revolution’ were the results of structural changes in the English economy – in particular, the emergence of proto-capitalism and the decline and destabilization of the old feudal order.7 In other words, the transition from feudalism to capitalism, which was a tumultuous and painful process, had negative consequences for the majority of those living in early modern England. Wilson’s play speaks to (and perhaps inflames) the popular discontent that arose in response to the new capitalist practices.
The economic historian Ellen Meiksins Wood has suggested that a set of defining features indicates something truly specific about capitalism as an economic process: these are ‘the unique imperatives that follow from capitalism’s particular form of social-property relations: the imperatives of competition, constant accumulation, and profit-maximisation, and the requirement to improve the productivity of labour’.8 A series of structural transformations had beset the English economy in the period leading up to the reign of Elizabeth I: the reconfiguration of agricultural labour and property after the Great Famine, new demands for labour after the Black Death of the fourteenth century, the collapse of the manorial system, the enclosure movement, the plundering of the Church after the Reformation, the decline of aristocratic, land-based wealth, the Great Debasement of English coinage during the 1540s, the rise of new forms of urban bourgeois power, the establishment of new Poor Laws, and so on. Additional changes in the English economy were wrought through the development and dissemination of modern banking, insurance and accounting practices that began in the northern Italian cities and spread to other parts of Europe, including England. Elizabethans witnessed and experienced a perplexingly innovative set of economic behaviours and tried to make sense of these changes in terms of the pre-existing ethical and moral discourses that were available to them. These new forms of social relations and the practices that functioned to produce a newly empowered class of capitalists were seen as morally reprehensible by writers like Robert Wilson and by many members of his audience.
Domestic economic transformation occurred, not in isolation, but in a dynamical relationship with changes in foreign commerce. Beginning in the 1570s, there was a marked expansion of English trade to the Mediterranean and beyond. From the mid-century on, wealthy English merchants and investors in London attempted to organize themselves and share risk by forming joint stock, chartered companies. These institutions began in the 1550s when the traditional guild-monopoly version of the chartered company (for example the Company of Merchant Adventurers to New Lands, formed in 1551) was restructured and took on a new form as a chartered, joint stock trading company.9 The first of these was the Muscovy Company, begun in 1555, and it was followed by others, most notably the East India Company in 1600.10
These innovative economic institutions produced a new kind of merchant, one that was not in direct touch with his own stock of wares or community of labourers. Rather, this new merchant-usurer was an investor seeking to increase their capital by any means necessary, including speculative wheeling and dealing in credit and debt or in currency exchange.11 These new merchants embraced new and more aggressive forms of usury that were condemned by moral writers as deeply deceptive and socially damaging.12 Such criticisms could be xenophobic and anti-Semitic in their attacks on usury, but they recognized a frightening and radically new version of the old forbidden crime, one that was much more than just the charging of high interest on loans. Like medieval money-lending at high interest rates, this new usury was also interpreted as a sin and a crime because it was a way of producing money ‘unnaturally’ by manipulation, force, and fraud without providing a service or good that was beneficial to society. Breeding money from money was considered monstrous and blasphemous. Usury was frequently condemned in principle, though sometimes tolerated in practice, as bourgeois, moneyed power grew more influential. Embryonic capitalism, including its new tricks for ‘increasing return on investment’, met with a mixed reception. From R.H. Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1929) to David Hawkes’s The Culture of Usury in Renaissance England (2010), historians and literary critics have noted this radical hostility to the new economic practices that religious and economic writers in early modern England expressed. Hawkes goes so far as to say that ‘The people of Renaissance England unanimously believed that usury was evil’, though he admits that some saw it as ‘a regrettable necessity in a market society’.13 Like many other real or supposed evils, the rising power of usury was often blamed on foreign influences, but in fact English mercantile practices were strongly imitative of foreign economic models and practices, especially Italian ones. Before the 1570s the carrying trade between England and Mediterranean trade partners was largely undertaken by Italian vessels and involved dealings with Italian merchants from Genoa, Pisa, Lucarno, Venice, and other ports, so that English citizens came to associate Italian merchants with the Mediterranean trade. When English merchants began to reverse that trend during the 1570s, this increased English contact with and awareness of Mediterranean foreigners. These groups included Italians, Jews, and other subjects of the Ottoman empire, Morocco, or the North African regencies. From the 1570s to the 1620s, English long-distance trade increased tremendously, but from the 1590s to the 1630s the English economy did not prosper as a result – rather, it went into long-term crisis, one that continued into the Civil War era and caused much suffering, and also much concern on the part of the authorities about the social disorder caused by poverty.
The new behaviours and new experiences that cross-cultural and inter-faith commerce engendered were represented on the London stage – and those dramatizations functioned to ‘inform’ playgoers about the sacrifices and investments that were supposedly necessary in order to (ad)venture, to return home, and to turn a profit. In some cases, these plays also warned English audiences against going too far (especially in cases where both sexual and religious purity were put to the test). Thus the need to take a risk (of enslavement, death, loss of stable identity, etc.) in order to profit (in the manner of an investor in a corporation) was figured as a test of both body and soul. Such tests were sensationalized and exoticized by their location in a foreign, Mediterranean setting featuring ultra-wealthy merchants and dastardly, lustful tyrants, but ultimately these Mediterranean adventures were brought home to a London theatre that was also accumulating profit through the shared risk of investors like Shakespeare himself.
There is something new (and perhaps something ‘modern’) about the commercial dealers that appeared on the stage of the early modern theatre in London. Nonetheless, these new representations of the merchant drew on older traditions: the stock character of the miser is an ancient one, and early modern depictions of Jewish usury drew on medieval precedents. Foreign, cross-cultural commerce and long-distance trade was the commercial activity with the highest risk but the largest potential profits – it involved disruptive new forms of usury that inspired both horror and wonder, and that of course, made for a compelling theatrical subject matter.
In The Three Ladies of London, Wilson employs an old dramatic form, the morality play featuring personification allegory, to produce a new kind of local satire with a new set of targets. At one level of signification, this play can simply be read as a rather conservative complaint against the sort of vice figures who are found throughout late-medieval English literature, from Piers Plowman to Everyman. The titular ‘Ladies’ are Conscience, Love, and Lucre: the first of these is a representation of traditional community values, which were seen (perhaps nostalgically) as based on love and free of the commodification that would arise under capitalism. Conscience represents the old moral values that supposedly dominated and prevented corruption and the inhumane exploitation and neglect of those in need. The play sees the last of these, Lady Lucre, succeed in gaining power while Love and Conscience are humiliated and forced to serve her. Furthermore, Lady Lucre’s followers Dissimulation and Usury murder Hospitality and get away with it. The Three Ladies of London is not a typical morality play, though. Some of its vice figures are brought to justice at the end of the play, but in the concluding trial scene, it is not only Lucre who is caught and punished – Lucre has so corrupted Lady Conscience and Lady Love that they too are condemned in the end (Love will be ‘pining still, in endlesse paine’ and Conscience is carried ‘to prison, / there to remaine until the day of generall session’ [F3v]). What the topical allegory signifies here is that the old medieval system of charity that provided a safety net for the poor and needy in English society has been eliminated and replaced with a corrupt and hypocritical magistrate who commands a whip-wielding Beadle to lash Simplicity at the behest of Fraud. Thus the play records and reacts to some of the harmful local effects of emergent capitalism on the populace of London. But its protest and resistance to those economic forces includes a subplot that features an Italian merchant, Mercadorus, and reveals a cozy relationship between Lucre, Usury, and Mercadorus.
In the opening scene of the play, Lady Love and Lady Conscience are worried that Usury and Lucre will bring on their ‘fal’, but Fame promises that if they stay away from ‘Lucar’s lust lascivious, / then Fame a triple crowne will give’ (A2v). And yet the two initially virtuous Ladies are not able to do so – Lucre and her allies force them to submit before long. In the next scene, Lady Lucre is approached by Fraud, Usury, Simony, and Dissimulation, who quickly become her clients. As soon as she meets Usury, Lucre notes their mutual acquaintance through a transnational network, and the following exchange ensues:
Lady Lucre Usurie, didst thou never know my grandmother, the old Ladie Lucar of Venice?
Usury Yes, Madame, I was servant unto her, and lived ther in blisse.
Lady Lucre But why camest thou into England, seeing Venice is a Citie
where Usurie by Lucar may live in great glorie & Virtue.
Usury I have often heard your good grandmother tell,
that she had in England a daughter, which her farre did excell:
And that England was such a place for Lucar to bide,
as was not in Europe and the whole world beside:
then lusting greatly to see you and the country, she being dead,
I made hast to come over to serve you in her stead[.] (B1v)
Usury is immediately welcomed to Lucre’s service, and he will serve Lucre, not as a moneylender per se, but as her ‘secretarie / to deale amongst merchants, to bargen and exchange money’.
As if this Italian genealogy of Usury were not clear enough, in the next scene, we meet an Italian merchant come from Venice, Mercadorus, who speaks in a stage-Italian accent. He already knows Davy Dissimulation well, and asks to be introduced by Dissimulation to Lady Lucre. After a quick bribe, Mercadorus is brought before Lucre, who asks him if he will ‘dare ... / Secretly to convey good commodities out of this country for my sake’ (B2v). He replies,
Madona, me doe for love of you tinke no paine too mush,
And to doe anyting for you me will not grush:
Me will a forsake a my Fader, Moder, King, Country, & more den dat,
Me will lie and forsweare my selfe for a quarter so much as my hat.
What is dat for love of Lucar me dare or will not doe:
Me care not for all the world, the great Devil, nay make my God angry for you.
Lucre likes what she hears, and she instructs him to import from abroad, for the grain, meat, leather and precious metals that he exports from England, worthless ‘trifles’ and ‘bables’ (B2v) that he must sell by means of ‘lying, flattering and glosing’ (B3r).
Mercadorus quickly succeeds in establishing this import-export business, and his next assignment is to ‘go amongst the Moores, Turkes and Pagans’ (C4r) for her sake in order to search for ‘some new toyes in Barbary or Turkie’. He responds by declaring, ‘fait Madona me will search all da strange countries me can tell’. Mercadorus then travels to Turkey, where we see him brokering an arrangement with ‘Gerontus, a Jew’, who has provided him with luxury goods on credit. Later, when Mercadorus fails to pay the 2000 ducats he owes Gerontus, the Jews takes him to court, and the case is put before a ‘Judge of Turkey’. Mercadorus (who arrives before the judge dressed ‘in Turkish weedes’ [F1r]) – possibly a long robe and a turban) listens as Gerontus pleads his case. The Judge then tells Gerontus, ‘you knowe, if any man forsake his faith, king, country, and become a Mahomet, / all debts are paide’. When Mercadorus declares that he has come to do just that, Gerontus tries to stop him from converting by offering to lower the payment owed. When Mercadorus rejects his offer, Gerontus declares he will forgive the whole loan since he is concerned that ‘the people [would] say, it / was long of me / Thou forsakest thy faith’. At that point, Mercadorus agrees not to convert to Islam. He exits the scene still a Christian without paying any of the loan back, with the Muslim Judge shaking his head and declaring, ‘Jewes seeke to excell in Christianitie, & Christians in Jewishnes’ (F1v). In the play’s anti-Semitic scale of vice, the Christian merchant is deemed worse than the Jewish moneylender. The new usurer outdoes the old in moral depravity and financial success. Mercadorus exits the scene boasting of his successful swindle and eager to tell Lady Lucre about it. That is the last we hear of him, so while Lady Lucre herself is ultimately brought to trial back in England, the foreign capitalist and dealer Mercadorus goes unpunished.
Italy was the origin point of modern banking, and Italian merchants provided a key model for English capitalists who sought to profit overseas by means of risk-dodging debt and credit schemes.14 The Three Ladies of London identifies an Italian-Jewish-Turkish Mediterranean as a source of profit for those London citizens whose aggressive financial innovations and usurious financial were bringing them greater political power and a higher social status. What the play mocks in Mercadorus, Usury, and Lady Lucre was the early modern equivalent of today’s hedge funds and derivatives, investment tools that were designed to avoid legal responsibility and to share and reduce risk while, at the same time, maintaining a distance between actual labour and commodity exchange. Popular texts like The Three Ladies did not seek to explain these mechanisms in accurate detail but rather sought to characterize those who used them in broad moral terms as false and parasitic villains. Authors like Wilson played to xenophobic, anti-immigrant, and anti-Semitic attitudes among London playgoers but did so in order to target powerful local merchants in a way that was safer because pointed indirectly and filtered through a generalized moral allegory. Similarly, Marlowe and Shakespeare employ the figure of the usurious Jew in the characters of Barabas and Shylock in order to mount their attacks on Christian greed and hypocrisy. But again, the usurious lending offered by Jews to Christians in these two plays does not have the primary function of convincing audiences that Jews are villains but rather, in both cases, exposes a Christian hypocrisy that makes Jewish usury and financial ruthlessness seem mild and merciful by comparison. At the same time, both Barabas and Shylock are figurative embodiments of the new capitalism. This is true for Marlowe’s Barabas who is not just a medieval miser but a much more unstable improviser and trickster, and for Shylock whose demand for a ‘pound of flesh’ from Antonio is indicative of the way that human beings, in both body and spirit, were becoming increasingly commodified under the emergent capitalist economy.15
In The Three Ladies, Lady Conscience asks Usury to spare Hospitality: ‘But yet Usurie’, she begs, ‘consider the lamentable crie of the poore / for lacke of Hospitalitie, fatherlesse children are turned out of doore’ (D1v). Usury shows no mercy, and his murder of Hospitality indicates the removal of the traditional safety net. The play explicitly links Usury to the suffering of the poor – a link that posits a causal connection between the speculative profit-making of the new capitalist classes and increasingly severe poverty in London with its growing underclass. Soon Lady Conscience is forced to sell brooms in the street, and before long she submits to Lady Lucre and agrees to serve her as a bawd. The allegorical significance of these degradations of Conscience points to the moral depravity of those who see all things, including people, as commodities. Here Wilson employs the traditionally misogynist emblem of a sinful marketplace – the bawdy house where women’s bodies are for sale. Thus the love of lucre is given the conventional form of a sexual sin. The final lines of the play, delivered by Judge Nemo, refer to the ultimate form of commodification in accusing Lady Love of having sold her soul by following Lucre and thereby becoming a ‘monster’ (F3v) of lust. The play ends with a prayer asking God to ‘graunt … / That we be not corrupted with the insatiate desire of vanishing earthly treasure’. This conclusion evokes the familiar admonition from Matthew 6:19-21, ‘Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also’.16 And yet for Wilson’s audience, the perennial Christian appeal to lay up treasures in heaven would have been understood in a very specific historical context – a time when tremendous wealth and prestige accrued to the new usurers and dealers like those who haunted the recently built Royal Exchange while beggars starved in the streets just outside. What Wilson and his audience called by the names of Lucre, Usury, and Dissimulation is a socio-economic phenomenon that we can describe today, from our point of view, as the experience of economic crisis under emergent capitalism.
 Lloyd Edward Kermode’s edition of Three Renaissance Usury Plays includes The Three Ladies of London (along with William Haughton’s Englishmen for My Money and Robert Taylor’s The Hog Hath Lost His Pearl). See Lloyd Edward Kermode, Three Renaissance Usury Plays (Manchester, 2009).
 The appearance of these foreign bodies in English texts, including plays and other literary forms, is detailed and analyzed by Jonathan Gil Harris in his study, Foreign Bodies and the Body Politic: Discourses of Social Pathology in Early Modern England I (Cambridge, 1998).
 Kermode presents a strong case for The Three Ladies being composed in 1581 or 1582 (see Kermode 32-3). It continued to be a popular play in the years that followed, as evidenced by the appearance of its sequel in 1588 or 1589 and by its reprinting in 1592.
 Robert Wilson, Three Ladies of London (London, 1592). All citations from the text refer to this edition.
 ‘The de-sanctification of the poor’ is a term used by A.L. Beier in his study Masterless Men: The Vagrancy Problem in England, 1560-1640 (London, 1985), 4.
 For useful accounts of the economic conditions in Tudor England and the suffering they caused, see the following studies: Andrew B. Appleby, Famine in Tudor and Stuart England (Stanford, 1978); C.G.A. Clay, Economic Expansion and Social Change: England 1500-1700, 2 vols (Cambridge, 1984); Paul Slack, Poverty and Policy in Tudor and Stuart England (London and New York, 1988); John Walter and Roger Schofield (eds), Famine, Disease and the Social Order in Early Modern Society (Cambridge, 1989); Keith Wrightson, Earthly Necessities: Economic Lives in Early Modern Britain (New Haven, 2000).
 The debate about the transition from feudalism to capitalism includes a huge body of scholarship, but a good place to begin is Ellen Meiskins Wood, The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View (New York, 2000). For Tawney, Wallerstein, and Brenner’s arguments about the rise of capitalism, start with R.H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (San Diego, 1926); Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System (New York, 1974); and Robert Brenner, Merchants and Revolution: Commercial Change, Political Conflict, and London’s Overseas Traders, 1550-1653 (Princeton, 1993) as well as Brenner’s article, ‘The Social Basis of English Commercial Expansion, 1550-1650’, Journal of Economic History 32 (1972): 361-84. See also the classic debates in Paul Sweezy, et al., The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism (London, 1976).
 This is not the place to provide a comprehensive description of political economy in its capitalist form, but I will refer here to the work of the economic historian Ellen Meiksins Wood for a concise description of the ways in which capitalism was a new and different kind of economic system with new forms of social relations. A good introduction to Wood’s work is The Ellen Meiksins Wood Reader, ed. Larry Patriquin (Boston, 2012). My quotation is from p.3.
 Henry S. Turner describes their new powers: ‘As legal persons, trading ventures had the right to purchase, alienate, and bequeath property, especially over generations, to bring suits in law and to be sued in turn by other parties. As a consequence, incorporated ventures were more enduring than non-incorporated partnerships: they could accumulate capital more effectively and use it more flexibly, and they offered limited protections for individual members from the debts of the association when ventures turned bad’ (Turner in Philip J. Stern and Carl Wennerlind (eds), Mercantilism Reimagined: Political Economy in Early Modern Britain and Its Empire (Oxford, 2013), 164.
 On the Muscovy Company, see T.S. Willan, The Early History of the Russia Company, 1553-1603 (Manchester, 1956). A helpful general account of the chartered overseas trade companies, in the broader context of colonial and commercial expansion, is Kenneth R. Andrews, Trade, Plunder and Settlement: Maritime Enterprise and the Genesis of the British Empire, 1480-1630 (Cambridge, 1984).
 On the culture of credit and debt that pervaded early modern England, see Craig Muldrew, The Economy of Obligation: The Culture of Credit and Social Relations in Early Modern England (New York, 1998) and chapter 11 of David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years (Brooklyn, NY, 2011), 307-60.
 For a good survey of the broader anti-usury tradition, see Benjamin Nelson, The Idea of Usury: From Tribal Brotherhood to Universal Otherhood, 2nd edn (Chicago, 1969). For a helpful summary describing these many attacks on usury composed in sixteenth and seventeenth-century England, see David Hawkes, The Culture of Usury in Renaissance England (New York, 2010). See also pp 1-28 of Kermode’s introduction. For a psychoanalytic view of early modern usury (one that emphasizes changes in individual ‘affect’ over larger-scale shifts in socio-economic structure), see Theodore Leinwand, Theatre, Finance and Society in Early Modern England (Cambridge, 1999). Leinwand draws on Muldrew to claim that a pervasive culture of credit and debt led some English subjects to discard ‘a theologically opprobrious nomenclature suited to others’ (42) and to view moneylenders as helpful enablers, not villains.
 Hawkes, The Culture of Usury, 2.
 On the origins of capitalism in Italy, see Jere Cohen, ‘Rational Capitalism in Renaissance Italy’, American Journal of Sociology 85.6 (May 1980).
 Eric Spencer, ‘Taking Excess, Exceeding Account: Aristotle Meets The Merchant of Venice’, Linda Woodbridge (ed.), Money and the Age of Shakespeare: Essays in New Economic Criticism (New York, 2003), 143-58; Mark Netzloff, ‘The Lead Casket: Capital, Mercantilism, and The Merchant of Venice’, Woodbridge (ed.), Money and the Age of Shakespeare, 159-76.
 See The Bible: Authorized King James Version, ed. Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett, Oxford World Classics (Oxford, 1997).