The Poetry and Prosody of Robert Wilson

Jeremy Lopez

What is the purpose of modernizing, or even reviving at all, a play like Three Ladies of London? The play is a fascinating precursor or model for The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice, as well as a vital hinge between civic and liturgical drama on the one hand and commercial drama on the other. But it is also a period piece, specifically preoccupied with the London of the 1580s, and obviously of great potential to be dreadfully dull to a modern audience. I will engage this problem by discussing the sound, structure, and historical (or trans-historical) significance of the play's ‘fourteener’ verse, which I think is the most fundamental marker of difference any modern production and audience must deal with.

This paper is about the peculiar verse form of The Three Ladies of London, but in order to make an argument on this somewhat arcane topic I must begin by talking about something apparently much more up-to-date and interesting – namely the play’s treatment of race and religion. Since the shortness of this paper means that I must often express myself elliptically, I will state explicitly at the outset my three underlying arguments:

  1. The play is equivocal in its treatment of the difference between Jews, Turks, and Christians, but it is only equivocal; it does not provide any really clear critique of 'Christianity'.
  2. Wilson could have (and perhaps ought to have) written his play in fourteeners, but deliberately did not.
  3. The modern critical preoccupation with race and religion is a displacement that arises in response to thing most starkly different, in historical terms, about the play – namely its peculiar verse form.

Discussing the post-renaissance performance history of Three Ladies in the introduction to his 2009 Revels edition, Lloyd Kermode notes that a production had been mooted (but never mounted) as part of the 2006 Shakespeare & the Queen’s Men conference at the University of Toronto:

Violent threats against the Records of Early English Drama offices in Toronto led organizers to decide against pursuing the public performance of a play they felt had rather raw demonstrations of racial and religious prejudice. (59-60)

Disappointingly, but unsurprisingly, this story is not true. I was part of the program committee for the SQM conference and have no recollection of violent threats. Recent emails to other conference organizers turn up similar blanks. A good enough reason not to perform Three Ladies at a conference about the Queen’s Men is that it was not, initially, a Queen’s Men play. At most, it has been suggested, Kermode is remembering an allusive joke that someone affiliated with the conference might have made about being worried that Three Ladies would ignite the kind of controversy that the 'Danish Muhammad' cartoons – which had been published about a year before – had ignited. Three Ladies, of course, has a scene in which an Islamic judge in Turkey mediates a debt dispute between a duplicitous Italian and a pious Jew. Certainly it is possible for all three characters in this scene to look, well, cartoonish, and whatever did or did not happen in Toronto in 2006, the anecdotal history in the modern edition is meant to suggest that this old play still has the power to make audiences uncomfortable.

A standard critical move when discussing this aspect of Three Ladies is to note that the Italian is the most despicable character of all. In the trial scene (to take just one example), he attempts to weasel out of his debt to the Jew by promising to convert to Islam. The Turkish judge confirms that this will in fact put him beyond the Jew’s reach. The Jew, however, cannot bear the thought of someone – even a Christian – forsaking his religion. In an act of care for the Italian’s soul, he forgives the debt. This act of mercy of course gives the Italian the opportunity to gloat horribly that he had never really intended to convert. The whole exchange is often taken as evidence of the Elizabethan playwright’s surprising ability to view officially abhorrent peoples – Jews and Turks – with empathy. While I would certainly not deny that Elizabethan playwrights had this ability, I am not persuaded that it is really on display in a scene like the one I’ve just described. The rhetorical idea of this scene is not so much 'Jews are people too', as it is 'Even the Jew is more humane than this Christian'. This scene criticizes Christianity, to be sure, but you don’t have to accept the reality of Jewish piety in order to accept the critique – indeed the critique might be more forceful if you do not. And of course accepting the critique does not necessarily mean that you are enlightened and tolerant, since this Christian’s main problems are that he is Italian and a Catholic. An English Protestant wouldn’t get himself into this kind of trouble in the first place. Shakespeare uses much the same rhetoric in The Merchant of Venice, though his critique might have cut a bit closer to the bone since Bassanio and Antonio are obviously meant to be English Protestants and tragic Shylock is the Catholic. Still, Shylock’s most famous speech – 'Hath not a Jew eyes',– is an invocation of common humanity only insofar as it is a justification of violence, which is exactly what you would expect, isn’t it?

The deliberately controversialist tone of the preceding paragraph is meant to provoke either (or both) strong agreement or strong disagreement. A modern reader can easily argue that Wilson was either just as intolerant as, or quite a bit more tolerant than, a conventional understanding of the Elizabethan world-view would lead us to imagine he was; in either case I don’t think any modern reader is very uneasy with the play’s religious and racial politics. Wilson half-displaces the conflict between Protestant and Catholic onto the more general conflict between Christian and non-Christian, and readers living in a pluralist, secular society further displace it onto the conflict between tolerance and intolerance. Obviously you always hope (but don’t expect) that Wilson was tolerant rather than intolerant; and it is possible to leave it at that. Where you will feel really, genuinely uneasy with Three Ladies is when you try to read – and, god help you, to read metrically – a passage like this:

LADY LUCRE     You say well, Mercadorus, yet Lucre by this is not thoroughly won,
But give ear, and I will show what by thee must be done;
Thou must carry over wheat, peas, barley, oats, and vetches, and all kind of grain,
Which is well sold beyond sea, and bring such merchants great gain.
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,
For every day gentlewomen of England do ask for such trifles from stall to stall.
And you must bring more, as amber, jet, coral, crystal, and every such bauble,
That is slight, pretty and pleasant, they care not to have it profitable.
And if they demand wherefore your wares and merchandise agree
You must say jet will take up a straw, amber will make one fat,
Coral will look pale when you be sick, and crystal will staunch blood.
So with lying, flattering, and glozing you must utter your ware,
And you shall win me to your will if you can deceitfully swear. (3.38-52)

To read this passage, and try to hear the sound Wilson imagined it making, is to confront head on the possibility of your inadequacies as a reader of the language of the past; perhaps needless to say, there is next to no critical discussion of Wilson’s poetry and prosody.

The meaning of Three Ladies is clear enough. The play is a neatly worked out allegory about the conflict, played out among the citizens of London, between Lady Lucre, Lady Love, and Lady Conscience. Lucre wins in the end. But it’s hard to see what Wilson thought he was doing as he wrote the words for this allegory. The play opens with a prologue written in ordinary, anaphoric, rhyming fourteeners, announcing all the things that the play will not do: ‘We search not Pluto’s pensive pit, nor taste of Limbo lake, / We do not show of warlike fight, as sword and shield to shake’ (Prologue 5-6). And so on. The point is to clear away all the trivial nonsense one might expect to see on the stage and to prepare the audience for something serious and contemporary: a looking glass for London life. In using fourteeners, Wilson might be invoking earlier and more exotic plays, like Cambyses and Clyomon and Clamydes (both written entirely in rhyming fourteeners), in order to digest and supersede them. Marlowe would use the same kind of trick a few years later in the prologue to Tamburlaine. If distinguishing Three Ladies from outmoded plays is what Wilson had in mind, then it makes perfect sense that the first line of the play proper is crisp expository prose – two sentences that might be at home in As You Like It: ‘Lady Conscience, what shall we say to our estates? To whom shall we complain?’ (1.1). But the seductive jingle of the prologue dies hard in the ear. Lady Love’s next line is a textbook fourteener, whose end-rhyme with the previous line makes you want to go back and reread it (though this will be difficult) with a metrical bounce: ‘Or how shall we abridge such fates as heapeth up our pain?’ (2). This fourteener begets another – the more you write them, the easier they come: ‘’Tis Lucre now that rules the rout: ’tis she is all in all’ (3). So, we might think, Wilson has not merely digested and superseded the earlier, more exotic and bombastic forms of drama; he has actually coopted them, decided to use them against themselves and for his own purposes. But then we get to line 4, surely the strangest line in the play so far: ‘’Tis she that holds her head so stout, in fine ’tis she that works our fall’ (4). What is strange about this line is its unnecessary fifth foot, in fine. Take this foot out and you have an ordinary and perfectly intelligible fourteener that has three feet after the caesura, and that rhymes (as fourteeners often do) in both the fourth foot and the seventh foot with the previous line.

The fifth foot of line 4 is a syntactic and rhetorical gesture that points the way to the end of the line, overriding and clarifying, however inelegantly, the paratactic tendency of a poetic line that is always essentially two lines, one in four beats and one in three. Fourteeners like a bit of suspense; they are good for producing and organizing long lists of parallel or juxtaposed, double-sided ideas; the potential silliness of the rhymes in rhymed fourteeners is always held somewhat at bay when they have a feeling of forward movement. It’s when you start insisting on a direction that the fourteener seems most heavily artificial: ‘I thank you, sir. Did he speak such evil of me, as you now say? / I doubt not but to reward him for his treachery one day’ (5.53-4). Thud. That thudding sound is what Wilson introduces into his first speech, unnecessarily, with the extra foot in the fourth line. Wilson refuses to take advantage of the facility of the fourteener, and refuses with increasing if irregular intensity over the course of the play. Three Ladies is not a poetic drama so much as it is a drama of ideas and I think Wilson might have acknowledged, if you pressed him, that he thought the two were incompatible. Obviously he was wrong about the irreconcilability of poetry and ideas, but his idiosyncratic approach did produce something stylistically unique in early English drama, however much its general form might look back to the morality play and forward to the plays of Shakespeare and Marlowe.

To say that Wilson did not find the medium of poetry amenable to his dramatic ideas is not to say that he was averse to rhyme. As is evident from the passage with which I began, he was a compulsive rhymer. There is no reason that these rhymes couldn’t jingle a bit more than they do; but Wilson smothers the jingles with information. The speech is like a forcibly rhymed paragraph out of Philip Stubbes, where the moralist’s encyclopedic knowledge of the things he hates is the rhetorical ground of his moral authority. The seventh line (to take just one example) would be much better poetry, or at least a passable fourteener, if you removed the fifth foot (plus another half), coloured bones, glass: ‘As bugles to make baubles, beads to make bracelets withal’. But if Wilson were to take out coloured bones and glass, there would be the slight chance that a reader or listener might assume he thinks that those things are okay to import and sell cheaply for use in bracelets. The radical Protestant’s fear of overlooking the smallest opportunity for sin precisely matches the entertainer’s fear of writing something that might, even for just a moment, not sound entertaining.1 Wilson seems to have made his theatrical reputation as a clown, and we know that sixteenth-century clowns did a lot of audience-interactive extemporizing, developing clever one-liners or poems or songs out of themes and words tossed at them from the audience; one convention of such improvisations probably would have been the lurching, searching, often deliberately over-long poetic line, with a surprising and sometimes stinging rhyme in its tail.2 I think this sound is one Wilson was striving for as he wrote speeches for this play. Wilson’s verse form has an unoriginal originality, much like the entire weird structure of the play itself. No other dramatic poet of the period I can think of seems so out of control of the shape and length of lines that ultimately represent themselves as verse lines; but Wilson’s ear was clearly attuned to a sound he had heard, had himself made, thousands of times before. You simply can’t unintentionally write poetry this bad.

Now, I of all people am not going to argue that Three Ladies is a bad play. It is, like almost all early modern plays, theatrically fascinating, containing numerous very striking moments: the unequivocal moral and satirical gesture of Usury killing Hospitality, for example, or ‘the box of all abomination’ out of which Lady Lucre paints spots all over Conscience’s face. It might be tempting to argue that Wilson was writing at a ‘transitional’ moment, just on the cusp of the real artistic explosion that took place on the commercial stage in the 1590s, and that the vexed verse of Three Ladies epitomizes the difficulties faced by dramatic poets in attempting to convert a formerly didactic medium into a creative one. But such an argument, I think, both overestimates Wilson’s achievement and underestimates that of the authors of Cambyses, Clyomon and Clamydes, The True Tragedy of Richard III, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, and many other ‘early’ early modern plays. If anything, Wilson was trying, in Three Ladies, to force what had become a fully creative medium back into a didactic mode; the poetic drama of ideas had already passed him by even as he took pen in hand and started counting (or not counting) syllables. Perhaps on a cool afternoon in 1581 the poetry and prosody of Three Ladies had an electrifying effect, seeming in its digestion of a whole range of English prosodic forms – fourteeners, ballad meter, alliterative verse, and any number of other antique and popular verse idioms – to offer a comprehensive and forward-looking satirical vision. But no one ever wrote like Robert Wilson in Three Ladies again – not even Robert Wilson, whose Three Lords and Three Ladies shows a considerable settling down (if no less formal diversity) in its writing: less obsession with rhyme, shorter and more uniform lines when there is rhyming, effective use of prose, and several stretches of blank verse.3 And, after a (still unexplained) hiatus from playwriting in 1592-8, he emerged as a regular collaborator on plays for Henslowe at the Rose – purely commercial plays whose rough-hewn blank verse would probably be recognizable to us (most of the plays are now lost), even as they would likely make their Protestant politics abundantly clear.4 Three Ladies is an odd play, in itself and in terms of Wilson’s career; it is not just that the poetry is inefficient (most poetry is inefficient in some way), but that the poet willfully and obtusely attempts to use it as a medium for communicating information as such. That may be the truth most clearly revealed, however unintentionally, by the spurious anecdote about the potentially violent controversy over Three Ladies in 2006.


[1] Of course we have no direct evidence of Wilson’s religious beliefs. The manifest content of Three Ladies and Three Lords and Three Ladies, as well as Wilson’s probable authorship of the 1591 pamphlet Martin Mar-Sixtus, his collaboration on 1 Sir John Oldcastle make it clear that he was strongly anti-Catholic. Presumably, as a playwright, he did not have exactly the same sensibility of the Puritan Stubbes; but the over-stuffed verse form I am describing here does suggest (as we might expect) that Puritan polemic and Protestant dramatic satire were not always as far apart as their practitioners might have liked to think. See Erin Kelly's essay on Protestant polemic on this website.

[2] For the conventions of Elizabethan clowning see David Wiles, Shakespeare’s Clown: Actor and Text in the Elizabethan Playhouse (Cambridge, 2005); Scott McMillin and Sally-Beth Maclean, The Queen’s Men and their Plays (Cambridge, 2006), especially Chapter 6; and Richard Preiss, Clowning and Authorship in Early Modern Theatre (Cambridge, 2014). See also David Kathman’s entry on Wilson in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for sixteenth-century references to Wilson’s skill as an extemporizer: (accessed 16 Nov 2014).

[3] A potentially rewarding avenue of research branching off from my argument about the reception of Wilson’s verse might be to put Three Ladies in the middle of the argument, about twenty years later, between Thomas Campion (Observations on the Art of English Poesie, 1602) and Samuel Daniel (A Defence of Rhyme, 1603). Wilson might represent an extreme case of the native poetic tradition that Daniel defends against Campion’s arguments in favor of classical metrics. Daniel, for all his understanding of the historical contingency of metrical conventions, probably would not have found much to admire in Three Ladies: ‘I must confesse, that to mine owne eare, those continuall cadences of couplets vsed in long and continued Poemes, are very tyresome, and vnpleasing, by reason that still, me thinks, they runne on with a sound of one nature, and a kinde of certaintie which stuffs the delight rather then intertaines it’. But he also would have acknowledged that such verse ‘peraduenture to another may seeme most delightfull’. Quotations from the Renascence Editions text, online at (accessed 16 Nov 2014).

[4] Among Wilson’s collaborators at this time were Thomas Dekker, whose polemical Protestantism is evident throughout his works, and most especially in his 1606 The Whore of Babylon; and Anthony Munday, who not only wrote a number of anti-Catholic tracts, but was also a recusant-hunter for Elizabeth I’s government in the 1580s and 1590s. See David M. Bergeron’s entry on Munday in the DNB: (accessed 16 Nov 2014).