Baubles for Bell-Metal: English Anxieties about Trade and Traffic in The Three Ladies of London

Fatima Farida Ebrahim

The contrast between Turkey and London, the two geographic locations of the play, and its relevance to the historical moment demonstrates how the English flounder in the new trade system, while the Turks flourish. Through several key themes – hospitality, immigrants and foreign merchants, moneylending, and justice – Wilson contrasts Turkey and London so that Turkey appears in a more positive, favourable light whereas London is faltering, unstable, and morally and economically weak. Considering that Wilson wrote the play just after the Turkey Company was established, when Queen Elizabeth I and Sultan Murad III agreed upon formal trading 'capitulations' in 1580, I argue that Three Ladies responds to these mercantile shifts by demonstrating an English anxiety and struggle in establishing itself within this new global partnership. My reading of the play shifts the focus to the English inability to manage the incoming foreign merchants and alien immigrants in this new economic system, especially as compared to the thriving Ottoman Empire.

LADY LUCRE     Then thou must carry beside leather, tallow, beef, bacon, bell-metal and everything,
       And for these good commodities trifles to England thou must bring,
       As bugles to make baubles, coloured bones, glass, beads to make bracelets withal. (3.42-4)1

In describing the exchange of goods between London and Turkey, Lady Lucre’s instruction to Mercadore sets up a contrast between the two geographic settings in the play: Turkey is characterized as a thriving, ambitious, and productive place whereas London is depicted as vain and frivolous. Bell-metal, for example, metal that came from former Catholic church bells, was exported to the Ottoman Empire where it was used in the production of armament, or as Mercadore tells Lucre, to ‘make ordnance’ (3.56).2 The Turks in Wilson’s play, as they were in Wilson’s time, belonged to a powerful empire, an ever-expanding dominion that was envied for its military strength and commercial/economic success. By contrast, the English consumption of trifling things such as baubles and beads reflects their amateur position (relative to the Turks) in the global marketplace. As Linda McJannet and others have noted, the English were ‘belated players on the world stage’ who necessarily approached the Ottoman Empire with eyes of admiration and envy.3

I am interested in the contrast between Turkey and London, the two geographic locations of the play, and how this contrast speaks to the historical moment in which the play is situated. Through several key themes – hospitality, immigrants and foreign merchants, moneylending, and justice – Wilson contrasts Turkey and London so that he depicts Turkey in a more positive, favourable light whereas he shows London to be faltering, unstable, and morally and economically weak. Taking into consideration that the play was written in the same year that the Turkey Company was established and that formal trading ‘capitulations’ were agreed upon between Queen Elizabeth I and Sultan Murad III in 1580,4 I argue that Three Ladies responds to these mercantile shifts by demonstrating an English anxiety and struggle in establishing itself within this new global partnership.

Native Londoners such as Lady Love and Lady Conscience bemoan the state of affairs that reflects the general conflict of the main plot: men from all over the world forsake their family and religion for the pursuit of Lady Lucre (1.16). Native Londoners are thus troubled with the threatened and eventual demise of Hospitality, the bloodsucking and pinching Usury, the fraudulent and conniving alien immigrants and their foreign and unchristian economic practices, and the lack of any real justice. London is therefore portrayed as a struggling and threatened city; as Lloyd Kermode has argued, ‘If, as Daryl Palmer asserts, “Hospitality defined life in London”, then the murder of Hospitality … is a pivotal moment, for it effectively destroys the idea of London itself’.5 On the other hand, Turkey, a nation who deals also with the same corrupt Italian merchant that plagues London, is flourishing and thriving off its hospitable practices, moneylenders, foreigners, and justice system. Furthermore, whereas some critics like Kermode and Claire Jowitt have focused on the foreigners and alien immigrants who cause ill-effects on London, my reading of the play shifts the focus toward the English struggle and inability to manage the incoming foreign merchants and alien immigrants in this new economic system.6 In other words, the inexperienced and floundering English are just as much at fault as the foreign merchants and alien immigrants for the destruction of London.

Current scholars writing on Anglo-Islamic traffic have established that the English experienced a sense of envy, admiration, and fear around the late sixteenth and earlier seventeenth century as they looked up to the burgeoning imperial power that was the Ottoman Empire. Gerald MacLean has argued that the English attitudes toward the Ottoman Empire in the pre-colonial period are ‘characterized by a dominant discursive formation’ that he calls ‘imperial envy’.7 Looking to the Islamic world, English writers, as Daniel Vitkus explains, recognized ‘the West’s inferiority to Islamic power, when measured by the extent of Turkish geographic control and by the vast resources available to the Sultan’.8 The imperial envy, Vitkus asserts, emerged from England’s ‘inferiority complex’ and consequently, the English ‘saw the need for Western rulers and merchants to establish friendly relations with the Ottoman sultanate and other Muslim rulers, so that they could do business throughout the Mediterranean’.9 In this cultural and commercial climate – English feelings of inferiority and awe toward the Islamic world power – Wilson wrote Three Ladies.

In the couple of decades leading up to the production of Three Ladies, Anglo-Spanish relations were becoming more and more strained. English conflict with Spain in the late 1570s and the annexation of Portugal by Spain in 1581 led the English to look eastward in hopes of establishing trade with the Ottoman Empire.10 An Anglo-Ottoman trade relationship would ‘supply a political need in opposition to Spain’ and also replace the ‘significant material demand’ that the Spanish/Portuguese market had previously supplied to England.11 Thus in 1580, Sultan Murad III granted the Englishman, William Harborne, who had been sent to Constantinople in 1578 to negotiate a trade agreement, official permission or ‘capitulations’ that would allow English merchants direct access into Ottoman ports.12 Although English merchants ‘were living and trading in the Mediterranean long before William Harborne and the Levant Company started regulating trade’ in the 1580s,13 the point to clarify is that Wilson was writing a play about Anglo-Ottoman trade and traffic around the same time that England formally confirmed a commercial partnership with the Ottoman Empire. With this new partnership, coupled with English feelings of inferiority, admiration, and envy aroused by Ottoman imperialism, The Three Ladies of London articulates English anxieties about mercantile expansion, which include the struggle to cope with and manage foreign merchants and alien immigrants in this new global economic enterprise.

Alien-English tension, as Kermode has shown, puts the most pressure on the character Hospitality. The idea of hospitality in Three Ladies operates on two levels, which the seventeenth-century preacher, Caleb Dalechamp, categorizes as private hospitality and public hospitality in his Christian Hospitality (1632).14 The former refers to welcoming guests (either neighbours or strangers) into one’s home while the latter refers to accepting immigrants into the country and to ‘give them leave to exercise their lawfull calling’.15 Public hospitality accounts for the presence of immigrants in the play while private hospitality is represented by the character Hospitality. This representation is particularly evident when we hear Hospitality’s reply to Conscience’s question about inviting strangers to dinner; he says ‘No, sure; none but Lady Love, and three or four honest neighbours’ (4.66). Kermode points to Hospitality’s ‘emphatic negative’ response here to argue that this typical English answer ‘strongly suggests the rejection of any aliens from the table’ as well as ‘the rejection of any influence that may bring corruption to the hospitable house’.16 But even when Hospitality takes precautions and puts himself in control as best he can by exclusively inviting honest neighbours, he still finds himself victim to an ‘outsider’ when Usury murders him (8.36). Moreover, as Kermode notes, English hospitality is also lost because ‘the simpletons of England [like Simplicity] have become greedy’.17 Thus the play suggests that English hospitality is an unstable, unreliable practice, not only when it involves strangers, but also as a result of the native Englishmen like Simplicity who cannot understand the concept of hospitality as an act of charity (4.71-80).

Dalechamp’s sermon was among many in the seventeenth century which endorsed hospitality to everyone, including religious and national others, especially since hospitality to all was understood to be a Christian practice. But despite these efforts, according to Felicity Heal, ‘there is little to suggest that the English were moved by powerful sentiments of fear, fascination, or hope of reciprocity, to be kind to ordinary outsiders’.18 Kindness to strangers ‘never seem[s] to accord very closely with English perceptions of the alien’.19 Christian hospitality toward strangers seemed to exist only in principle. Despite the Christian sentiments of hospitality, in Three Ladies the native English characters are averse to offering both private and public hospitality as they refuse to host strangers in their homes and they are opposed to alien immigrants settling into their city. For the play’s native Englishmen, immigrants who practice usury and other corrupt means to acquire wealth either influence or force natives to do the same, which ultimately results in the demise of English hospitality. Thus, the alien immigrants and their effect on London’s economy, which was thought to include, among other things, overcrowding and the importation of useless foreign goods, take the blame for the general decline of English hospitality.

This bitter English attitude toward hospitality and strangers remarkably contrasts the idea of hospitality in the Islamic world. Although the play’s scenes in Turkey are few and brief, we can nevertheless glean from the presence of a Jewish moneylender (Gerontus), a Venetian merchant (Mercadore), a Turkish judge, and the overall sense of the thriving Ottoman Empire, that hospitality toward strangers is not only a welcome practice, but that it contributes to the advancement of the local and national economy. In fact, according to an agreement between Sultan Murad and Queen Elizabeth, the Sultan was ‘eager’ to have the English live and trade in his empire and was ‘willing to make the necessary concessions’ for them to do so.20 On this basis, expatriate communities were able to establish themselves, practice their faiths freely, and live among the Muslims in the Ottoman Empire.21 Anyone who visited the Islamic East in the early modern period would have seen diverse communities of religious others living together in harmony, something the English and other Europeans found remarkable.

In 1572, Sebastian Munster wrote that ‘The Turkes compel no man to the denial of his religion’; he described how ‘diverse sects of people [were] found amongst the Turkes, al whiche do reverence and honour God after their peculiar rites and customes’.22 The English marvelled at the fact that Islamic law (sanctioned in the Qur’an) protects the rights of Christians and Jews to live and practise their faiths freely, and they were impressed to know, as Giovanni Botero wrote in 1601, that Muslims also gave ‘Almes, not only to Turkes, but also to Christians’.23 Fynes Moryson, who described his travels through the Islamic Mediterranean, also observed that ‘it is well knowne, that the great Turke gives libertie to all Religions’.24 Since ‘There were no parliamentary debates to change English law so that situations of toleration which obtained among the Ottomans could obtain in the United Kingdom’ until the nineteenth century,25 the early modern Englishmen who travelled to the Ottoman Empire were impressed with Muslim hospitality that enabled communities of religious diversity to thrive.

Hospitality in the Islamic world was also closely associated with the Islamic concept of sadaqa, which is a form of charity that is not limited to monetary donations, but includes more generally the way in which a Muslim treats his or her family, friends, neighbours, and strangers.26 I am calling attention to this form of charity because of its causal link with the kinds of hospitality offered to the peoples living and travelling within Islamic states. One form of sadaqa was the establishment of waqf, which is an inalienable endowment of property whose purpose is to serve its beneficiaries.27 Common establishments founded as waqf in the Ottoman Empire were soup kitchens widely known as imarets. These imarets provided food, free of charge, to specified groups of people including scholars and teachers, students, dervishes, travellers, serving staff, and the poor.28 For example, Hurrem Sultan (also known as Roxelana), wife of Sultan Suleiman I, established an imaret in Jerusalem in 1552 that was to feed 450 people twice daily, fifty of whom were staff and the rest from the poor and needy. These large-scale imarets that fed hundreds of people were organized and orderly since the waqf deed stipulated exactly the mechanisms of such a system – the menu, how much food was to be distributed and to whom, in what order, and where.29

Ottoman generosity and the inclusive nature of its hospitality are mentioned at least twice by Samuel Purchas in Purchas His Pilgrimage (1613). Purchas describes ‘Their Hospitals [which] they call Imarets … They found them for the reliefe of the poore, and of Travellers, where they have foode allowed them … They are open for the most part to all men of all religions’. The openness to all men is noted again when he describes other ‘temples’ or ‘houses … for their Doctors and Priests, and for all strangers and pilgrims of any Nation or religion, where they may refresh themselves, their servants, and horses for three daies, with meate and lodging at free cost’.30 Another English traveller, Thomas Herbert, marvelled at the fact that imarets, ‘buildings erected by well-minded Mahometans as works of charity’, welcomed travellers to ‘rest sweetly and securely gratis’ for they were ‘set apart for public use’.31 Later in the seventeenth century, George Wheler travelled to the Ottoman Empire and wrote about the ‘Royal Mosque’ and nearby college where ‘any poor man may come, and eat at any time; and on Fridays, be feasted with Rice’.32

Whereas Hospitality in Three Ladies is vulnerable to foreign economic practices, alien immigrants and/or outsiders, and greedy English simpletons, the practice of hospitality in the Ottoman Empire facilitates the economy. Motivated by economic and commercial success, and Quranic instruction to permit tolerance and inclusion, Ottoman rulers promoted hospitality to all, and this hospitality is represented by the opportunities given to foreigners to live and practice their trade, and in the food they provided to all at various imarets. In Three Ladies, foreign economics are not welcomed, nor do hospitable meals seem to exist such as when Nicholas Nemo offers an empty dinner invitation to Sincerity and Simplicity but leaves at the moment he is about to describe the meal (4.180-1).

Mercadore’s presence in both England and Turkey, moreover, allow us to compare the two places in terms of their reaction to the merchant. In London the English clearly perceive him as a threat since he would do just about anything, including unchristian and unscrupulous business dealings, in order to win over Lucre, or make money. The same character is just as much a sly villain in Turkey since he tricks Gerontus and escapes paying his debt, but his presence there has no ill effect on Turkey. At most, Gerontus loses three thousand ducats, but there is no indication that his business or life fails. In fact, if we are to consider the play’s Turkey with respect to early modern English accounts of the Ottoman Empire, Mercadore, unscrupulous as he is notwithstanding, is the agent bringing in useful English imports to the benefit of the Turks. He would identify with the European businessmen living in the Ottoman Empire, benefiting both his own personal desires as well as contributing to the success of the Empire’s economy.

The play’s other economic villain, Usury, and his Turkish counterpart, Gerontus (insofar as they are both moneylenders) offer yet another point at which to compare the play’s two geographic settings. Once again, where Usury is the bloodsucking pincher who drives up rent prices and murders Hospitality (among other crimes), Gerontus is depicted as a merciful, understanding, and compassionate Jewish moneylender whose profession does not seem to have any detrimental effects on Turkey. Haim Gerber, in his article on Jewish moneylending in the Ottoman Empire, discusses how Muslims found ways or ‘tricks’ around the Quranic prohibition of usury, which allowed both Jews and Muslims to engage in the practice of moneylending.3 Gerber shows strong evidence of well-established credit institutions that doubtless contributed to the growing success of the economy. Not only does Gerontus not harm his resident city as a result of his profession, he contributes to its economic advancement.

Matthew Dimmock has argued that Gerontus’s ‘“nobility” is emphasized, just as proverbial greed is minimized, in order to comment upon … “the worthlessness and utter unscrupulousness of Mercadore”’.34 I would add also that his nobility, in contrast with Usury, comments on the Ottoman Empire’s economic strength to be able to incorporate and benefit from him and his moneylending practices. This positive image of Gerontus’s moneylending is further corroborated by the fact that the Turkish judge, in referring to the stereotype of the greedy Jew, ‘express[es] surprise at this Jew’s “Christianity”’.35 Despite the Judge’s reference to the stereotype, we are nevertheless left with the impression of the good Jew, whose moral rectitude and beneficial profession (to the Empire) is in stark contrast to Usury.

The unreliable and untrustworthy judge Nemo further extends the notion that London is faltering in its attempt to engage in this global market. As Kermode has pointed out, this judge, who appears in the play as the ‘second “Nemo”’ forces us to ‘to reflect on the noble “No-man” we met earlier in the play, who literally offered non-existent hospitality’ and we thus ‘ask ourselves the extent to which this judge or the effects of his judgement exist’ and whether he is a real, physical person at all.36 The final judgment does not bring any real sense of justice as ‘most of Wilson’s vices do not meet with fit judgment’.37 On the contrary, the Judge of Turkey, addressed as ‘learned’, ‘reverend’, and ‘most puissant’ (14.3, 17, 30), comes across dignified and fair. But most of all, the Judge of Turkey, in contrast with Judge Nemo, is physically real. The Turkish judge is knowledgeable and authoritative, while the English one is unreliable and questionable; these character depictions reflects the general image of the play’s Turkey (or the Ottoman Empire) and London, as the former has mercantile and military strength while the latter is just barely surviving in the face of foreign-economic contact.

Kermode has argued that ‘Wilson’s concern throughout the play’ is ‘to insist on the damage that usury and lucre do to all classes in London and England’ and how this damage is further ‘aggravated by alien immigration’.38 Certainly the play demonstrates the damage caused by Usury and Lucre, but what I have hoped to show is that in comparing the play’s two trading partners, London and Turkey, Wilson signals the struggle that faced England as it attempted to gain a firm hold in this highly competitive market. The slow demise of native Londoners, the ignorant and simpleminded Englishmen, and the unreliability of the English justice system, demonstrates the inability or inadequacy on England’s part – especially in contrast to the economic strength and power of the Ottoman Empire – to contend with these new foreign relations as they happened at home and overseas.


Prior to this conference, I was not at all familiar with Performance as Research. I depended heavily on textual and historical analysis without giving any thought to how performance could alter meaning. The possibilities through performance were made especially clear to me during the ‘Gerontus’ workshop, where we saw various performances by Omar Khafagy, such as when he hunched his back, wore a prosthetic nose, and spoke in that sinister tone. What came across on stage in this version was a stereotypical early modern Jewish moneylender: sly, manipulative, and greedy. During this workshop, it became clearer to me the extent to which a character’s depiction can change based on performance choices rather than relying solely on the text and/or historical context. Thus, when I watched this version, I was made aware of the very real possibility that Gerontus, in Wilson’s time, could easily have been portrayed as a Barabas-like Jew than the compassionate and merciful one I read in the play.

Watching Omar perform as a manipulative and sly Jew made me consider how this version could stand against my argument, especially since I discuss the contrast between the compassionate Ottoman moneylender and the cruel English usurer. It became apparent to me, however, that whether we interpret Gerontus as positive or negative figure does not change the point of my argument, which is that the English flounder in contrast to the Ottomans in the world of commercial/economic expansion. In fact, the version in which Gerontus is stereotypically greedy bolsters my argument in much the same way that my reading of Mercadore does; the latter is an untrustworthy figure on both Ottoman and English soil and yet the Empire profits from his business while the English falter in their dealings with him. Likewise, if Gerontus is an evil usurer like Usury, then the comparison between the two demonstrates how the Ottomans, with their strength and power, are not only able to withstand a corrupt moneylender, but actually benefit from his practices, whereas the English fall victim to the usurer inhabiting their country.

For me, the 3LL production and workshops exposed a gap between close-reading a text and the choices made through performance (props, stage directions, costumes), and how productive (perhaps even necessary) it is to consider bridging this gap in order to develop or understand more comprehensively the meaning of a particular character or scene.


[1] Robert Wilson, The Three Ladies of London, Lloyd Kermode (ed.), Three Renaissance Usury Plays (New York, 2014), 79-164. All quotations derive from this text.

[2] For more on bell-metal and trade capitulations between England and the Ottoman Empire, see Susan Skilliter’s William Harborne and the Trade with Turkey 1578-1582: A Documentary Study of the First Anglo-Ottoman Relations (Oxford, 1977), 75.

[3] Linda McJannet et al., ‘Islam and English Drama: A Critical History’, Early Theatre 12.2 (2009), 184.

[4] Skilliter, William Harborne and the Trade with Turke, 24-5.

[5] Lloyd Edward Kermode, Aliens and Englishness in Elizabethan Drama (Cambridge, 2009), 65.

[6] See ibid, 59-76, and Claire Jowitt’s ‘Robert Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London’, Thomas Betteridge and Greg Walker (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Tudor Drama (Oxford, 2012), 309-16.

[7] Gerald MacLean, Looking East: English writing and the Ottoman Empire before 1800 (New York, 2007), 20.

[8] Daniel Vitkus, Turning Turk: English Theatre and the Multicultural Mediterranean (New York, 2003), 31-2.

[9] Ibid, 21 and 32. Jonathan Burton also offers a detailed description of Britain’s inferior political and economic position in relation to the Ottomans in the 1580s in ‘Anglo-Ottoman Relations and the Image of the Turk in Tamburlaine’, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 30.1 (2000), 125-56.

[10] Joan Thirsk, Economic Policy and Projects: The Development of a Consumer Society in Early Modern England (Oxford, 1978), 68.

[11] Matthew Dimmock, New Turkes: Dramatizing Islam and the Ottomans in Early Modern England (Burlington, 2005), 97.

[12] Skilliter, William Harborne, 25.

[13] MacLean, Looking East, 95.

[14] Caleb Dalechamp, Christian Hospitalitie (Cambridge, 1632), Early English Books Online (EEBO).

[15] Ibid, D2.

[16] Kermode, Aliens and Englishness, 65.

[17] Ibid, 67.

[18] Felicity Heal, Hospitality in Early Modern England (Oxford, 1990), 222.

[19] Felicity Heal, ‘The Idea of Hospitality in Early Modern England’, Past & Present 102 (Feb. 1984), 76.

[20] Matar, Turks, 65-6.

[21] See Gerald MacLean and Nabil Matar, Britain and the Islamic World, 1558-1713 (Oxford. 2011) for a useful description of Christian and Jewish communities living in the Ottoman Empire (90-112).

[22] Sebastian Munster, A Brief Collection and compendious extract of straunge and memorable things (1572), EEBO, 41.

[23] Giovanni Botero, Relations of the Most Famous Kingdoms and Common-wealths, trans. Robert Johnson, 1601; rpt. 1608, 557, EEBO.

[24] Fynes Moryson, An Itinerary (London. 1617), book 3, 237, EEBO.

[25] MacLean and Matar, Britain and the Islamic World, 167.

[26] The concept of sadaqa is explained in the Qur’an and hadith (prophetic sayings and traditions that supplement the Qur’an). In one hadith documented by Muhammad al-Bukhari, a ninth-century jurist known to have compiled a canonical collection of authentic hadith, sadaqa is defined as all acts of goodness: ‘Jabir (May God be pleased with him) reported that he heard the Messenger of God (may the peace and blessings be upon him) saying, “Every good deed is sadaqa”’ (see Muhammed Khan, The Translation of the Meanings of Summarized Sahih Al-Bukhari [Chicago, 1995], 957). Amy Singer defines sadaqa as either ‘charity’, ‘philanthropy’, or ‘beneficence’ and uses these terms interchangeably in her monograph, Charity in Islamic Societies (Cambridge, 2008), 20. Her discussion on sadaqa, however, focuses more on ‘charity’ and ‘philanthropy’ and less on the beneficence of doing good deeds that are not usually defined as acts of charity such as offering a kind word to someone or removing something harmful from a road. Singer, therefore, does not discuss sadaqa as a general way of living and conducting oneself within society.

[27] Singer, Charity in Islamic Societies, 90-113.

[28] Amy Singer, ‘Soup and “Sadaqa”: Charity in Islamic Societies’, Historical Research 79.205 (2006), 312.

[29] Ibid, 315.

[30] Samuel Purchas, Purchas His Pilgrims (London, 1625), 252 and 251, EEBO.

[31] Thomas Herbert, A relation of some yeares travaile begunne anno 1626 (London, 1634), 124, EEBO.

[32] George Wheler, A journey into Greece (London, 1682), Ee4v), EEBO.

[33] Haim Gerber, ‘Jewish Moneylending in the Ottoman Empire’, The Jewish Quarterly Review 72.2 (1981), 113-16.

[34] Matthew Dimmock, ‘“Captive to the Turke”: Responses to the Anglo-Ottoman Capitulations of 1580’, Matthew Birchwood and Matthew Dimmock (eds), Cultural Encounters Between East and West 1453–1699 (Newcastle upon Tyne, 2005), 52.

[35] Kermode, ‘Introduction’, Three Renaissance Usury Plays, 35.

[36] Ibid, 37.

[37] Kermode, Aliens, 60.

[38] Kermode, ‘Introduction’, Three Renaissance Usury Plays, 36.