In both Robert Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London and the Croxton Play of the Sacrament, Jewish figures are involved in conflicts with Christians, both plays deal with religious conversion, and in both the moral, spiritual, and ethical superiority of Christian faith seems to triumph. The Play of the Sacrament, an anti-Semitic play about faith and doubt, focuses on the definition of evil and its helplessness in the presence of true belief. The play complicates the idea of 'conversion' as presented in The Three Ladies of London. In Wilson’s play, Gerontus the Jew shows the Christian Mercatore sudden and unexpected forgiveness that rescues the merchant from a false conversion to Islam. Audiences, performers, and critics often interpret the moment with skeptical modern eyes. But the conflict between Christian and Jew in Three Ladies asks to be read in the context of earlier dramas from the ‘Age of Faith’: dramas like the Play of the Sacrament, in which conversion is unexpected and miraculous, and a sign of the divine history of the world in the care of an overseeing providence.
Robert Wilson’s Three Ladies of London (1584) is notably distant from The Play of the Sacrament in time and genre. Three Ladies is a play written for a predominantly Protestant audience by a professional playwright at the dawn of the English high Renaissance, to be performed by professional actors. It is concerned to a great extent with social and economic abuses in London: usury, immigrant labor, rent gouging, simony, and still more. The play inveighs against the decline of good old English hospitality caused by sharp dealing and ruthlessness. It is a late morality play whose many abstractions – Simplicity, Sincerity, Conscience, Usury, and the like – are not like the spiritual personifications in The Castle of Perseverance.
The Play of the Sacrament, conversely, is a saints play offered as a demonstration of the real presence of Christ in the mass. It may have been written for performance on Corpus Christi Day in the fifteenth-century at a time when the Catholic Church was having to deal with Lollards and other heretics as well as with critics of simony, pluralism, luxuriant living, and other alleged abuses of power in Rome and among the clerical hierarchy. Its staging on scaffolds and an open playing area, essentially like that of The Castle of Perseverance, features stage movement and visual effects that are quite unlike the more socially plausible stage arrangements of The Three Ladies.
At the same time, Three Ladies is like Sacrament in several key aspects. Both portray controversial negotiations between Christians and Jews. In Sacrament, five Jews bribe a Christian merchant named Aristorius or Aristory to steal the holy sacrament or host out of a church so that they can torture it and thereby determine whether it is the body of Christ, as Christians maintain, or is simply the bread that it appears to them to be. The test is important: if the host is nothing more than bread, the teachings of Christianity are meaningless superstition. When the Jews are proven disastrously wrong, they repent ashamedly and accept conversion and baptism into the Christian faith.
In Three Ladies, one plot deals with an Italian Christian merchant named Mercadorus or Mercatore who has borrowed 2000 ducats from a Jew named Gerontus, living in Turkey. Mercatore’s repeated evasions of his obligation to repay this and a subsequent further debt long after the due date obliges Gerontus to arrest the debtor and bring him before a Turkish judge. That authority figure finds at first in favour of the Christian merchant so long as he is willing to renounce his Christianity by becoming a Turk and a Mohammadan. The merchant at first agrees, vowing that he is ‘wearie of my Christes religion’. Yet when Gerontus gently urges Mercatore to consider what he is doing, the merchant, speaking with an Italian accent, suddenly and surprisingly decides that he will not forsake Christ ‘for all da good in da world’ (F1).1 A chief point of comparison in the two plays is sudden and mysterious conversion, one from Judaism to Christianity and the other a near-lapse into apostasy yielding instead to a return to Christian faith. The story is also ripe with opportunities for sizing up the comparative values of Christianity and paganism. In both instances, Christianity emerges triumphantly. A major and surprising difference is that, in the confrontation of Jew and Christian in Three Ladies, the person who most embodies the values of forbearance and forgiveness is the Jew, Gerontus.
The present essay looks at these two dramatic portrayals of Christian-Jewish confrontation across nearly two centuries of time as a way of exploring how staging, characterization, genre, and thematic material can help clarify continuities and changes in the dramatic presentation of cultural and religious issues like faith and skepticism, hatred and charitable forgiveness, and religious conversion.
Staging of Sacrament seems to require the sort of place-and-scaffold pattern we find also in The Castle of Perseverance and the N-Town Passion sequence. The play is East Anglian in staging as in language. The banns, like those in Perseverance, advertise an upcoming performance ‘At Croxton on Monday’. Croxton is near Bury St Edmunds. The indication that ‘Nine may play it at ease’ may mean that the text was prepared for itinerant performance in a number of nearby locations, though single performance is also possible.2 Probably the banns are to be accompanied by a brief miming of the play itself by costumed actors. Minstrels are present too. Minstels are present too.3
Three acting locations are evidently called for: a scaffold for Aristorius the merchant, another for Jonathas and his fellow Jews, and a church. (In saying this I am hypothesizing a staging method like that called for in my edition of Medieval Drama; other viable hypotheses have been proposed.. I hope that the argument presented in this essay is mainly compatible with those other staging theories.)4 This arrangement may well have had symbolic significance in dramatizing the conflict over the nature of the Eucharist or host. The church, perhaps centrally located, may have been the actual church – perhaps All Saints’ in Croxton, or St. James in Bury St Edmund – in front of which the production was staged. The space there would have provided room for action in the ‘platea’ or place. Numerous comings and goings in that place give spatial immediacy to the encounters between characters. Aristorius the merchant dispatches his clerk to ‘mete with the Jewes’ on the platea (228); the clerk returns to his master with the Jews’ offer to do business with Aristorius; Aristorius then meets in person with Jonathas and the others and agrees to steal the host from the church for them; Aristorius receives the host in return for a sizable payment. ‘Here shal he [Aristorius] entere the chirche and take the hoost’ (367 sd). Aristorius delivers the host to Jonathas, who is waiting for him in the place, and shall then ‘go his waye’ while ‘Jonathas and his servuantys shall go to the table’ (384 sd), presumably on a scaffold assigned to the Jews, where they commence torturing the host to determine if it is Christ’s flesh and blood of merely a ‘cake’ (285).
The stage direction ordering Aristorius to enter the church could mean that he enters or mounts a scaffold made to represent a church, but surely a simpler and more effective staging solution would be for him to enter the actual church before which the action takes place, with spectators grouped around the acting location. When Aristorius emerges from the church, audience members would understand that what they see in Aristorius’s hands appears to be a consecrated host, having been transformed mystically in church into Christ’s body and blood. This use of the church also prepares for the play’s ceremonial ending, when the Bishop issues an invitation to ‘all and summe’ to accompany him and the host ‘to chirche with sole[m]pne procession’, singing ‘O sacrum convivium’ (810-13). The language here could be addressed to the actors, but when the Bishop invites ‘both more and lesse’ to join him in procession, he uses a phrase we find elsewhere, in The Castle of Perseverance and Mankind, for example, to signify gentry and commoners, ‘ye soverens that sitt, and ye brotheryn that stonde right up’ (Mankind, 29). Quite possibly, then, the staging of Sacrament requires that the spectators join the actors inside the church to witness what then becomes a liturgical celebration of the conversion of the Jews to Christianity.
The scaffolds provide opportunities for the major players to show their stuff. Aristorius boasts of his mighty reputation in the vein of King Herod. Jonathas similarly proclaims his great wealth and commercial success. Most importantly, the scaffold of the Jews is where they torment the stolen host in a profane version of both Christ’s crucifixion and the Catholic mass. This scaffold must be made in such a way as to resemble the altar of a Christian church. The stage directions repeatedly instruct the Jews to ‘goo to the tabill’ and ‘lay the [h]ost on the tabill’ (384 sd-392 sd). A post (507) is at hand to which the host is nailed. Evidently the Jews can withdraw from view on this scaffold into ‘owr chamber’ (521) when they are not needed in the action. The resemblance of the Jews’ table to a church altar invites the audience to see a link between the two, one profane and one holy. This visual juxtaposition is a leitmotif of medieval drama. Compare, for example, the visual linking of Mak and Jill’s ruined cottage and the manger where Christ is born in the Towneley Second Shepherds Play.
Staging of The Three Ladies is much closer to that of the Elizabethan theatre, especially in its early years around 1581/2. The action is understood to take place mostly in London and in the countryside around it, from whence Dissimulation, in ‘a Farmer’s long coat and a cappe’ (A2v) resolves to seek his fortune in the big city, and where dwells Lady Lucre with whom Dissimulation and other rogues seek to be ‘entertained’. The episode involving Mercatore the merchant and Gerontus the Jew, interestingly, takes place in Turkey. Mercatore’s scam is to import ‘knacks’ into England for the delectation of ladies, in return for more substantial goods shipped out of England. Gerontus deals in such goods, such as musk, amber, and perfumes; like Jonathas in Sacrament he is both a merchant and a moneylender (D4). No scenic effects are specified in Three Ladies; presumably the audience will understand where the action is located by frequent references to London or Turkey, and by costuming and conversation. Mercatore vows to don ‘some Turks apparell’ in his attempt to ‘cozen’ the Jew (E3). The judge who presides over the arraignment of Mercatore for failing to repay his loan on time is identified as ‘the Iudge of Turkie’ and zealous believer in ‘Mahomet’ (D4v, F1).5 The shifting back and forth from London to Turkey is effortless on the simple platform stage where the action takes place. Stage directions sometimes specify props that are useful in identifying speaker and location, as when Fraud enters ‘with a basket of meat on his arme’ (E4) or ‘Enter Conscience with broomes at her back’ (D4). Songs are thematically useful and entertaining. Props are instrumental in identifying the vices of allegorical figures: ‘Enter Vserie with a paynted boxe of incke in hys hand’; ‘Here let Lucar open the boxe and dip her finger in it’ (E1v).
The staging of Three Ladies is aptly suited for a late morality play satirizing moral vices such as usury and simony: without scenic effects, it facilitates the rapid presentation of socially corrupt practices. It can move effortlessly across the seas. The idea of the theatre, to use Francis Fergusson’s apt phrase,6 is that of a theatrum mundi with human action taking place on earth in a plausibly realistic setting with the heavens understood to be above and the dark underworld somewhere beneath. The staging of the earlier Sacrament is more highly symbolic. It bespeaks a medieval world in which spiritual conflict takes on cosmic dimensions. The platea where men meet is surrounded by platforms weighted with symbolic meanings: the Jews’ scaffold is the residence of those who deny and persecute Christ, while Aristorius’s platform represents worldliness and greed. Throughout, the great edifice of the church is at hand, much as the scaffold of heaven is omnipresent in the N-Town representation of the Passion sequence.
Characterization assumes similar dimensions in our two plays. In Three Ladies, the allegorical names are transparent indicators of social types: Usury is a grasping landlord, Dissimulation a cheating rascal, Lady Lucre a worldly woman of corrupt appetites. Mercatore and Gerontus are no less obvious as labels: Mercatore means ‘merchant’ and Gerontus means ‘old man’. Their motivations are psychologically plausible: Mercatore wants to make easy money with his commercial swindles, while Gerontus is more subtly presented as one who trades in commerce and lends money with a hope of profit, but seems to be unusually patient in allowing generous terms to his borrower. In this he is distinctly unlike Jews portrayed elsewhere in Elizabethan drama (Shylock, Barabas), suggesting that the playwright has some reason for wishing to portray a Jewish moneylender as more courteous and forbearing than Mercatore. Sacrament, conversely, employs its abstractions in pursuit of an anti-Lollard defense of the real presence.7 It retells the passion story with alliteratively named figures like Jonathas, Jason, and Jasdon or Masphat and Malchus who are at once contemporary and historical, taking on the role of those who crucified Christ. They are five in number because five persecutors are needed for the action of torturing the host. Their motivation is both historical and universal. They are driven by a need to know if the host ‘be he that on Calvary was mad[e] red’, and ‘if he have eny blood’ (449-52). While this need is understandable as a human wish on the part of Jonathas and the others to refute a religion they regard as a ‘false heresy’ ‘Ageyns owr law’ (415), it also offers an explanation on the larger cosmic scale of a battle between good and evil, since the devil has precisely the same insatiable desire to know if Christ is human. The N-Town Passion sequence dramatizes this idea superbly: having prompted Judas to betray Christ in hopes of destroying this great enemy, the devil then realizes too late that he has set up his own downfall. The crucifixion will not mean the end of Christ’s teaching at all, but instead will initiate salvation into human history. The devil frantically visits Pilate’s wife in a dream to urge her husband to forestall the crucifixion, but it is too late. The devil is foiled. He has fallen into his own trap. And so it is with Jonathas until he is rescued from disaster by means of penitence and conversion to Christianity. Aristorius is similarly both historical and abstract: he a worldling merchant driven by a generic covetousness that requires no further explanation. Motivation of action in this play is determined not psychologically so much as by a conflict between good and evil on a cosmic scale.
Considerations of genre lead to similar conclusions. Three Ladies, for all its allegorical trappings, is a kind of social satire directed at greed. Since it ultimately rewards generosity and hospitality with a happy ending, it is a social comedy, as indeed it is identified on its 1584 title page: ‘A right excellent and famous Comoedy’. Unashamed of its didacticism, it offers itself as ‘A perfect patterne for all estates to looke into, and a work right worthie to be marked’. Sacrament, on the other hand, is a demonstration of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. No less didactic, it an instrument of Church policy defending a dogma that was under serious attack in the fifteenth century by Lollards and heterodox thinkers. It is a comedy too in providing a happy ending, but it does so in the realm of theological controversy more than in terms of human conflict.
Sacrament and Three Ladies differ profoundly in their approaches to the relationship between theatre and liturgy. Sacrament attempts to be both. It dramatizes the story of some Jews who re-enact the crucifixion by torturing a host stolen out of a church to determine if it has the blood of the living Christ. Their skepticism is plausible in worldly terms: a loaf of bread, they scoffingly insist, cannot become what Christians believe it to be. ‘They beleve on a cake’, they scoff, and ‘all they seye how the prest dothe it bind, / And by the might of his word make it flesh and blode’. This is a ‘conceit’, the Jews maintain, by which Christians ‘would make us blind’ (20-4). The Jews are proved disastrously wrong in this play when the crucified Christ appears in the oven where they have thrown the host and lectures them on their egregious error. The trouble, for us today at least, is that the theatrical devices used to present this miracle are patently contrived. A few recent productions of the play have shown that audiences are more inclined to laugh at the play’s climactic moment than to be moved and persuaded by what they have seen. Even believing Christians today are apt to find the demonstration unconvincing. Sacrament was written nearly six centuries ago, of course, in what we often refer to as the Age of Faith, but even then, we are bound to suppose, audiences would have been wholly aware of the theatrical and mechanical means of producing this ‘miracle’.
Yet we need to remember that a similar difficulty is present in medieval religious drama from its earliest times in the tenth century. The monastics who enacted early ceremonials of the visit to the sepulchre on Easter morning had every good reason to know that the host had been quietly removed from its tomb-like place of rest in the sacristy on Good Friday, in memory of Christ’s crucifixion and descent into hell before his resurrection on Sunday morning. They knew in rational terms why the sepulchre was empty when the three Marys, represented in ceremonials by monastic brethren, came to the tomb on Easter morning and learned from the angel that ‘non est hic’, ‘he is not here’. Yet the monastics accepted that they were witnessing a representation of the resurrection. ‘Venite et videte locum ubi positus erat Dominus’, says the angel. ‘Come and see the place where the Lord had been laid’. The demonstration offered visual proof of the resurrection. What the observers were asked to do was to believe in something contrary to physical sense, to understand that somehow the resurrection was literally true, just as they understood they were to believe in other ‘impossibilities’ of Christian doctrine, including the miracle of Mary’s having conceived Christ through the Holy Ghost without human intervention, and the miracle of the real presence in the mass. To believe in something one can see and touch and feel, as Doubting Thomas preferred to do, is easy; to believe in the impossible requires the kind of faith that Tertullian urges on his readers and listeners: ‘Credo quia impossibile est’, ‘I believe because it is impossible’. Sacrament’s theatrical miracle is like that. Even though drama and liturgy are incompatible in much theological teaching, they do meet in medieval drama. Indeed, this paradoxical union showed the way that the liturgy of the Catholic church, insisting on its own ‘literal’ truth, could nonetheless give rise to Western religious drama.
I once attended a demonstration mass in Kalamazoo’s Episcopal Church during a medieval conference there in which the Roman Catholic priest who had agreed to take the part of the celebrant was told by Episcopalian authorities that under no circumstances would he be allowed to utter those sacred five words, ‘Hoc est enim corpus meum’, ‘This is my body’, lest the demonstration mass transform itself into the real thing; indeed, despite this precaution, as the event proceeded the many members of religious orders who were there all stood or knelt at the appropriate times as the mass was sung, so that one could never tell whether one was beholding a mass or a theatrical representation. My argument here is that something like that moment of theatrical daring and ambiguity must have occurred on the stage of The Play of the Sacrament.
Three Ladies belongs to a world that, in large part, has left behind this paradoxical union of theatre and liturgy. This play, like other Renaissance plays generally, is comfortable with the medium of fiction. All the same, the larger dimensions of meaning that hover over drama in its great Golden Age are there. The conflict between Christian and Jew in Three Ladies asks to be seen as part of the divine history of the world in the care of an overseeing providence.
Indeed, the conversion of this play is like that in Sacrament in that both are seen as unexpected and miraculous. The judge hearing the case of Gerontus and Mercatore in Three Ladies is totally caught by surprise. The moment is suspenseful: the judge administers the oath to Mercatore to renounce his allegiance to country and to Christianity itself in return for a favourable verdict. The merchant has clearly indicated his readiness to do so. Gerontus has accepted the judge’s decision. But then, suddenly and unexpectedly, Gerontus pleads with the merchant to consider what he is doing, and the merchant has a change of heart (F1; please see the Coda at the end of this essay).8
A delightful consequence of this unexpected action is that the play offers what I see as an esthetically pleasing paradox, chiasmus-like in its design. Mercatore’s insincere ‘conversion’ to Mohammadism at the behest of the judge is offset and counterparted by Gerontus’s more generous and sincere wish to see Mercatore stand true to Christian teaching. Worldliness and the Christian charity urged by the patient Jew change places at opposite ends of a spectrum. Worldliness proves self-defeating, not only in this ‘conversion’ scene but in the play as a whole, where usury and narrow self-interest are awarded the satirical punishment they deserve, while charity holds steadfast as a spiritual value. This chiasmic movement is perhaps distantly anticipatory of the ending of Shakespeare’s Richard II, in which Bolingbroke, now Henry IV, achieves a worldly success at the huge spiritual cost of Bolingbroke’s Cain-like responsibility for his cousin’s grim assassination in prison, while Richard, no longer king, seeks the eternal consolation of religious faith: ‘Mount, mount, my soul! Thy seat is up on high, / Whilst my gross flesh sinks downward, here to die’ (5.5.111-12).
The conversion of Jonathas and his fellows in Sacrament is no less sudden and essentially unexplained, other than that they have been shown a demonstration of the real presence they have so vehemently denied. Conversions are like that, as famously in the case of Paul, persecutor of Christians, who was suddenly and even violently born again on the road to Damascus. Conversions are not seen as arising from processes of thought and rational contemplation; they are spiritual. They operate in an entirely separate realm of faith.
This is perhaps the central way in which the sagas of the Jews in Sacrament and of Mercatore and Gerontus in Three Ladies are alike. These accounts revel in seemingly impossible paradoxes. As the judge concludes, in Three Ladies, ‘One may judge and speake truth, as appears by this, / Jewes seeke to excell in Christianitie, and Christians in Jewishnes’ (F1). As thus defined, Jewishness is simply and wholly a state of faithlessness in Christian doctrine. It can at once be reversed in individuals by conversion. This is very far from denying the antisemitism that was so deeply ingrained in medieval times (and remains so much a problem today), but it does find a way of ameliorating the conflict through the paradoxical relationship of worldliness and Christian faith.
I would like to end by singing praises for a very successful conference organized by Helen Ostovich on Three Ladies of London at McMaster University in June 2015. The conference had a real impact on me, prompting some serious rethinking of my own paper that is embodied especially in the third from final paragraph above. Directors and actors at the conference presented a number of staged dramatizations of various scenes of the play, more than one of which explored readings of the scene of conversion that were quite contrary to my own. The actors deftly demonstrated that Mercatore could be presented as a merchant who acts and speaks as he does chortlingly and abusively as a way of getting back at Gerontus and the Islamic Judge. This idea seems to me to read against the text, in which Mercatore says ‘O Sir Gerontus, me take a your proffer, and tanke you most hartily’, after Gerontus has said to him, ‘I would be loth to heare the people say, it was long of me / Thou forsakest thy faith, wherefore I forgiue thee franke and free’ (F1). Any utterance can be read as ironic, to be sure, and can certainly be made to work in the theatre if given this emphasis in delivery, but what evidence is there for that in the text? I submit that this proposed sardonic reading of Mercatore is prompted by a modern mistrust of the incredible about this conversion, since it happens so unpreparedly. But that is exactly the point of my essay: the conversion is meant to be unexpected. And I want to emphasize that the more sardonic readings of this scene at the conference worked admirably and convincingly. Theatrically, the play can be read in strikingly contrastive ways. The conference proved the importance of multiplicity of theatrical approaches in ways that are deeply meaningful to me and, I feel sure, to all who took part.
 Quotations from Three Ladies of London are taken from the Tudor Facsimile Texts edition of 1911 under the supervision of John S. Farmer.
 Quotations from The Play of the Sacrament are taken from David Bevington (ed.), Medieval Drama (Boston, 1975), 754-88.
 See Gail McMurray Gibson, The Theater of Devotion: East Anglian Drama and Society in the Late Middle Ages (Chicago, 1989, 1994); Victor J. Scherb, Staging Faith: East Anglian Drama in the Later Middle Ages (Madison NJ, London and Cranbury NJ, 2001); William Tydeman, English Medieval Theatre, 1400-1500 (London, New York, 1994); and Marianne G. Briscoe and John Coldeway (eds), Contexts for Early English Drama (Bloomington IN, 1989).
 John T. Sebastian (ed.), Croxton Play of the Sacrament (Kalamazoo, MI, 2012, available online in Robbins Library Digital Projects), postulates a symbolic arrangement in which Aristory’s scaffold is in the middle with the Jews’ scaffold on one side and the church on the other, thus visualizing a spiritual struggle between the forces of evil and good with Aristory traversing ‘thes pathes playne’ in such a way that leads him at first ‘away from the church, from salvation, and toward the damnation represented by the Jews and their unbelief’. He cites Tydeman as imagining that Aristory delivers his opening speech ‘from the platea, which would enable him to begin in the neutral middle space’, visualizing the opposition between the Jews’ scaffold and either the bishop’s scaffold or an actual church. My view is close to that of Tydeman, though I suppose Aristory to be on a scaffold at the start. See also David Lawton, ‘Sacrilege and Theatricality: The Croxton Play of the Sacrament’, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 33.2 (2003), 281-309, who sees the play as laden with uncertainties, including its staging; and Elisabeth Dutton, ‘The Croxton Play of the Sacrament’, Thomas Betteridge and Greg Walker (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Tudor Drama, (Oxford, 2012), 55-71, who agrees with David Lawton about the play’s complexities and uncertainties.
 See Michael Mark Chemers, ‘Anti-Semitism, Surrogacy, and the Invocation of Mohammed in the Play of the Sacrament’, Comparative Drama 41.1 (2007), 25-55, on the assumption of Christian playwrights of the period that ‘the Prophet of Islam was the god of the Muslims’, an error which the playwrights compounded ‘by placing the trumped-up blasphemy in the mouths of their fictitious Jews’. Sacrament is Chemers’s prime example.
 Francis Fergusson, The Idea of the Theater (Princeton, 1949); New York: Doubleday, 1953).
 See Cecelia Cutts, ‘The Croxton Play: An Anti-Lollard Piece’, Modern Language Quarterly 5.1 (1944), 45-60.
 The conference on Three Ladies at McMaster University in 2015 is exploring a contrary reading of this scene of conversion, one in which Mercatore acts and speaks as he does chortlingly and abusively as a way of getting back at Gerontus and the Islamic judge. This idea seems to me to read against the text, in which Mercatore says ‘O Sir Gerontus, me take a your proffer, and tanke you most hartily’, after Gerontus has said to him, ‘I would be loth to heare the people say, it was long of me / Thou forsakest thy faith, wherefore I forgiue thee franke and free’ (F1). Any utterance can be read as ironic, to be sure, and can certainly be made to work in the theatre if given this emphasis in delivery, but what evidence is there for that in the text? I submit that this proposed sardonic reading of Mercatore is prompted by a modern mistrust of the incredible about this conversion, since it happens so unpreparedly. But that is exactly my point: it is meant to be unexpected.