What We Talk about When We Talk about Hospitality in Robert Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London

Daryl Palmer

When Hospitality made his entrance in Robert Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London, Elizabethan audiences probably thought they knew what was about to unfold. A multifaceted term, hospitality referred to the generous entertainment of friends and strangers alike. For several decades, preachers and pamphleteers had been reminding their audiences that hospitality was an essential part of Christian life. As the years passed, these reminders had turned into complaints about the decay of hospitality. With all this in mind, Wilson’s early audiences must have expected poor Hospitality to be ignored and dismissed, but Wilson surprised them with three elements: a heteroclite Hospitality, his startling murder, and Simplicity’s comic reaction. In my analysis of each of these elements, I want to pay particular attention to the ways in which Wilson's dramaturgy – what Scott McMillin and Sally-Beth MacLean have called ‘medley’ – energizes the revisionary enterprise.

When Hospitality made his entrance in Robert Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London, Elizabethan audiences probably thought they knew what was about to unfold. A multifaceted term, hospitality could refer to the generous entertainment of friends and strangers alike. The single word implied bounteous tables and comfortable lodging for guests of equal or higher rank, but also signified a certain abiding care for the local poor.1 For several decades, preachers and pamphleteers had been reminding their audiences that the practice of hospitality was an essential part of Christian life, particularly for the clergy.2 Hebrews 13:2 was often quoted: ‘Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares’. With all this history in mind, Wilson’s early audiences must have expected poor Hospitality to be ignored and dismissed. They probably expected to hear other characters complain of his neglect, but I suspect that none of them imagined his abduction and murder. In fact, as the old fellow was being hauled off the stage, it must have dawned on these playgoers that Wilson was prepared to explore hospitality in new and provocative ways.

A conversation filled with commonplaces, talk about the venerable practice of hospitality had always been complicated by the (rather ineluctable) gap between what people did in the name of hospitality and what they and other people said about their actions.3 Ironies were everywhere. People claimed noble motives, but acted out of self-interest. People praised past hospitalities that may never have existed. Other voices denounced present failings on the basis of feelings rather than observation. In her magisterial study of early modern hospitality in England, Felicity Heal calmly addresses this muddle by noting that complaints about declining hospitality go back a very long way.4

Of course this gap between practice and representation has powerful consequences for anyone trying to understand and perform a play like The Three Ladies of London. Although it is tempting to see this pre-Shakespearean drama as a straightforward satire of contemporary life, we need to recognize that Wilson was caught up in a culture of castigation and nostalgia, preaching and posing, bad faith and humanist zeal. All of his characters, including old Hospitality, take their cues from this lively conversation.

Thomas Tusser summed up the noble cause when he urged his readers ‘To kepe good hospitalitie’.5 Acknowledging this precept, other writers complained of a decline in both ecclesiastical and secular circles.6 Some observers honed in on usury as an enemy to all kinds of charity.7 Echoing earlier voices, Tusser and company were contributing to a growing chorus of complaint that would stretch into the seventeenth century and beyond.8 But not every writer was utterly conventional.

In a fulsome discussion of the topic, Thomas Rogers analyzed hospitality in The Anatomie of the Mind, dividing the practice into four parts:

Wherof one they call a glorious entertainment of men, onely to be well thought of: another is a covetous kinde of Hospitalitie, only for ye penny: the third is a courteous receiving either of our friends or straungers: the last is a religious entertainment of all such as truly without hypocrisie serue God.9

The most important thing we learn in this analysis is that hospitality is not inherently good. It is a neutral practice that can be informed by both good and ill. In its noble forms, hospitality is directed toward both friends and strangers, and the term can even name a ubiquitous generosity inspired by God. Now Wilson may or may not have read this discussion, but he certainly seems to have been on the same page as Rogers, especially when the latter goes on to define the covetous practice as ‘Hospitalitie only for lucre, not for any looue at all’.10 Perhaps it is only a coincidence that the boy who played Lucre in Three Ladies of London also played Love.11

Where Rogers offered keen insights into the idea of hospitality, Thomas Wilson modelled a more fluid approach to the inquiry in A Discourse Uppon Usurye (1572). A good humanist, Wilson was keenly committed to using eloquence in the service of the common good.12 Following the form that Plato mastered centuries earlier, speaker challenges speaker in dialogue. In Wilson’s conversation, the Merchant declares that England is a superior sort of country because it whips its vagabonds while maintaining appropriate hospitality. The Preacher feels the need to qualify such exuberance, agreeing that ‘hospytalytie [is] kepte after a sorte somewhere’.13 Although inclined to defend the general character of his country, the Lawyer claims that England is famous for ‘glottony, in stede of hospitalitie’.14 Indeed, every country has its faults, he opines. The Preacher interjects his hope for a better world. The ideas in this exchange are both conventional and controversial. Other voices, such as the author of The Institucion of a Gentleman (1555), thought that the English were famous for their ‘good housekeping’.15 In other words, the dialogue could have gone on in greater detail, but what really matters is the way hospitality engenders dramatic dispute among representatives of early modern London. As Joel Altman demonstrated some time ago, exactly this sort of humanistic inquiry came to inform early Tudor plays that were, in essence, questions: ‘questions about love, justice, sovereignty, nature, imagination – even questions that question whether such questions can be answered’.16

Cues in the opening scenes of The Three Ladies of London certainly suggest that questions about the nature of hospitality will be central to the unfolding performance. In his opening soliloquy, Dissimulation announces his intention to ‘get entertainment’ (2.19).17 Kermode rightly glosses ‘entertainment’ as ‘employment’, but the term would also have suggested hospitality.18 Fraud echoes this desire (39). When Dissimulation, Fraud, Usury, Simony, and Simplicity sing their song to the ladies, they use the term (128). As Lady Love and Lady Conscience depart, Simplicity angles for an invitation to dinner, but it is not clear whether the noble ladies will acquiesce (166-9). Dissimulation eventually makes the same request of Lady Lucre (209). The latter responds in the language of hospitality: ‘You are all heartily welcome’ (214). The welcome not only presages employment, but also leads to a conventional expression of old-fashioned hospitality from Lady Lucre:

                                     to my palace haste away,
And will Crafty Conveyance, my butler, to make ready
The best fare in my house to welcome thee and thy company. (256-8)19

What do we talk about when we talk about hospitality?

In recent years, The Three Ladies of London has come to be thought of as a ‘usury play’, and there are very good reasons for the identification.20 But the moral architecture of Wilson’s inquiry invites broader interpretations as well. As the aforementioned scenes make clear, Lucre is the chief operating officer of malevolence in this play. Usury joins his mates in serving her. At the end of play, Lucre stands for the rest before Judge Nemo, who succinctly describes the overarching problem as ‘the unsatiate desire of vanishing earthly treasure’ (17.103). With this finale, the play’s larger interrogative purpose can be articulated. How, Wilson seems to be asking, should people in England manage material abundance in order to enhance the common good?

Taking a cue from Rogers, or perhaps seeing clearly for himself, Wilson uses the opening scenes to show his audience that hospitality is, not unlike blank verse, neutral. It unfolds in an established pattern. (In the seventeenth century, Caleb Dalechamp identified the parts as earnest invitation, cheerful entertainment, faithful protection, and courteous dismission or deduction.)21 Like blank verse, the hospitalities of early modern England achieved their most powerful effects, both good and bad, as practitioners varied the practice. Wilson makes this insight palpable in the opening scenes of the play as Lady Lucre looks like the model hostess. She seems more than willing to share her material abundance, but her minions quickly cast doubt on this appearance by turning away Artifex (3.153-5).

Against this backdrop, Hospitality enters. He appears as an old man, suggesting that the pundits were right when they described the practice as a thing of the past. Wilson certainly gives the actor nothing to work with that would suggest otherwise. Other characters in the play such as Dissimulation, Simony, and Simplicity have had fine opportunities to come alive in speeches. If one thinks forward to Thomas Nashe’s brilliant treatment of the same themes in Summer’s Last Will and Testament, the contrast is striking. Old Hospitality could have come out talking of warm fires and welcome, beef and ale, mince pies and posset. But his capacity for language seems utterly diminished. We simply learn that Hospitality has been at home with Lady Love.

As the scene unfolds, Wilson’s Hospitality turns out to be both superannuated and idiosyncratic. He invites Lady Conscience to dinner, but she wonders if he has invited ‘any stranger’ (4.65). Set against the larger conversation about hospitality in early modern England, this question is an odd one. When Rogers defined hospitality as open to both friends and strangers, he spoke to the traditional ideal. Wilson’s audience must have assumed that he was setting Hospitality up for a hale and hearty affirmation of old-fashioned largess. Wilson’s figure offers an eccentric reply: ‘No, sure; none but Lady Love, and three or four honest neighbours’ (65). ‘No’ comes as an immediate interjection, and the semicolon suggests emphasis. Strangers are not welcome.22 This Hospitality may be old, but he is a narrowed version of the ancient ideal.

Like a good interrogative clown, the uninvited Simplicity presses the issue from the margins by asking, ‘What, an I should come to dinner: hast thou any good cheer?’ (69). This could be a cue for the old fellow to finally give voice to his bounty, but words remain at a premium: ‘I have bread and beer, one joint of meat, and welcome, thy best fare’ (70). The commas in this line heighten the old man’s effort at inventory. Either his pantry is limited or his attitude toward his pantry has become cramped. Perhaps at his age, he can no longer remember what abundance felt like?

When Simplicity calls him to account for such laboured generosity, Hospitality cites chapter and verse on the difference between gluttony and hospitality to the hungry person he never managed to invite to the banquet: ‘My friend, hospitality doth not consist in great fare and banqueting, / But in doing good unto the poor, and to yield them some refreshing’ (77-8). This answer is, of course, a reasonable definition of hospitable practice, but in Wilson’s play it sounds parsimonious. In this satire of contemporary life, the good works of Hospitality occur offstage.23

The diminished world of good hospitable practice is underscored when Nicholas Nemo appears to offer an invitation, only to stop in the middle of his thought and vanish. The classical term for this moment is anacoluthon, a breaking off of thought that usually implies some sort of interior recognition. But this glimpse of interiority occurs in a character who is clearly no one. Is Wilson suggesting something about what Rogers called ‘the anatomie of the mind’? Is he perhaps hinting that Hospitality seems so feeble because his contemporaries have lost the capacity to think about him?

It certainly feels this way on the stage as episode follows episode, and the playwright quickly sketches a growing enmity between Usury and Hospitality (5.14-24; 51). There were, of course, precedents for this dramatic animosity in the larger conversation about the state of hospitality, but the play’s first audiences had to be surprised by Hospitality’s plaintive cry: ‘Usury hath undone me, and now he hates me to the death, / And seeks by all means possible for to bereave me of breath’ (8.1-2). Hospitality is on the run, and his predicament stands as a real crisis in an episodic drama that does not necessarily point toward ‘heightened climax of sudden revelation’.24 Wilson may simply be aiming for a bit of sensational action.

Another more thoughtful and compelling explanation for this turn of events is that the playwright is trying to suggest how corruption undermines the common good. Welcome and cheer quite forgotten, Hospitality complains that he lives ‘in fear’ (4). And, in a sophisticated sharing of the verse line, Usury heightens the feeling:

HOSPITALITY     What, will you kill me?
USURY                                           No, I’ll do nothing but cut thy throat. (10)

Usury wants to make the violence visceral. A little later, in one of the memorable lines of the play, Usury promises, ‘He shall die. Come, ye feeble wretch, I’ll dress ye like an elf!’ (21). There are good reasons to suppose that elf refers to a piteous creature (think of Dobby in the Harry Potter novels) being beaten, but Kermode points out that the elf could be the vicious figure from folklore doing the violence.25 When the time comes, Usury declares: ‘hale the villain into a corner, and so kill him secretly. / Come, ye miserable drudge, and receive thy death’ (32-3). Hale, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), had been used since the thirteenth century to refer to the action of dragging someone toward abuse, punishment, and imprisonment.26 Pressed by Usury’s threats, the embodiment of a generosity rooted in material abundance is being transformed into ‘wretch’ and ‘drudge’, a thing to be haled into a corner for killing. This, Wilson seems to say, is the larger effect of corruption in early modern England. Before it extinguishes noble practices, it makes them abject.

Because laughter has always been a crucial element of satire, Simplicity’s mocking dismissal of Hospitality comes as no surprise: ‘why, ‘twas time that he was dead’ (40). And he goes on to reveal that he never did understand that Hospitality’s real purpose had more to do with charity than it did with ‘great lumps of fat’ (46). Simony’s report of Hospitality’s funeral (which certainly could be staged in a kind of dumb show or tableau) reinforces the satiric point. Simony notes that both rich and poor showed up to mourn. ‘But’, he confides, ‘I perceive that none will hinder the murderer for this cruel act’ (95). People cry out about the abject state of communal compassion and do nothing to stop its extinction.

But Hospitality is not forgotten in this play, nor is Wilson finished exploring how corruption works in his world. In a remarkable scene, Lady Conscience has been evicted from her home by Usury and now sells brooms on the street. Her cries, to borrow Eric Wilson’s apt phrase, sound out society and space in early modern London.27 What she finds is Lady Lucre, ready to offer her gold for service. We expect the good lady to resist, but like Hospitality before her she has become abject and even muddled. She tells her new superior: 'For that I see your free heart and great liberality, / I marvel not that all people are so willing to follow ye' (10.71-2). Not content with this victory, Lady Lucre has plans for her enemy’s home. She wants to see the cottage transformed into a place of debased entertainment for her guests. She wants what Rogers calls ‘Hospitalitie only for lucre, not for any looue at all’.28 When everything is accomplished, she praises her victim: ‘I doubt not but our pleasures shall excel, / Seeing thou hast got a corner fit, where few neighbours dwell’ (93-4). Wilson’s care with his language is precise. Usury murdered Hospitality by haling him into a corner, and now Lady Conscience’s cottage has been transformed into a corner for debased hospitality. Corruption, we see, can drive noble practices like hospitality into corners. It can extinguish them and counterfeit them. Even more unsettling, corruption emboldened by material abundance can actually create the corners where hospitalities go to die.


[1] In the definitive study of the subject, Felicity Heal, Hospitality in Early Modern England (Oxford, 1990), 1-22, describes the controversial nature of the term.

[2] See, for example, Thomas Becon, The Flour of Godly Praiers (London, 1550) and Thomas Lever, A Fruitfull Sermon (London, 1550).

[3] Daryl W. Palmer, Hospitable Performances: Dramatic Genre and Cultural Practices in Early Modern England (West Lafayette, 1992), 2, 26, and passim.

[4] Heal, Hospitality, 93.

[5] Thomas Tusser, A Hundred Good Pointes of Husbandry (London, 1570), B1r. See also David Chytraeus, A Postil or Orderly Disposing of Certeine Epistles (London, 1570), 212. See also W. Fering, A New Yeres Gift (London, 1569); William Harrison, The Description of England, ed. F. J. Furnivall, 2 vols (1576; London, 1908), 1.145; Richard Robinson, The Vineyarde of Virtue (London, 1579).

[6] See, for example, Leonard Staveley, A Breef Discour[s] wherin is Declared, of y[e] Trauailes an[d] Miseries of this Painful Life (London, 1575); John Kyngston, A General Discourse Against the Damnable Sect of Usurers (London, 1578).

[7] Philip Caesar, A General Discourse Against the Damnable Sect of Usurers (London, 1578), 5r; Kyngston, A General Discourse, **5r.

[8] Palmer, Hospitable Performances, 29-34.

[9] Thomas Rogers, A Philosophicall Discourse, entituled, The Anatomie of the Minde (London, 1576), 182.

[10] Rogers, A Philosophicall Discourse, 183.

[11] On the complex gendering of these characters, see 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.

[12] In Four Cultures of the West (Cambridge and London, 2004), 18, John O’Malley explains, ‘Eloquence was a deep-seated value in this culture. But it was so because it was geared to the common good’.

[13] Thomas Wilson, A Discourse Uppon Usurye (London, 1572), B7r-v. Other examples of dialogues that take up the subject of hospitality include William Bullein, Bulleins Bulwarke of Defence (London, 1579), J2v and Philip Stubbes, The Anatomie of Abuses (London, 1583), 66-9.

[14] Wilson, A Discourse Uppon Usurye, B8v.

[15] Qtd in Heal, Hospitality, 10.

[16] Joel Altman, The Tudor Play of Mind (Berkeley, 1978), 2.

[17] Robert Wilson, Three Ladies of London, Lloyd Edward Kermode (ed.), Three Renaissance Usury Plays (Manchester and New York, 2009), 79-164. All subsequent references to the play are to this edition.

[18] See, for example, Rogers, A philosophicall discourse, 182. See also Daryl W. Palmer, ‘Entertainment, Hospitality, and Family in The Winter’s Tale’, Iowa State Journal of Research 59.3 (1985): 253-5; Palmer, Hospitable Performances, 3-4; Heal, Hospitality, 3; Julia Reinhard Lupton, ‘Hospitality and Risk in The Winter’s Tale’, Thinking with Shakespeare (Chicago, 2011), 163 and passim.

[19] Simony, 2.228, adds another layer to this conversation about debased forms of hospitality when he recalls the banquet provided by the monks and friars of Rome.

[20] Lloyd Edward Kermode, ‘Usury on the London Stage: Robert Wilson’s Three Ladies of London’, Helen Ostovich, Holger Schott Syme, and Andrew Griffin (eds), Locating the Queen's Men, 1583-1603: Material Practices and Conditions of Playing (Surrey, 2009), 159-70; Kermode, ‘Introduction’, Three Renaissance Usury Plays (Manchester, 2009): 34-7; David Hawkes, The Culture of Usury in Renaissance England (Basingstoke, 2010), 97.

[21] Caleb Dalechamp, Christian Hospitality (London, 1632), 18.

[22] The notion of ‘strangers’ in hospitable relationships is complex indeed. See Richard Kearney and Kascha Semonovitch (eds), Phenomenologies of the Stranger: Between Hostility and Hospitality (New York, 2011), 3-6.

[23] Because of this elision, Wilson’s text does not encourage the kind of phenomenological analysis suggested by Geraldo U. de Sousa in At Home in Shakespeare’s Tragedies (Surrey and Burlington, 2010) and Julia Reinhard Lupton in ‘Macbeth’s Martlets: Shakespearean Phenomenologies of Hospitality’, Criticism 54.3 (2012), 365-76.

[24] David Bevington, From Mankind to Marlowe (Cambridge, 1962), 3.

[25] A sense of how Wilson understands elf may be gleaned later in the play when Dissimulation calls Simplicity an ‘ass-headed elf’ (8.125). The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) provides more support for this reading by suggesting that elf, as early as the 1573 edition of Tusser’s Five Hundreth Points Good Husbandry, could refer, ‘In a vague depreciatory sense, [to] “a (poor) creature”, “a (poor, pious) soul”, “a (poor) devil”’. See elf, n.1. It seems a delightful coincidence that Tusser considered himself an authority on hospitality. Kermode provides his helpful gloss in Three Usury Plays, 127, n 22.

[26] See OED, hale, v.1.

[27] Eric Wilson, ‘Plagues, Fairs, and Street Cries: Sounding Out Society and Space in Early Modern London’, Modern Language Studies 25.3 (1995), 1-42.

[28] Rogers, A Philosophicall Discourse, 183.