Early Modern Pedagogy and The Three Ladies of London

Elizabeth Hanson

This paper looks at early modern pedagogy as the way English society was being reshaped in the 1580s and 1590s, with its high rate of (over-)educated young men trying to make their way in a virtually ‘closed shop’ workforce. It addresses the idea of the play as ‘propaganda’ in terms of how early modern audiences might have understood its repetitions and multiple variations on social, political, international, and ecclesiastical vice, suspicions of changing loyalties, fear of Catholic intrusion, and especially their own civic behaviour and responsibility for the London formal and informal practices of justice. With examples drawn from tracts on learning and education, the argument will point toward similar learned behaviour in The Three Ladies of London as the way to understand the existing system.

The Three Ladies of London unquestionably bears a relation to ‘pedagogy’ but the precise form of that relation is elusive. When ‘pedagogy’ is deployed in connection with early modern drama it usually takes us straightaway into the humanist grammar school. To the extent that the grammar school trained boys as actors as well as rhetoricians, developing the skills of some performers and the connoisseurship of audiences, then all plays in the period have some relation to humanist pedagogy, even those such as Three Ladies that belong so clearly to the vernacular morality tradition. Moreover, because The Three Ladies of London claims didactic intent, the title page of the 1592 quarto extolling it as a ‘perfect patterne for all estates to looke into, and a worke right worthie to be marked’, it arguably bears some relation to the catechistical aspect of humanist pedagogy as well. But these are tenuous connections. Despite copious lip service, catechesis in fact received much less attention in the grammar school than did the training in classical rhetoric and poetics that produced the eloquence, bearing, and modes of cognition of Christian gentlemen that would distinguish them from Christian men and women more generally. And, as is frequently observed, this training served a view of human nature and experience that did not align perfectly with Christian doctrine in any of its sectarian manifestations, even as it sustained ecclesiastical learning. But the play’s didacticism is not exactly doctrinal in its focus either, or at least not in the way that the didacticism of morality plays is preoccupied with soteriological matters. In fact, as I shall argue, if there are lessons to be learned from The Three Ladies they are lessons that humanist training may have also inadvertently imparted to its pupils. The relation The Three Ladies of London bears to pedagogy lies in the interplay between its didactic intent and the inescapable effects of humanist training on the subculture of the commercial stage. If we take ‘pedagogy’ to refer specifically to the practices, effects, and beliefs associated with humanist education, then it might make more sense to invoke The Three Ladies as an example of what that education disrupted. For example Ruth Lunney argues that Robert Wilson’s play trades in ways of seeing which the plays of Christopher Marlowe, that product of humanist pedagogy, profoundly challenged. Its allegory asks recognition from its audience, the recall of a familiar meaning while, Lunney asserts, Marlowe’s plays present audiences with characters whose ‘perceptions … are distorted by the intensity of an inner conflict’, demanding that audiences recognize idiosyncratic states of mind.1 As Lynn Enterline has recently demonstrated, this attention to minds under the influence of the passions can be traced quite directly to the practices of English grammar schools and particularly to the exercises in prosopopeia prescribed in Aphthonius’s Progymnasmata that led English schoolboys to impersonate lamenting Didos and weeping Niobes.2 But if it is possible to ascribe the Marlovian departure from the theatrical values of Wilson’s play at least in part to grammar school pedagogy, the reverse does not follow: that the theatrical values of Wilson’s play do not participate in the styles and goals of humanist pedagogy. We know nothing about Robert Wilson’s own education. Francis Meres praises the player Wilson (who, let’s assume, is the playwright Wilson) for both ‘learning and extemporal wit’, and links him with Tarlton, thus defeating any easy categorization of him as a representative of classical or popular tradition.

Of course, those traditions aren’t easily parsed anyway, and while Wilson’s play belongs loosely to the popular morality tradition, that tradition, probably because it is inherently didactic, had penetrated the grammar school much earlier. John Redford’s Wit and Science written circa 1540 for the choristers of St. Paul’s evinces this penetration. In this interlude, Reason arranges for the marriage of Wit to his daughter, Science.3 While Wit is supposed to prepare for the wedding under the guidance of Study and Instruction, he is instead discouraged by Tediousness, and soon finds himself clothed by Ignorance. Like Mankind or Everyman (but unlike Lady Love and Lady Conscience) Wit is saved from his bad choices, though not through God’s Mercy. Instead, after an encounter with his betrothed, Science, in which she does not recognize him (perhaps there is a mild New Comedy inflection here) and instead takes him for a fool, he looks in the glass that Reason had provided him and is shocked by his own appearance. After a brief threat of corporal punishment from Shame, Reason relents, provided that Wit buckle down under the guidance of masters Instruction, Study, and Diligence, which he duly does so that at last Confidence finds him and he weds Science. Wit and Science, then, is an allegorical expression of humanist pedagogical ideology. On the one hand, it trades in simple recognition of meaning of the type Lunney associates with The Three Ladies in order to convey doctrine, albeit a very different one from that of morality plays.4 On the other, because that doctrine asserts the potential rather than the inherent condition of its protagonist, the logic of the allegory is slightly different. Like The Three Ladies, Wit and Science differs from older morality plays concerned with mankind’s sinfulness and redemption in being a play about multivalent potential; just as Lady Conscience can be both a bulwark against temptation and a spotted bawd, so Wit (who really embodies potential itself) can either become a fool or the bridegroom of Science. Wit’s properties change depending on whom he encounters, and this feature of the play suggests that the recognition the allegory demands may be slightly more complex than Lunney allows for. It asks the audience to grasp the logic of an encounter which is at least hypothetically open-ended, rather than just the character of the participants. It is not very open-ended, however, insofar as the logic also perfectly expresses very familiar pedagogical doctrine in the same way that the action of The Castle of Perseverance conveys soteriological doctrine. Nevertheless, in the play’s demand that we see that Wit means different things under different circumstances (because according to humanist pedagogues a boy becomes different things to the extent that he applies himself to his studies) Wit and Science lets us see a connection between the multivalent quality of Love and Conscience and the ideology of humanist pedagogy. In fact, I would suggest, both plays disclose the pressure of humanist pedagogical ambitions (and failures) on the vernacular, popular traditions of allegory that will yield the staggering intellectual complexity of The Faerie Queene.

The simple confidence with which Wit and Science suggests that Wit can just pull up his socks differentiates the play from both the pedagogical procedures and the lessons (if we can even call them that) of The Three Ladies of London, and from some humanist pedagogical thinking from the later sixteenth century. In the remainder of this paper I want to suggest some connections between the logic of the allegory in The Three Ladies, in which Love and Conscience, who would have stood Mankind’s friend in the morality tradition, come to a bad end in late-sixteenth-century London, and the conceptual predicament of humanist pedagogy in the 1580s. The advertisement of the play’s title page that it is ‘right worthie to be marked’ invites a question: what can one learn from ‘marking’ this play? My own answer is: if you cannot avoid London, at least avoid penury by being born rich. My flippancy is intended to suggest that there is a contradiction between the play’s didactic mode of address to its audience and its actual message, to acknowledge that it is hard to derive usable moral precepts from the play because of the way it anticipates, albeit in the mode of moral allegory, the grinding realism of nineteenth-century fiction. The potential for transforming encounters that Wit carried in Redford’s play becomes in Wilson’s play a law of universal degradation so relentless in its operation that even powerful virtues such as Lady Conscience and Lady Love are denatured as a result of their decision ‘to walk abroad a while’ (1.30) in a London where ‘’Tis Lucre now that rules the rout’ (3). It is important to note that the degradation arises not from the glitter of an enticing Lucre, but from the ‘necessity’ imposed by a grinding one (10.21). Lady Conscience endures poverty until her circumstances leave her with little recourse but to sell her brooms to Lucre, meaning that it is difficult to take her bad end as an object lesson. This misfortune may be one reason why her judge is ‘Nemo’. Her fate teaches that Lucre’s power lies not in temptation but in a capacity to totally organize social experience — to kill Hospitality and to bring Lady Conscience so low that she has to cut a deal with Lucre. Thus the audience learns not to choose differently (because how could one?) but to understand the systemic effects of Lucre’s rule and the force of circumstances. As in a novel by Balzac, or George Eliot, or Edith Wharton, circumstances trump character, understood as the essential qualities that any figure bears outset of the story, or draw out character’s proclivities to produce an outcome that tells us at least as much about the logic of a situation as about character. In fact, Lady Lucre arguably expresses necessity itself in the same way that Wit does potential, functioning as a kind of meta-allegory for the principle that drives plot development.

‘Preceptes be for freemen, which maie do as ye bid them, but circunstance bindes and wilbe obeyed’, Richard Mulcaster observes near the beginning of his monumental Positions Concerning the Training up of Children (1582).5 This comment, which the impoverished Lady Conscience might justifiably utter, is even more surprising coming from a schoolmaster. Nevertheless, in its contradictory truth, opposing as it does the schoolboy virtue of obedience to the presumptively identical schoolboy virtue of heeding a precept, it is typical of Mulcaster’s struggle to do justice to the complex social field in which the project of humanist education folded. More specifically, Mulcaster’s observation suggests that by the time Wilson wrote The Three Ladies, some pedagogues had developed a more sophisticated and less optimistic grasp of what pedagogy might yield than is expressed in Wit and Science. The precepts Mulcaster refers to are exhortations addressed to parents, by evangelists of humanist education such as Erasmus, to send their sons to school. The situation Mulcaster acknowledges is one in which the father may fully recognize the desirability of setting his son to school but lacks the means to pay for it. What is of interest for our purposes is the collision he stages between a didactic mode of address – the precept – and the material circumstances of the pupil; the non-moralistic concession he makes regarding the respective powers of money and virtue.

This is one of many moments in which Mulcaster, the experienced headmaster, expresses his irritation with the ‘unpossible Idaea[s]6 of theorists such as Erasmus, which he contrasts with his own ‘discretion’, a faculty cultivated through long years in the real world of grammar teaching. Elsewhere he observes that discretion is a vital intellectual capacity for a schoolmaster because:

Children that come to schoole dwel not in one house, not in the same streate, nay not in the same towne, they cannot lightly come at one houre, they be not one age, nor fit for one exercise, and yet they must have some. The arte knoweth my child no more then my neighbours, but the trainer must, and stay those uncertainties upon the arrest of discretion: being enstructed afore hand in the general skill though bound but of voluntarie: as the like cause shall lead the like case. The rule is, no noysome savour neare the newly exercised: how shall the poore boye do, that is to go home thorough stinking streates and filthy lanes.
The rule is, change apparell after sweat: what if he have none other? Or not there where he sweateth? Here must the trainers discretion shew it selfe[.]7

In Mulcaster’s assertion here that discretion must supplement the precepts which make up the ‘arte’ of teaching, he demonstrates his capacity for what Jeffrey Dolven calls ‘narrative understanding’, which is ‘a kind of explanation that insists on time and circumstances’.8 Dolven opposes such narrative understanding to ‘paradigmatic understanding ... [which] abstracts its objects from time; it is the text as already read, understood according to its topoi and its laws’, and is the type of understanding for which grammar school pedagogy strives.9 Dolven himself credits Mulcaster with a grasp of narrative understanding, commenting ‘he is Spenser’s teacher after all’. I think it would be more accurate (and less condescending) to observe that in a passage such as this, Mulcaster is in fact expressing humanist pedagogical values, demonstrating that he is a master rather than a schoolboy, that he does not slavishly follow precepts but employs them with prudence. More importantly though, we should notice that here and throughout his book when Mulcaster invokes the capacity of ‘circumstance’ to challenge a precept he is thinking about money as much as he is about time. For Mulcaster, poverty is the circumstance that really bites back at precept, and ‘bindes’ an otherwise free man or woman. In fact, Positions is remarkable in being a prolonged attempt to manage the conflicting claims of humanist pedagogy, which Mulcaster proclaims as a universal good for both Christian men and women, and the economic restrictions which mean that good cannot be universally distributed.10

In his capacity to grasp the vulnerability of precept to economic circumstance, Mulcaster is not simply smarter than your average schoolmaster, but attuned to the questions which had begun to force themselves in the latter decades of the sixteenth century regarding the value of learning, understood in a specifically economic sense, as the number of educated men began to exceed clerical livings and state and household offices. When Mulcaster prides himself on the discretion he must cultivate in the face of economic circumstance, he suggests that there is a pedagogical dividend to be gleaned from the failure of precept, though it mostly takes the form of grasping the inevitability of disappointment. I want to suggest that in staging an unusable moral allegory, one which fails as precept but requires its audience to attend closely to each encounter in the unfolding action, and to discern the reason why the characters interact as they do in the circumstances in which they find themselves – why Lady Love can retain Simplicity, but Lady Conscience will not, why Simplicity does not respond with gratitude to Hospitality, why it is Usury who kills Hospitality, and why Conscience has ‘not the power to help him’ (8.35),11 why Artifex is susceptible to Fraud, but Fraud is more interested in Creticus the lawyer, why Mercadorus would turn Turk, but Gerontus the Jew cannot stomach the outcome, why Conscience can endure poverty but only for so long – The Three Ladies teaches its audience ‘discretion’, understood as the discernment, again and again, of the precise and various ways in which Lucre operates in the world. If some of these acts of discernment might seem to lead straight back to a maxim, radix malorum est cupiditas, others do not, because while cupiditas might be Gerontus’s motive it is not Lady Conscience’s, nor is it really Simplicity’s, whose desire is simply to feed rather than to hoard. Indeed one of the play’s most famous features, its good Jew, has the effect precisely of blocking the audience from defaulting to an established idea about Lucre’s operation in the world and instead forcing a question about why a Jew might be less driven by cupiditas than a Christian merchant.12

The Three Ladies locates its demand for ongoing discretion in a specific social context, the London of the ‘now’ in which ‘Lucre rules the rout’ (1.4), which also provides the space and time for open-ended allegorical encounters as Lady Conscience and Lady Love ‘walk abroad a while’ (30), encounters which, shaped by Mulcaster’s ‘circumstance’ furnish occasion for Dolven’s ‘narrative understanding’. But this same London where ‘Lucre rules the rout’ is also, of course, the place of the commercial theatre, in which this play is a commodity for sale, as the Prologue reminds us. According to the Prologue the play awaits customers on the players’ ‘stall’ and though it is not like others whose features the audience might more readily recognize, the audience may find the play ‘well-woven, good and fine’ and so that the players will have their ‘custom … again another time’. In other words the play begins by positing for its audience a capacity for discernment that is in the first instance commercial but which will also permit them to grasp the logic of the allegory as it unfolds in all of its permutations and combinations. My point is not to catch the play out in a contradiction, but to observe how deep may have been the players’ and Wilson’s grasp that Lucre really does rule the rout, and therefore that the play’s moral pedagogy could not take the form of promulgating precepts to freemen. Moreover while this perception might be presumed to be particular to a playwright for the commercial theatre, it was in fact shared by an important humanist pedagogue as a consequence of his experience in trying to educate boys in classical letters in the same London. Lloyd Edward Kermode has characterized the play as ‘Wilson’s attempt to inject the morality mode with a shot of vital economic politics’.13 But that injection does more than change the content from personal salvation to the moral life of an economic community. It yields a different mode of pedagogical address, which educates audience to grasp the principles which organize social life, but does not vouchsafe anyone purchase on them.


I am not a practitioner of Performance as Research except in a minor, pedagogical way and so I came to the conference as a sort of tourist. The chief sight I craved to see was an actual performance of an obscure but fascinating play that, perversely, I had begun teach to undergraduates because of the way it exemplifies the uses the commercial stage could make of the morality tradition. Comparing my own research practices with those of the PAR practitioners I reflected that while we all strove to make the play intelligible by orchestrating a conversation between it and the expectations and resources of our present condition, those expectations and resources were of a somewhat different kind. I had approached the play above all as a reader, situating it in relation to two different types of text that I know well – humanist pedagogical theory and nineteenth-century fiction. I had hoped that the latter comparison might startle my readers a bit before they conceded it as apropos. It was a gambit intended to underscore how innovative the play’s allegorical method and moral pessimism really is – a counter to characterizations of the play as the conservative foil to Marlowe’s innovations. But it also reveals the way in which my own research practice makes the play speak in relation to what I as a twenty-first century critic know, want to know, and can assemble around the play. If as a scholar of Renaissance literature I can plausibly juxtapose another text from the 1580s, Mulcaster’s Positions, as an twenty-first century reader of English literature I also associate fictions that present a range of social types, a world driven by money, and well-meaning protagonists who are corrupted as they enter and try to negotiate that world, with much later, nineteenth-century literary forms that are subtended by notions of necessity similar to those that also drive another nineteenth century classic, Marx’s Capital. Indeed my sensitivity to the concept of ‘necessity’ and many of my conceptual tools for addressing expressions of it, derive not from my scholarly acquaintance with early modern habits of thought and representation but from saturation in these later ones.

In my scholarly practice then, I make the text of a play live for me by amplifying it with my own non-synchronic habits of thought. PAR undertakes a similar amplification, finding the signs, gestures, use of bodies and space available to us now that will animate old, strange plays, as well as investigating the conditions of original performance. The point is an obvious one; what interested me, however, when thinking about the choices that shaped Peter Cockett’s wonderful production, was the way in which the resources for performance could be so different in kind and meaning from the resources that a reader-critic such as myself resorts to as to support widely divergent interpretations of the play. One feature of the production I particularly admired was the subtlety with which it distinguished between and overlapped allegorical and stereotypical modes of signification. Three Ladies of London differs from earlier plays in the morality tradition in using social types as stand alone characters as well as appropriating their features in order to signify moral qualities. Thus Sincerity may be a poor scholar and Simplicity a perpetually hungry serving-man, but in both the attributes of a type are adduced to signify a moral abstraction while Mercadorus and Gerontus exemplify actual social categories, although these too may be inflected by moral abstractions such as cupidity. The difference is that Gerontus can be revealed as (surprisingly) less driven by cupidity than Mercadorus, or Mercadorus as (shockingly) more in love with money than a stage Jew, and keep their markers of identity. Of course, part of the play’s interest derives from the way social contingency also comes to attach to moral abstractions as well, but this contingency has to be signified through changes in the presentation of the emblematic, as when Conscience’s appears divested of all but her smock. The play’s presentation of character types alongside allegory and the way these two forms jostle one another is one way in which the play turns the morality form from soteriological to social ends. The production of the play brilliantly captured the subtle, flexible distinction between these two equally telegraphic modes of signification. Jesse Horvath’s over-the-top turn as a contemporary Italianate sleazeball, and the intensity of his and Omar (‘Gerontus’) Khafagy’s interaction, stood out against the carefully emblematic presentation of the three ladies and of the four-pack of vice, Simony, Fraud, Dissimulation, and Usury. That is, the production clarified for this viewer the dramatic texture of the play, the interweaving it accomplishes of elements from the morality tradition with those from continental and classical traditions.

It may therefore seem ungrateful for the same viewer to question another feature of the production: the presentation of Lady Lucre as a seductress, her hair down and her gown off the shoulders. In the discussion after we had seen the play, Peter explained that the decision to play her that way was born of Cathy Huang’s ability to parody stereotypically seductive female behaviour. Implicitly, the decision must also have arisen from someone’s (Cathy’s or Peter’s) assumption that the stereotype emblematized the operation of Lucre in the world, that it was both recognizable and sufficiently well-worn to pull toward an abstract idea (worldly temptation) rather than toward social specificity (a particular category of women). But how does that choice inflect what we take Lucre’s rule to be? If we assume that Lady Lucre is a seductress then we have to concede that others acquiesce to her power from their desire for her. This is not an unreasonable assumption; certainly it describes Mercadorus’s position. And Lady Love too becomes the wrong kind of love under her influence. Moreover, the fact that the play concludes in a judgment and condemnation of all the ladies suggests that Love and Conscience have given into their desires. But the assumption also occludes the feature of the play that interests me most: the play’s acknowledgment that Lucre’s rule is not a regime of ubiquitous temptation but of material necessity, or, in other words, the contradiction the play stages between the logic of its plot and the normal content of the morality play form. The decision to play Lady Lucre as a seductress requires that we understand Lady Conscience as her opposite, as demure where Lucre is lewd, and ultimately weak where Lucre is strong. Roxana Teymourian played her that way, as the gentle, white-gowned foil to Cathy Huang’s seductress – as the good girl to Lucre’s bad one. But surely one aspect of Conscience is that she is a power just as Lucre is, yet the play reveals that they are different in kind, that while Conscience operates individually, Lucre functions systemically. She ‘rules the rout’ and one of the meta-messages of the play is that systemic power trumps individual powers. How can allegory and stereotype capture such an idea?

On stage, stereotypes and allegorical figures alike function telegraphically. They permit instant recognition and thus mobilize audience expectations very quickly. In fact, as I have already suggested, they borrow from one another, so that a stage Jew can be practically an emblem of cupiditas, and Lechery can be recognizable as such if she is dressed as a courtesan, although they also pull in different directions, toward general principles in the case of allegory and toward social specification in the case of stereotype. One thing that Performance as Research must discover are the signifiers and associations that will let the actors telegraph the meaning of a character to a modern audience. And in this discovery, Peter Cockett’s group succeeded admirably, turning a strange old play into a lively show and in the process grasping signifying practices that Robert Wilson likely relied on, including subtle distinction of, as well as borrowing between, stereotype and allegory.

However, the process of asynchronous amplification that the actors relied on also meant that the production dialed down the very feature of the play that I am most anxious to assert; the play’s demonstration that Lucre works not through seduction and sinful desire so much as by binding others to necessity – that is, that it challenges the idea of moral verities and even moral choice. Elsewhere I have written about the way in which the long tradition of allegorizing wealth as a woman is often at odds with gender ideology, so that in order to represent the power of money, a play may end up jamming the gender ideology it also seeks to express.14 One ready way to resolve the tension between the power of money and the place of woman is through sexualizing the power that Lucre, or Pecunia wields. There’s a stereotype for that, though one so well-worn that it can be readily recruited for allegory. Of course, a modern audience might also have gotten the point were Lucre to have had her hair up, worn a suit, and carried a brief-case: that is, if the production had treated her as a deliberate, modern stereotype as it did the lawyer and Mercadorus. But Lucre is an allegory and as such is linked with the other two allegorical ladies. We ultimately understand what Lucre is, not just by how she appears but also by what happens to Conscience, and here the exercise gets trickier, not just because it is harder to find the stereotype that might match a modern Conscience with a modern Lucre and also be adequate to the allegorical burden, but also because the play’s strategies of dramatic presentation falter around Conscience. Conscience, with her brooms on her back, emblematizes virtuous poverty, but the play’s profound observation is that such poverty cannot be long endured even by Conscience, that what appears as an emblem of virtue (a condition of holding fast) really signals extreme precariousness. The image does not present a recognizable, stable meaning but catches a moment in a process, as one kind of force operates upon another. It tests the capacity of all telegraphic representation. The Three Ladies of London is fascinating because its tenor and vehicle pull against one another. It suggests ways of thinking about experience that its form can’t wholly accommodate. Performance can teach us the exigencies and affordances of form; the literary critic’s practice of putting the play in textual conversation may help it speak more than it quite knows how to say.


[1] Ruth Lunney, Marlowe and the Popular Tradition (Manchester and New York, 2002), 59.

[2] Lynn Enterline, Shakespeare’s Schoolroom (Philadelphia, 2012).

[3] John Redford, The Play of Wit and Science, in Recently Recovered ‘Lost’ Tudor Plays With Some Others, ed. John S. Farmer (London, 1907).

[4] See Roderick McKeown’s essay on this website arguing that this play is an early city comedy.

[5] Richard Mulcaster, Positions on the Training Up of Children, ed. William Barker (Toronto, 1994), 31.

[6] Ibid, 29.

[7] Ibid, 136-7.

[8] Jeffrey Dolven, Scenes of Instruction in Renaissance Romance (Chicago, 2007). 57.

[9] Ibid, 56.

[10] I make this argument at length in ‘No Boy Left Behind; Education and Distributive Justice in Early Modern England’ in Donald Beecher, Travis DeCook, Andrew Wallace, and Grant Williams (eds), Taking Exception to the Law (Toronto, 2015).

[11] Robert Wilson, The Three Ladies of London in Three Renaissance Usury Plays, ed. Lloyd Edward Kermode (Manchester and New York, 2009).

[12] But see Brett Hirsch’s essay in this website collection.

[13] Lloyd Edward Kermode, ‘Usury on the London Stage: Robert Wilson’s Three Ladies of London’, in Helen Ostovich, Holger Schott Syme and Andrew Griffin (eds), Locating the Queen’s Men, 1583-1603 (Farnham, Surrey and Burlington, VT, 2009), 166.

[14] ‘“There's Meat and Money Too”: Rich Widows and Allegories of Wealth in Jacobean City Comedy’, English Literary History 72 (2005), 209-38.