Anti-Catholicism and Protestant Polemic in Robert Wilson’s
Three Ladies of London

Erin Kelly

The Three Ladies of London critiques Catholicism not just by associating it with non-English, obviously immoral characters like the Italian Mercadorus but also by linking it to corrupt figures within the English church like the Vice Simony, who favours the priest Peter Pleaseman who has studied in continental colleges over the Protestant preacher Sincerity. As such, Wilson's play bridges mid-sixteenth-century Protestant morality plays and 1580s Protestant print polemic. Recognizing connections to both earlier and later anti-Catholic discourse suggests how many of Wilson's characters might have been presented onstage. More significantly, this relationship between Three Ladies and more explicitly polemical works calls into question arguments that characterize the religious ideology and politics of the Queen's Men as ‘moderate’.

The few critical discussions of religion in Three Ladies of London focus on the play’s representation of Jews and Turks. Lloyd Kermode, the play’s most recent editor, is particularly interested in the ways in which Wilson links usury to Jewishness, and many note the play’s peculiarly sympathetic portrayal of a Jewish moneylender named Gerontus who tries to dissuade a Christian from turning Turk if he is doing so only to evade his debts.1 When scholars mention Catholicism, they tend to discuss it as a foreign threat embodied in Mercadorus, an Italian merchant, and Simony, a recent arrival to London from Italy; they thus view the play as anticipating the representation of a Spanish Catholic threat that is central to Wilson’s sequel Three Lords and Three Ladies of London.2 Such studies overlook the play’s more subtle commentary on English religion, particularly its suggestion that Catholicism was a threat not just from foreign powers but also within the borders of England and even within the English Protestant church. This polemical argument is central to the play, but we can understand it – and the religio-political positioning of the Queen’s Men – only by considering Three Ladies within the context of the complex and rapidly evolving religious controversies of the 1580s.3

A late example of an allegorical morality play, Wilson’s work stages struggles between virtue and vice that, at first glance, seem generally Christian but not necessarily Protestant. The title characters of Three Ladies, Lady Conscience, Lady Love, and Lady Lucre, interact with characters like Simony, Dissimulation, and Simplicity. Lucre corrupts both religious and social morality until she wears down Love and Conscience; the virtuous characters’ yielding to temptation leads to a trial in which Conscience confesses all, making it possible for Judge Nemo to condemn the three ladies to prison and harsh penance. The broad outline of this plot, even with its condemnation of those who value money over religion, is not particularly Protestant; more pointed criticism of greedy clerics appears in plays like The Four PP (1544, 1560, 1569) by the undeniably Catholic John Heywood.4

The Italian merchant, Mercadorus, clearly poses a danger to both social and religious stability. He exports from England useful commodities like grain and meat so that he can import trash – beads and costume jewelry. This foreign character’s self-serving Catholicism approaches atheism as he declares to Lady Lucre that for her sake – for the sake of profit – he is ready to ‘forsake-a my fader, moder, king, country, and more den dat; / Me will-a lie and forswear meself for a quarter so much as my hat / … / Me care not for all the world, the great devil, nay, make my God angry for you’ (3.34-37). This complete immorality culminates in Mercadorus’s willingness to convert to Islam in order to avoid paying back a loan from the Jewish moneylender Gerontus. Perhaps because it involves characters whose religious identities are clearly labelled, this subplot has received most of the scant critical attention paid to the play’s consideration of religion.

But analysis of how the play establishes distinctions between Catholicism and Protestantism, foreignness and Englishness, cannot account for the complex religious positioning of the vice Simony. At first, Simony resembles the foreign papist Mercadorus since he introduces himself to Lady Lucre as someone whose ‘birth, nursery, and bringing-up hitherto hath been in Rome, that ancient religious city’ (2.228). Simony reports, however, that he has made his way to England under the power of ‘some English merchants’ who learned during a banquet with a group of monks and friars how much Simony enriched their orders. The merchants then kidnapped Simony so that they could derive similar benefits (2.229-40, 230). On the way to England, Simony seems to have become naturalized since, unlike Mercadorus, he does not speak with an Italian accent. More significantly, his actions in the play show that he has become a high official in the English Protestant church with the power to corrupt this institution from within.

In a scene with an applicant for a benefice named Peter Pleaseman, Simony allows Catholicism to ensconce itself within the English church for the sake of his own profit. Peter Pleaseman, when asked ‘at what university were ye’ replies, ‘Of no university, truly. / Marry, I have gone to school in a college, where I have studied two or three places of divinity’ (6.23-4). For an English audience in the 1580s, the word ‘college’ would call to mind the English College at Rome, where English Catholic men could go to become Jesuits and to train for missionary work – and likely martyrdom – upon their return to England. Around the time when Wilson composed Three Ladies, actor and playwright Anthony Munday was bringing to press his exposé of this institution, The English Romayne Life.5 Other ‘colleges’ associated with Catholics existed at Rheims and Douai, and the applicant Peter Pleaseman may have studied at any of them. In any case, the word ‘college’ signals that Peter Pleaseman is likely a papist even before he answers Simony’s question, ‘of what religion are you, can ye tell?’ in the most slippery way imaginable: ‘Marry, sir, of all religions: I know not myself very well. /…/ Indeed, I have been a Catholic; marry, now for the most part, a Protestant. / But an if my service may please her [Lady Lucre] – hark you in your ear, sir – / I warrant you my religion shall not offend her’ (6.26, 27-31). Simony proves eager to give this crypto-Catholic, lukewarm Christian ‘great preferment’ as long as he ‘shall have yearly half the gain’ (6.32, 34), and thus shows himself to be the conduit for allowing papist threats to infiltrate the Protestant church.

The scene with Peter Pleaseman seems even more disturbing considering that Dissimulation and Simony block the attempts of the godly young scholar Sincerity to obtain a position within the church. Rather than approaching Simony, Sincerity presents himself to Lady Love and Lady Conscience as an honest Protestant who came ‘from Oxford’ and studied divinity ‘in Cambridge’ where he ‘got my living hardly, but yet I hope just, / And with good Conscience’ (4.25, 9-10). He even hints at his allegiance with those who seek further reform of the English church by making the kind of social critique associated with those their enemies labelled Puritans, lamenting that so few people come to hear the preaching of God’s word because they prefer to ‘run at bowls, sit at the alehouse, then one hour afford / Telling a tale of Robin Hood, sitting at cards, playing at kettles, or else some other vain thing: / That I fear God’s vengeance on our heads it will bring’ (4.35-7).6 He soon learns from Dissimulation and Lady Lucre that he can obtain a position in the church only if he appeals to Simony. Because he has no money for bribes, and would not participate in such corruption even if he could pay for it, Sincerity receives from Lady Lucre nothing but ‘the parsonage of St Nihil’ and the patronage of ‘Nicholas Nemo’ – in other words, barely allegorized forms of nothing.

In associating vice with worldly wealth that distracts individuals from true Christian religion, Three Ladies is very much in keeping with Protestant plays presented by touring companies and within educational institutions up through the early 1580s, including Richard Wever’s Lusty Juventus (1550, 1565), Jabob and Esau (1557/8, 1568), Lewis Wager’s Life and Repentance of Mary Magdalene (1566, 1567), Ulpian Fulwell’s Like Will to Like (1568, 1587), William Wager’s Enough is as Good as a Feast (ca 1570), George Wapull’s The Tide Tarrieth No Man (1576), and Nathaniel Woodes’s Conflict of Conscience (1581). All of these plays feature vices who corrupt human characters (ranging from abstract figures like Worldly Man in Enough is As Good as a Feast to types like the Pharisee in Life and Repentance of Mary Magdalene to named characters like Philologus in Conflict of Conscience) by offering them the short-term pleasures of wealth, power, and social status. Opposition between worldliness and godliness can be found in earlier, Catholic moralities, but these plays regularly associate luxury with corrupt papists. They express their Protestant values most clearly through prologues and epilogues that explain their morals by referencing scriptural sources and including prayers for God’s aid. The ways in which these plays link a problematic desire to accumulate wealth and power not just to vice but to opulent theatricality, to deception, and to corrupt or incompetent Catholic clerics seem to have influenced Wilson’s creation of Lady Lucre and her followers.7

By embodying in allegorical figures the contrast between a true Protestant church based on plain sincerity and a highly theatrical false network of worldly social and corrupt religious institutions, Three Ladies relies upon a set of conventions developed in more obviously polemical Protestant plays. Whereas early morality plays like Mankind feature characters who represent unchanging qualities like Mercy, later Protestant moralities include characters who transform, whether from virtue to vice in the case of Nobility who aligns himself with the corrupt Catholic church in John Bale’s King John (ca 1538) or from vice to virtue in the case of the papist Perverse Doctrine (who becomes the true Protestant Sincere Doctrine) in the anonymous New Custom (1573).8 When Wilson’s Three Ladies shows Lady Love acquiring a second head after she marries Dissimulation, Lady Conscience having her face spotted with abomination after she agrees to house the debauched Lady Lucre, and the servant Simplicity turning thief, the play merely extends what had become a tendency to present on stage not fixed virtues but malleable social dynamics.

Three Ladies additionally seems to pick up on Protestant polemical drama’s tendency to associate vice with characters who appear in traditional clerical vestments. While Simony states that he has been brought into England from Rome, and thus is presumably no longer a Catholic, he does seem to be a bishop with his power to hand out parishes and benefices. He likely wears a mitre much like Bale’s Ambition in Three Laws (ca 1538, published 1548 and 1562) and, in the wake of drama by Bale and other militant Protestants, we might see that costume piece as symbolizing either a lasting association with papism or simply the tendency to be a ravenous wolf to the poor and simple who appeal to him for help.9 Similarly, Peter Pleaseman, whom a stage direction indicates in Q1 is dressed as a ‘parson’ and in Q2 as a ‘priest’, most likely wears a surplice and is clean-shaven, thus resembling Catholic clerics as much as he does some English Protestant priests.10 In contrast, Sincerity, because of his association with Simplicity and declaration that he has no benefice, would wear no special vestments and might even appear in the simple black scholar’s robes associated with reformers ranging from John Bale to John Calvin to John Foxe.11 Stage vices in several decades' worth of Protestant plays had worn the clothing associated with bishops, archbishops, and even Catholic priests by the time Wilson wrote his Three Ladies,12 so opulent liturgical gear could have helped to signal that a character like Simony is corrupt and immoral, if not simply Catholic.

Wilson’s play also reflects fairly mainstream Protestant discourse of the late 1570s and first years of the 1580s. His Peter Pleaseman is more concerned about appeasing the wealthy members of his parish and achieving promotion through appeals to Simony than in preaching or ministering to souls. Simplicity laments this state of the church as likely to bring God’s vengeance upon the nation since no one seems willing to tell parishioners that they ought to spend the Sabbath listening the word of God instead of pursuing idle pleasures. These characters could be taken directly from a dialogue like Zelotes and Atheos in Country Divinity, which features two speakers debating the role of a good minister. Needless to say, the author George Gifford slants his 1581 work to favour Zelotes’s position that a minister must chastise, not flatter and appease, the sinful among his flock.13 In identifying such corruption within the English Protestant church, and even associating it with lasting vestiges of Catholicism among both the people and the clergy, Wilson’s play is different in degree but not in kind from more virulently anti-Catholic documents generated in the wake of the arrest, trial, and eventual execution of high-profile Jesuit Edmund Campion. In the early 1580s, a great number of texts suggested that Catholicism could be a threat from within England and that the church might need further reform.14

That Wilson’s Three Ladies could be seen as a commentary on the state of the English church linked to an argument condemning Catholicism seems most evident in a reading of the play that appears later in the 1580s. The first treatise written under the pseudonym Martin Marprelate, O read over D[octor] John Bridges, for it is a worthy work was published in October 1588.15 The diatribe accuses John Bridges, dean of Salisbury, of achieving his office through bribery by asking, ‘I pray you where may a man buy such another gelding, and borrow such another hundred pounds, as you bestowed upon your good patron Sir Edward Horsey for his good word in helping you to your deanery?’ (20). Marprelate then goes on to link Bridges and other high church officials to simony by associating them with the vice as depicted in Wilson’s play. He jestingly threatens Bridges, ‘What if I should report abroad that clergymen come to their promotions by simony? Have you not given me just cause? I think Simony be the bishops’ lackey. Tarleton took him not long since, in Don John of London’s cellar’ (21). Bridges is a target because he authored the treatise in favour of church hierarchy A Defense of the Government Established in the Church of England for Ecclesiastical Matters to which the first Marprelate tract directly responds. ‘Don’ John Aylmer was Bishop of London and thus the sort of official whose role Marprelate linked to papist superstition.16 In opposition to these high church officials, Marprelate seems to see as his ally Richard Tarleton, the famous clown in the Queen’s Men who likely performed the part of Simplicity in The Three Ladies of London.

The problem with taking seriously Marprelate’s reading of this play, however, is that it contradicts the usual understanding of the religio-political alliances of the Queen’s Men, the company of players associated with Wilson’s Three Ladies of London and its sequel Three Lords and Three Ladies of London. Based on the fact that this troupe bore the name of the queen and was likely organized and patronized by members of the Privy Council, how could one of their plays have criticized the English Protestant church in ways that appealed to the creators of the Marprelate tracts? As Sally-Beth Maclean and Scott McMillan established in their ground-breaking The Queen’s Men and Their Plays, the rest of the company’s repertoire, including such nation-building histories as The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth and fanciful romances as Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, typically presented a definitely Protestant but ultimately inclusive representation of Englishness; criticism of corruption within the English Protestant church seems out of keeping with the apparent goals and much of the known work of the Queen’s Men.17

This apparent discrepancy is less surprising, though, when one considers Three Ladies in the context both of Robert Wilson’s career and of the religious controversies of the 1580s. Before the Queen’s Men recruited him, Wilson was a member of the Earl of Leicester’s Men, a company of players with a patron more clearly interested in advocating for Protestant reform than was the queen. Three Ladies might well have originated as a play not for the Queen’s Men but with this more politically and religiously activist group.18 Even so, the critique of ecclesiastical hierarchy and of the corrupting influence of Catholic vestiges within the Protestant church would not have seemed as radical in the early 1580s as they came to seem by the end of the decade, especially in the wake of the Marprelate tracts. In fact, some reformers saw the ad hominem, often scatological, and bitingly funny attacks on church officials that Marprelate offered as detrimental to their cause.19 The illegally published tracts established boundaries that forced moderate voices to support the established church lest they associate themselves with the radicalism and indecorum of Martin Marprelate.

And in the wake of the Marprelate tracts, players and playwrights were among those who chose sides, aligning themselves with both crown and church authority. Playwrights like Nashe and Lyly authored anti-Marprelate tracts, and, although no plays survive, we have tantalizing evidence that satirical depictions of Martin Marprelate appeared onstage.20 In his later tracts, Marprelate no longer portrays players as his allies, instead listing in his Theses Martinianae the clown Will Kempe (Tarleton’s rival as a comic performer for Leicester’s Men and later for Lord Strange’s Men) as one of those involved in producing ‘these haggling and profane pamphlets … published against Martin, and in defence of thy hierarchy’ (163).21 Thomas Nashe makes a similar association and reclaims the Queen’s Men’s most famous clown for his cause when he dedicates the anti-Martinist An Almond for a Parrat to ‘Monsieur du Kempe, Iestmonger and Vice-regent Generall to the Ghost of Dick Tarleton’ and offers to ‘prefer [the tract] to the soule of Dick Tarleton, who I know will entertain it with thanks’.22

The extent to which the Queen’s Men might have participated directly in anti-Marprelate discourse is not clear, but Wilson’s sequel to Three Ladies of London shows its awareness that a different set of concerns predominated in late-1580s religious controversies. Three Lords and Three Ladies of London includes no critique of the English Protestant church. The play condemns Catholicism openly, especially as it associates papism with invading Spanish lords Pride, Ambition, and Tyrrany in this post-Armada play. The play’s ending redeems Catholic-leaning but English three lords of Lincoln (Desire, Delight, and Devotion), however, and incorporates them into an inclusive view of the English nation. Nevertheless, the three ladies Conscience, Love, and Lucre are redeemed and brought into proper moral order by being married off to the three Protestant lords of London, Pleasure, Policy, and Pomp.

Three Ladies of London is a product of its time, the early 1580s, but it did possibly have a stage life with the Queen’s Men that extended until the company disbanded in 1603. The play seems to have been in circulation at least into the 1590s since an edition of the playbook appeared in 1592. Careful attention to subtle changes in these texts such as the alteration of the stage direction that states Peter Pleaseman appears ‘like a parson’ to indicate he enters ‘like a priest’ perhaps attempt to make this troubling character seem more clearly Catholic than Protestant. Some have even suggested that the first printed playbook of Three Ladies records a revised text.23 Even if one assumes the Queen’s Men could have altered the play on paper or in performance to fit with contemporary political and religious opinions, the major elements of Three Ladies must have continued to appeal to audiences well beyond the first half of the 1580s. Such contexts do not, however, explain exactly how a more contemporary production might engage the religio-political dynamics that influenced the play’s composition and early performances. Should we ignore this persnickety history entirely as tangential to our interests? Should we relegate it to programme notes and online essays intended only for those particularly fascinated with early modern history and culture? Or are there equivalent controversies today about religious difference and threats from within institutions that might be explored by staging Wilson’s allegorical characters? A new production of The Three Ladies of London needs to wrestle with these questions.

Coda: Rethinking Anti-Catholicism and Protestant Polemic in Performance (Robert Wilson’s Three Ladies of London)

The paper I wrote prior to the conference featuring a performance of Robert Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London focused on the play in the context of the rapidly evolving religio-political landscape of 1580s England. In this follow-up to that argument, I wish to clarify some points, record some of the ways in which my thinking has changed, and (most importantly) raise questions about how knowledge of early modern historical contexts might help shape a contemporary performance.

We date the composition and first performances of The Three Ladies to sometime in 1581 because anti-theatrical polemicist Stephen Gosson mentions it along with an apparent response entitled London Against the Three Ladies in his 1582 book, Plays Confuted in Five Actions. We can safely assume that the play remained popular enough for the author of the Marprelate tracts to mention the clown Tarlton and the character Simony in his first diatribe, Oh read ouer D. Iohn Bridges, for it is a worthy worke: or an epitome of the fyrste booke, of that right worshipfull volume, written against the puritans (now usually referred to by scholars as The Epistle), which was published in October 1588. Three Ladies must have remained of sufficient theatrical interest for Wilson, who had become a member of the Queen’s Men, to write the sequel The Three Lords and the Three Ladies of London that likely dates to 1589; after all, this later play comments on the Spanish Armada, which had attempted to invade England in August 1588. In sum, The Three Ladies of London is a play whose performance life spans the entire 1580s. This is remarkable, I have suggested, because some of what seemed acceptable, if disputable, points to make within the English Protestant church and state in the early 1580s came to be perceived as problematically radical by the end of the decade. Several specific details of The Three Ladies call attention to corruption within the English Protestant church and, I believe, subtly critique church hierarchy.

In thinking of this play in its first performances around 1581, I imagined that the players (almost certainly Leicester’s Men) likely employed costume conventions that appeared in Protestant drama up through the 1570s. What we know about earlier plays suggested to me that different kinds of clerical garb would have been worn by Peter Pleaseman and Sincerity and that the liturgical garb of a church official such as a bishop might well have appeared on Simony. To clarify, though, I do not think that such costume choices would have been acceptable by the end of the 1580s or in any stagings of this play later in the sixteenth century. Criticism of church hierarchy became more objectionable to authorities by the end of the 1580s as the Elizabethan church fought back against the Marprelate tracts’ scurrilous critiques and became less tolerant of non-conforming Protestant clerics. We can be reasonably confident the play was revived in 1592, around the time of the publication of the second surviving quarto, and glancing references in subsequent plays hint that The Three Ladies remained in the public imagination to the end of the century. At the end of the 1580s or in the early 1590s, it would have been highly problematic to present a vice figure in clerical garb that could be worn by a Catholic or an English Protestant bishop. Regarding such revivals, Paul Whitfield White’s suggestion that the vices could have been presented as knaves from a deck of cards seems to me persuasive. Certainly showing Simony as a greedy courtier rather than a high church official would have been more politically palatable in the 1580s when critiques of a bishop could seem dangerously similar to complaints about church hierarchy launched by radically Protestant religious nonconformists.

The June 2015 production at McMaster in many ways took into account my research. Simony appeared dressed as a high church official in a surplice, alb, and Canterbury cap. Sincerity was dressed more plainly than Peter Pleaseman, in a simply black cassock as opposed to in a purple satin gown. Peter Pleaseman even manifested his crypto-Catholicism by wearing around his neck a crucifix which he tucked inside his robe as he assured Simony that his religion would offend no one. These production choices communicated clearly that the church was one of the many elements of London society corrupted by Lucre. Anyone would see that Simony, for the sake of financial profit, was willing to grant oversight of a parish to a religious hypocrite and that this unethical action blocked the advancement of the honorable Sincerity. I was delighted to see how effective these costume choices were in practice.

And yet the production’s use of religious garb only loosely resembled what a sixteenth-century audience might have seen in 1581. The vestarian controversy of the 1570s raised very specific concerns about the significance of items of clothing worn by religious officials, with some asserting that special regalia was papist and others that the surplice in particular signified the church’s orderliness and valuing of tradition. To show his religious convictions, Sincerity would have been less likely to appear in a cassock than in white surplice, a plain scholar’s robe and cap, or even in what we now think of as typically puritan clothing – and each of these costume choices would precisely manifest particular and varying theological commitments. Peter Pleaseman could then be more opulently costumed and possibly even dressed in a notably continental style to show his crypto-Catholic sympathies. What’s more, an early modern audience would have been shocked to see that Peter Pleaseman did not employ the gestures one would expect a young cleric to use when meeting with a high church official; there is nothing wrong with calling a bishop ‘your mastership’, but some bowing before such a prince of the church would be expected.

Rather than anatomizing 1580s religious controversies, the production at McMaster stressed the difference between the sincerely, humbly pious as opposed to self-serving, sinful religious hypocrites. This opposition makes sense to audiences now who are all-too-familiar with news stories about religious officials (associated with many Christian denominations) who are revealed to have engaged in financial, sexual, or legal improprieties that contradict their professed religious ideals. But it is, needless to say, not the same critique of religious corruption that the play originally offered. Given that early modern England was not only a religious culture but also a religious state – with laws that required all citizens to attend the sanctioned religious services regularly – there were much higher stakes for a sixteenth-century English audience when it saw a representation of the state church as corrupt. No current production can put an audience in this position.

Recognition of this situation sparked questions that I found myself pondering before and throughout the conference. While precise historical contextualization is and should be of interest to literary scholars and theatre historians, how helpful is it to current theatre practitioners? And what historical context should take precedence – the events that immediately shaped the initial composition and performance of a play or those we surmise might have affected later performances. Even as I was delighted to see some of my arguments about how a 1581 production of The Three Ladies might have been staged brought to life in a 2015 production, I would have been just as excited to witness other performance choices. Knowledge of historical contexts for early drama gives directors and performers information that suggests production options, but any performance choice is one about which we can and should think critically. When it comes to current performances of medieval and renaissance plays, no historical moment should be seen as more authoritative than any other. Even a theatre historian should admit that some historical aspects are not relevant to a contemporary production that seeks to work as a performance for audiences now.

But if theatre practitioners wish to take into account some historical contexts, how can they translate what the impact of a scene might have been for an early audience in a performance now? The production of The Three Ladies made clear to me that highlighting historical concerns for a modern audience may, paradoxically, require being less historical in costuming and staging details. Much as I found Simony theatrically compelling as a bishop; I think he would be equally and differently compelling if dressed as a courtier; and just as fascinating as one of four knaves from a deck of cards. Yet to stage a modern situation evocative of what happens to Sincerity as it would have been understood in 1581 would be still different – perhaps that character would need to appear as an excellent but impoverished high school student kept from attending a prestigious Ivy League university in the US because all of the slots have been taken up by legacy applicants?

The most important point with which I hope to leave readers is as follows: A production now need not – and in some cases probably should not – be overly concerned with trying to replicate how an early modern play was originally performed. We do not have the original audience who saw it nor the original social contexts in which they saw it. Our own contexts are just as important. What’s more, productions of the same play in the sixteenth century, perhaps even over the course of a few years, were likely not the same.

A recent series of events reminded me how quickly the implications of a visual symbol might change. During the days of the conference, the Citadel Military College in South Carolina removed a display of the Confederate battle flag from its campus. That flag came to be seen as a symbol of intolerance and hatred even by members of a southern institution that prides itself on its historical legacy in the immediate wake of a particular act – a white supremacist whose online manifest prominently featured the flag shot and killed nine African-American parishioners at the Mount Emanuel church in Charleston. A month prior to this mass shooting, there were surely mixed feelings about the flag among members of the Citadel’s campus community, but it seemed tolerable to display that symbol – now it does not. Similar cultural shifts surely took place in sixteenth-century England. The same anti-clerical satire that was offensive to some, funny to many, could have appeared onstage in 1582 without garnering much concern – and it could then have seemed unacceptably revolutionary in 1589. We need to know this context not so much because it tells us how to stage an early modern play but because it reminds us that if the past was a foreign country it is one that could change as complexly and rapidly as our own.


[1] See Lloyd 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 (Surrey, 2009), 159-70 and ‘Introduction’, Three Renaissance Usury Plays (Manchester, 2009), 34-39. In-text citations reference Kermode’s edition of The Three Ladies of London in Three Renaissance Usury Plays, 80-163.

[2] Mentions of foreign religion of all kinds can be found in Lloyd Kermode, ‘The playwright's prophecy: Robert Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London and the “alienation” of the English’, Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England 11 (1999), 60-87 and Alan Stewart, ‘“Come from Turkie”: Mediterranean Trade in Late Elizabethan London’, Goran Stanivukovic (ed.), Remapping the Mediterranean World in Early Modern English Writings (Basingstoke, 2007), 157-77. Composition and performance of Three Lords and Three Ladies is usually dated to 1588; the first printed playbook was published in 1590 (STC 25783).

[3] For arguments dating the composition of Three Ladies to 1581, see H.S.D. Mithal’s introduction to An Edition of Robert Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London and Three Lords and Three Ladies of London (New York, 1988), xx-xxi; and Kermode, ‘Introduction’, 32-3. Stephen Gosson’s Plays Confuted in Five Actions (1582; STC 12095) refers to Three Ladies and to a lost response entitled London Against the Three Ladies, providing strong evidence that the play existed in some form before 1582. The earliest printed edition, however, dates to 1584 and may include some revisions to Wilson’s work. See ‘London Against the Three Ladies’, Lost Plays Database (Melbourne, 2014), (

[4] The earliest surviving text of Heywood’s The Foure PP is STC 13300 (London, 1544?). Other dates listed here and after other early plays parenthetically refer to publication of early editions. For details, see Darryll Grantley, English Dramatic Interludes 1300-1580: A Reference Guide (Cambridge, 2004). For John Heywood’s biography, see ‘Heywood, John (b. 1496/7, d. in or after 1578)’, Peter Happé in ODNB (Oxford, 2004),

[5] Munday’s The English Romayne Life, an eye-witness account of ‘the liues of the Englishmen at Roome’ was published in 1582 (STC 18272).

[6] The term Puritan is problematically imprecise. For a sense of the way this term is implicated in historiographical narratives, see Patrick Collinson, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement (London, 1967) as well as Peter Lake, Moderate Puritans and the Elizabethan Church (Cambridge, 1982) and Anglicans and Puritans? (London, 1988).

[7] Usury and failure to pay legitimate debt are portrayed as threats to piety in several of these Protestant plays, including Enough is as Good as a Feast, Like Will to Like, The Longer Thou Livest the More Fool Thou Art, and The Tide Tarrieth No Man. For discussions of the economic values which such plays championed and challenged, see Ineke Murakami, ‘Wager's Drama of Conscience, Convention, and State Constitution’, Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 47.2 (2007), 305-29 and Moral Play and Counterpublic: Transformations in Moral Drama, 1465-1599 (New York, 2010).

[8] For arguments that discuss Wilson’s allegorical characters as remarkable because they are capable of transformation, see Ian Munro, ‘Page Wit and Puppet-like Wealth: Orality and Print in Three Lords and Three Ladies of London’, Locating the Queen’s Men, 37-8; Alan Dessen, ‘On-stage Allegory and its Legacy: The Three Ladies of London’, Locating the Queen’s Men, 151-58; and Ashley Streeter, ‘The Beleaguered Virtue: Robert Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London and the Problem of Conscience’, Exemplaria 24.1-2 (2012), 78-94.

[9] John Bale, Three Laws, Peter Happe (ed.), The Complete Plays of John Bale (Cambridge, 1985-86). Paul Whitfield White, Theatre and Reformation (Cambridge, 1993), 34-41 reads such moments in Bale’s plays as iconoclastic, forcing audiences to reinterpret the same objects they had previously perceived as signifying holiness as symbols of hypocrisy and sinfulness.

[10] Q1 Three Ladies of London (London, 1584; STC 25784) presents this stage direction on C4r, Q2 (London, 1592; STC 25785), with the change to ‘priest’, on C4r.

[11] Plain clothing and full beards served as outward signs that distinguished early reformers from Catholic clerics and then reform-minded Protestants from high-ranking English church officials. See White, Theatre and Reformation, 89-92 and Will Fisher, Materializing Gender in Early Modern Literature and Culture (Cambridge, 2006), 94-101. For a brief overview of 1560s debates about whether the special clothing the Elizabethan church required its priests to wear was papist, see Patrick Collinson, ‘Vestiarian Controversy’, Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation (Oxford, 1996), 4.231-2.

[12] See Greg Walker, Plays of Persuasion (Cambridge, 1991) for evidence that actual vestments were used as part of theatrical performances as early as the reign of Henry VIII.

[13] George Gifford, A briefe discourse of certaine points of the religion, which is among the commo[n] sort of Christians, which may bee termed the countrie diuinitie (London, 1581; STC 11845.5). This text was reprinted at least five more times up to 1612.

[14] For texts that present Catholicism as an internal as well as an external threat, see for instance William Elderton, A Triumph for True Subjects (London, 1581; STC 7564); An aduertisement and defence for trueth against her backbiters, and specially against the whispring fauourers, and colourers of Campions, and the rest of his confederats treasons (London, 1581; STC 153.7); Particular declaration or testimony, of the undutifull and traiterous affection borne against her Majestie by Edmond Campion Jesuite, and other condemned priestes (London, 1582; STC 4536); and William Burghley, The Execution of Justice in England (London, 1583; STC 4902). Calls for social and church reform in this period are exemplified in prefatory material for all Elizabethan editions of Foxe’s Acts and Monuments and in works by Phillip Stubbes such as Two wunderfull and rare examples (London, 1581; STC 23399.7) and The Anatomie of Abuses (London, 1583; STC 23377).

[15] Martin Marprelate, Oh read ouer D. Iohn Bridges, for it is a worthy worke: or an epitome of the fyrste booke, of that right worshipfull volume, written against the puritans (‘Printed oversea, in Europe’ / Surrey, 1588; STC 17453); this treatise is regularly referred to by scholars as The Epistle. Citations reference Joseph L. Black (ed.), The Martin Marprelate Tracts (Cambridge, 2008).

[16] John Bridges, Defence of the government established in the Church of Englande for ecclesiasticall matters (London, 1587; STC 3734). For biographical information on Bridges and Aylmer, see ‘Bridges, John (1535/6–1618)’, C.S. Knighton in ODNB, and ‘Aylmer, John (1520/21–1594)’, Brett Usher in ODNB,

[17] See Scott McMillan and Sally-Beth MacLean, The Queen’s Men and their Plays (Cambridge, 1998), especially their chapter ‘Protestant Politics: Leicester and Walsingham’, 18-36.

[18] For a discussion of the religio-political agenda of Leicester’s Men, see Sally-Beth MacLean, ‘The Politics of Patronage: Dramatic Records in Robert Dudley's Household Books’, Shakespeare Quarterly 44.2 (1993), 175-82. On the connection between Leicester’s Men and the Queen’s Men, see McMillan and MacLean, The Queen’s Men and their Plays, 18-24.

[19] Black, ‘Introduction’, lxiv-lxxiii.

[20] On playwrights and players’ involvement in anti-Martinist discourse, possibly with the support of church officials, see Black, lxii-lxvi. Lyly is considered the author of Pappe with an Hatchet (London, 1589; STC 17463.7), Nashe of Almond for a Parrat (London, 1590; STC 534), while at least four other prose tracts have been linked but cannot be positively attributed to Nashe, Robert Greene, and Anthony Munday.

[21] Marprelate [Martin Junior], Theses Martinianae: that is, certaine demonstratiue conclusions, sette downe and collected (as it should seeme) by that famous and renowmed clarke, the reuerend Martin Marprelate the great (Warwickshire, 1589; STC 17457); citations reference Black’s edition.

[22] Nashe, An Almond for a Parrat, A2r, A2v.

[23] See Irene Mann, ‘A Lost Version of the Three Ladies of London’, Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 59.2 (1944), 586-9.