Robert Wilson’s Legal Imaginary

Karen Cunningham

This essay looks at The Three Ladies of London in the context of the sixteenth-century common law, especially the law of contract. Remarkably aware from start to finish of English legal practices, the play navigates a complex, unstable relationship between kinds of law – the divine law associated with the morality play and the common law of English contemporary culture. In its morality play features, it looks back at a system in which divine law was prominent and God was the judge, but in its city comedy features it looks at the contemporary system in which positive law rules and ‘no one’ metes out what the play takes as proper justice. Invoking the specific language, procedures, and theories of common law, Wilson grounds his play peopled with abstractions in the human reality of his society.

For many decades it was possible to view questions about law in early modern English literatures as of only antiquarian interest to historians and lawyers of a humanist bent. Current studies of English Renaissance texts, however, recognizing the prevalence, variety, and scope of legal discourses of all kinds in the early modern drama and the culture more broadly, have exposed the insufficiency of this view. Instead, these works suggest it is not possible to understand Renaissance literature without understanding how prevalently and diffusely it speaks the law; as Grant Williams has recently put it, ‘Renaissance literary studies today cannot plead ignorance of the law’.1

One need not have been trained in the legal profession in the sixteenth century to have recognized and understood the signs of legal culture. The Inns of Court were training grounds for writing of all kinds and centres of legal literary production, and many important writers passed through them.2 Innsmen acted in revels, and professional players performed at the Inns, often in casts that included a mix of professionals and amateurs. Public interest spilled out of the court centres to local taverns, where specialists and ordinary folks alike could enjoy debating ‘table-cases’. The casual circulation of legal thought is most often recognized when scholars gleefully recall Dick the Butcher’s cry in the second part of Shakespeare’s Henry VI, ‘the first thing we do let’s kill all the lawyers’ (4.2.73). This powerful cultural and social fascination is signalled more broadly in such things as the January 1562 performance of Sackville and Norton’s Gorboduc by members of the Inner Temple for an audience including Elizabeth I and the members of her court; the construction of the first public playhouses (The Red Lion, The Rose, The Swan, The Theatre, The Curtain, The Globe); the abundance of lawyers in public audiences; the numbers of theatre-goers reaching perhaps 15,000 a week; and the omnipresence of familiar and obscure legalisms in play after play.3 As Paul Raffield has recently pointed out, in the sixteenth century, performances addressing legal topics ‘mark the emergence of law from the formal arena of the legal institution into the imagistic and non-reverential sphere of the social and the public’.4

In this context I want here to think about law in The Three Ladies of London. My overarching argument is that the play is navigating a complex, unstable relationship between kinds of law – the divine law associated with the morality play and the common law of English contemporary culture. I do not to suggest a ‘development’ away from the religious to the secular, since the spiritual dimension was vibrantly alive throughout the Renaissance and reaches into the modern day. I do suggest that the play – which recognizes in its generic DNA the connections between the moral and the legal – satirically troubles over the authority and efficacy of both systems for effecting (and envisioning) justice. More specifically, in its morality play features, the play looks back at a system in which divine law was prominent and God judged, but in its city comedy features, it looks at the contemporary system in which positive law rules and no one (also literally ‘no body’ in English) metes out what the play takes as proper justice. Since my discussion will necessarily be somewhat condensed, I want to approach this tension by focusing less on the play’s representation of its moral allegory than on the language and concerns of contract law, attending briefly to its pervasive presence and a few key scenes.5 Overall, I’m claiming a thematically and aesthetically central role for the many legalisms.6 In this view, Wilson’s continuous invocations of the language and theories of contemporary law are not only (or even primarily) a vocabulary for talking about ‘something else’ – divine law and the city of God, for example – but also for talking about positive law in the city of London.

Local Knowledge/Legal Knowledge

In his introduction to The Three Ladies of London, Lloyd Kermode points out that Wilson’s ‘combination of telling us a moral tale and showing us an embattled community’ relies on an ‘interplay of geography and ethnicity, morality and practicality, gender and power, class and corruption’.7 What we might add, however, is that in establishing its setting and social and moral issues, it also relies heavily on specific references to aspects of sixteenth-century common law within the play. Put differently, although the trial scenes (to which I’ll turn later) gather attention as obvious (if ambiguous) dramatizations of law, Wilson chooses to make contemporary English law the recurring conceptual structure throughout. The allegorical moral figures, of course, also found this form, but if we set them aside, the play still remains from start to finish remarkably aware of contemporary English legal practices: there are civil and common law crimes (tax evasion, customs evasion, slander, fraud, murder, robbery), punishments (hanging, whipping, imprisonment), contracts (marriage, debt, conveyance of property, wills), procedures (proclamations, arrests, pleadings, trials, pardons), and persons (judges, lawyer, law clerk, crier, constable, beadle). My point is not that Wilson might or might not have had legal training, but that his play joins many comedies in the later sixteenth century – not only The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice, with which it is often compared, but also The Comedy of Errors and Measure for Measure, among numerous others – in creating what we might call a legal imaginary whose stage-shape is drawn from contemporary legal practice. While the play also alludes to various laws and legal cases outside its world, it is important to observe that the London Wilson imagines is peopled with human figures operating in a society identified repeatedly by positive law.

While one effect of the mingling of divine and human concerns is to make the allegorical point, another equally present effect (presumably available to the eyes, ears, and imaginations of the audience) is to ground the play in the local here-and-now. Consider, for example, the repeated images of hanging: Simplicity sees Fraud’s suitability for ‘the rope and the cart’ (2.58); he foresees (naively in the play’s view) that Fraud and Dissimulation ‘shall be hanged together’ (83); Dissimulation sees that Fraud ‘hast a doughty heart to make a hangman of’ (192); and Lady Lucre sees that Dissimulation is ‘rope-ripe’ (203). Such images remind the audience of the local practice (with its own spectacle and theatricality) of publicly parading convicted persons through the streets before (also publicly) hanging them. Wilson crystallizes the images, however, in terms that intertwine the local with the divine: after Usury has killed Hospitality, Conscience chastises Lucre, and Simplicity chimes in, ‘Hospitality … hath made his will, / And hath given Dissimulation three trees upon a high hill’ (8.59). The reference to the three trees on the hill has been variously interpreted: certainly it refers generally to the gallows, and it also may refer to the three ‘trees’ or crosses of Golgotha,8 with Jesus in the middle, ‘counted among the wicked’ (Isaiah 53:12). But I want to suggest that the image is also quite familiar and particular to the London setting: Tyburn tree. In the sixteenth-century depictions, Tyburn, among the most infamous sites of hangings and spectacular executions, is represented as a triangulated structure, with three wooden pillars supporting the crossbeams. In this case, the specificity of the image invokes not only (or even primarily) a general idea of crime and punishment, but also the immediacy and embodied humanity of the specifically English criminal and his punishment.

Ruminations on the Nature of Contract

The Three Ladies of London’s explicit agreement between Gerontus and Mercadorus may seem today a clear cut proposition: I lend you money at interest, you agree to return that base amount with the specific interest by a certain date. One of many bargains repeatedly struck in the play, however, the contract highlights a thicket of medieval and early modern debates about hotly contested legal principles that persisted throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, as the English common law of contract developed inconsistently via case law. Historically, cases involving contracts focused on four questions: the existence of the promise, the meaning of the promise, the question of whether it has been broken, and the issue of what compensation might be due the injured party. English common law had always included the option of a simple action of debt, when a fixed sum of money was owed under an explicit or implied agreement for a thing or benefit. But actions of debt, which were heard in the court of Common Pleas, entailed various elaborate (and sometimes expensive) means of adjudication, and included numerous (successful) methods of evading the obligation. By the mid-sixteenth century, the King’s Bench offered a competing, simpler form of legal action known as assumpsit (‘he has undertaken’) that provided a remedy for the breach of an informal (typically meaning unwritten) agreement to do something.9 The competition between the courts played out throughout the century, but by the 1550’s, because it was hearing cases on a much wider array of contractual relationships than it had been, the King’s Bench was transformed into a commercial court for the city of London.10 (Although theories of Roman civil law adopted the view of Justinian’s sixth-century writings that something more than an informal expression of an agreement was necessary if a contract was to be found valid, Catholic and Reformation canon law supported the view that an informal promise should be binding.)

I provide this brief history not to suggest that Wilson’s play is very interested in the convoluted details of common law court theories, but to point out that he and his audience certainly would have known the debate, and it would have coloured their responses to the contract between Gerontus and Mercadorus.11 (More conjecturally, it may also have influenced the staging.) Wilson positions the Turkish trial as the culmination of an ongoing contract between the two men within a larger agreement between Mercadorus and Lady Lucre, as though she were the divinity overseeing the entire progress of the human transaction: Mercadorus makes his original bargain with Lady Lucre (scene 3), he meets Gerontus in Turkey (scene 9), he again meets Gerontus in Turkey (scene 12), Gerontus makes his case against Mercadorus in Turkey, and Mercadorus anticipates eliciting Lady Lucre’s approval (scene14). (We might note that this part of the plot occurs in the shadow of Simplicity’s twice-told tale of his father’s death as the result of his inability to repay a loan on its due date.) Grounded in the specific language and forms of common law, Wilson’s satire touches on interrogation and renegotiation, establishing that a promise between Mercadorus and Gerontus exists, its meaning is clear, it has been broken, and the breach will be resolved by a later date (scene 9); on malicious changes to that agreement (12.21-22), effectively transforming the verbal contract between the two into a personal weapon for causing harm (a charge often levelled against lawyers and legal processes in the era); and on methods for evading debt (12.13; 14.14-16), satirizing law’s many methods for reinterpreting a commitment as a non-commitment. Critical consensus, focused generally on the religious positions in the scene, has found that the scene dramatizes Gerontus’s greater morality, Mercadorus’s greater duplicity, and the Turkish judge’s greater gullibility. We should add to this dramatic focus, however, that the trial also takes legal process itself – the operation of positive law among men – as its target, motivating religious conversion with advantageous economic and legal conversions to criticize the easy exchange of kinds of debt.

Here, as elsewhere, Wilson continues to mine the linguistic ambiguities of the common law to locate spiritual themes in the real world of the play. In an act often invoked as evidence of his superiority, Gerontus ‘forgives’ Mercadorus’s debt. Heard in one register, this is the language of the faithful: both Judaism and Christianity require the faithful to forgive those who wrong them (or who trespass against them) not only to help the agent of that wrong, but also for their own hope of being forgiven in the future. But it is also, of course, the specific language of legal debt, in which ‘forgiveness’ releases a debtor from his obligation; to be legally valid, forgiveness must be intentional, voluntary, and freely given (‘frank and free’, in Gerontus’s terms). Gerontus also attempts to dissuade Mercadorus from avowing Islam by repeatedly urging him to ‘respect [his] faith’. But Wilson has deliberately crafted too many ‘faiths’ here – not only the Christian or the Islamic, but also the contractual. Gerontus adopts the specific language that crosses all three registers at the same time it ironically highlights the multiple alternatives facing Mercadorus. Although the term ‘good faith’ seems not to become prominent in law until sometime in the eighteenth century, the concept exists from the origins of contract in the idea of a covenant, which presumed that persons would deal honestly and fairly with each other, without malice or a desire to defraud. (The term derives, as Dissimulation well knows [8.76], from the Latin bona fide.)

What I am suggesting is that the English common law is something more than ‘history’ or ‘context’; it is the language in which the play thinks and speaks. Three Ladies is committed at its most fundamental level of speech to the intricate interweaving of its larger allegorical frame with its present and local society, one thread of which appears during the Turkish trial. Attention has focused on the significance of ‘the Jew’ or ‘the Turk’ as foreign ‘other’ to English culture. I want to propose that the play also explicitly invokes the contemporary discourse of treason. It would have been difficult for an English man or woman not to be aware of treason in the late sixteenth century: the Henrician Reformation Parliament had expanded the scope of treason in ways for which there had been no parallel in earlier law; the Papal bull of 1570 had contributed to wider fears that potential English and continental enemies would attack the monarch; and, more generally, between 1485 and 1603, there ‘were no fewer than sixty-eight treason statutes enacted, though there had been less than ten in the period 1352-1485’.12 More than this, treason trials were talked about in broadsides, pamphlets, even poems; and executions provided spectacular popular entertainment. In his first meeting with Lady Lucre, Mercadorus exposes his internal changeability: ‘Me will-a forsake-a my fader, moder, king, country, and more dan dat’ (2.34). Wilson’s irony here – that Mercadorus strikes a bargain by swearing to ‘forsake’ all personal and political loyalty – anticipates the trial scene in which the Turkish judge adopts the same language (14.14-15), and signals the key attribute of infidelity, unfaithfulness to family, king, and country that characterizes treason trials. When he rebukes the judge, ‘You must not judge-a my conscience’ (47), he invokes not only the Protestant view of conscience as private and individual, but also the legal right in treason trials to consider internal states and motives as evidence for criminal intentions. (Treason was the only crime in the sixteenth century for which it was officially accepted practice to delve into the defendant’s imaginings.) Though matters of conscience could not be addressed in most sixteenth century crimes, they were fair game in treason prosecutions, and the Crown’s task was to make visible the unfaithful conscience of the accused.

Wilson’s final trial – less local and more allegorical – relocates the concerns of the Turkish trial while sustaining its contemporary contractual underpinnings: the judge pronounces the indictments and uses formulaic language to invite each defendant to speak for herself (though here, having ladies speak for themselves differs from the sixteenth century practice of limiting women’s voices in court); a defendant calls for the right to face her accusers, a key difference in the theory of a defendant’s rights being contested between Roman and English law; and the trial struggles to discover the interior loyalty, fidelity, or ‘good faith’ of the accused. Here, the private conscience that Mercadorus placed beyond judgment in the Turkish trial becomes the public Conscience central to the proceedings. She alone aspires to ‘forgiveness’ for the debt she owes –and only from God (17.45, 74) – as the language of the sentences sustains the play’s double-world consciousness: Lucre receives ‘torment without end’ (49), Love will experience ‘endless pain’ (94), but Conscience will be imprisoned until ‘the general session’, probably, as has been suggested, a reference to the Last Judgment, but certainly a reference (perhaps satirical) to the local, temporal, contemporary courts in London.

There is rich critical speculation about the significance of Judge Nemo’s name—whether we should understand it as part of the moral story in which, according to the biblical injunction alluded to in plays like Measure for Measure, ‘no man’ is authorized to judge another, or as part of the political satire in which ‘no man’ is able to judge (and presumably mete out justice to) Usury, Simony, and their friends. But there is another tradition for Wilson to have drawn on: the ‘nobody’ of legal fiction who was used ‘to negotiate legally complex situations’ and who became an ‘enduring procedural feature of the law’.13 In an early account in 1570 a jury was charged with determining who murdered Helen Campane, who had been beaten to death with a broomstick. Although the indicted was named Jane Small, the jury blamed the crime on ‘William Nemo’, attributing the homicide to a fictional person. In this sense, Nemo is not an allegorical figure but a legal fiction, an imaginary person constructed explicitly within the common law not only to navigate among its complexities, but also to allow the manipulation of various elements of a case, from accusations through verdicts. This kind of attribution of legal actions and liabilities to Nobody was unusual but not rare in the English Renaissance; the device was used about once a year between the 1570’s and 1610’s.14 A character who falls somewhere between the allegorical figures of morality plays and the individuated ‘humanized’ depictions of Elizabethan theatre, Nemo signifies a paradoxical notion of a fellow between worlds (like the actor perhaps peeping through), a personification of the fictions of law within law and without which it could not function.

Although conferences about English drama and the law of the sixteenth century often include performances of selected scenes, they generally treat those as supplements rather than as central to the conversation, and the pervasiveness of a play’s legal language and thought is obscured by the use of more generic costumes, props, sets, and gestures. How might it affect our understanding of Wilson’s play if the audible and visible signs of legal culture so present throughout his text were also present and disbursed throughout the staging rather than compressed into the ‘legal’ scenes? One can only wonder how the play might seem if, for example, the sets included visible signs of contemporary English legal culture (the Inns of Court, Parliament, Tyburn tree, heads on stakes along London Bridge). And how might the play’s many references to deeds, contracts, and agreements be made apparent in a production? And, of course, what would we do with Nemo?


Having suggested in my paper that English common law is one of the languages in which The Three Ladies of London thinks and speaks, my particular interest during the performance was on the staging of the play’s many legalisms. Overall, the play looks skeptically on legal processes, finding them vulnerable to the same manipulations and immorality that drives most of the characters; even Usury’s murder of Hospitality is readily pardoned. Yet what had not been as apparent to me until I reflected on the production is the extent to which the idea of early modern legal process in the play fluctuates with the interpretations of individual characters. To suggest what I mean, I want to attend here to two scenes: the whipping of Simplicity (scene 16) and the trial in Turkey (scene 14). These are thoughts rather than assertions, tentative musings rather than claims.

Among the play’s many invocations of local practice, the whipping scene might be performed straightforwardly: Constable Diligence and a beadle explain to the baffled Simplicity that he is to be punished for refusing to reveal where his two former fellows (Tom Beggar and Wily Will) are, since they have committed a robbery. On the page, the scene is a goldmine of comic potential that subjects the logic of legal punishment to the lens of comedy. Simplicity’s pleas that he doesn’t know anything about the robbery give rise to the Constable’s invocation of what would become familiarly known in law as the logical flaw of ‘guilt by association’: Simplicity was seen with Tom and Wily before the robbery, therefore he’s complicit in what they’ve done, and he knows where they are. Although the stage directions in the Kermode edition indicate the beadle whips Simplicity, in the McMaster production, each time the beadle lifted his whip to lash the half-clad Simplicity, Simplicity averted his eyes and flinched as though hit, though the whip never touched him. Again and again, the beadle cracked the whip in the air (in various ingenious poses); again and again Simplicity writhed with imaginary pain (or its anticipation), grasping his body and contorting himself to avoid further suffering. The repeated sounds of the crackling whip, the amusement of Constable Diligence and the beadle as they watched, and Simplicity’s physical reactions to mere sounds seemed not only to make Diligence and the beadle less villainous (clowns more than wicked enforcers of law) but also to make Simplicity even more simple-minded. As it revealed new aspects of these characters, the performance also undermined the authority of legal processes, which it showed to be illogical, fraudulent, and in this case, unreal – there is no real whipping of a body. If the performance was a testament to the comic power of bodies on a stage, it also offered a critique of a faulty, foolish legal system.

The trial scene in Turkey (scene 14), which shifted away from the clowning mode, also undermined the legitimacy of legal processes. But what was surprising (and a bit confusing to me) in the performance was that although Mercadorus clearly had his emotions in check, the better to manipulate both judge and system, Gerontus was yelling from the outset. Rather than self-possessed, Gerontus seemed possessed by his own anger. The reasons for Gerontus’s aggression weren’t evident to me, but the staging captured the adversarial structure of trials and also suggested that despite its formal protocols, the law is unable to enforce either order or honesty.

During the workshop the day after the performance, different versions of this scene emerged. In one, the actor playing Gerontus was asked to adopt the more stereotypical clowning style of the stage moneylender in Renaissance plays (a choice, as Peter Cockett explains in his remarks, he had rejected for the public performances). As this Gerontus crooked his body and seemed to peck at Mercadorus like a crow, he appeared to be a devout usurer whose only interest was indicting his debtor. In another version, however, the actor was asked to play Gerontus as the only honest man on the stage – the calculating businessman, perhaps, but also a composed figure assured in his righteousness and rights. With his confident posture and voice, this Gerontus seemed every inch the assured dealmaker who had long been a figure in Italian commerce and who knew his role in claiming his legal rights – one whose final lines might be read as a serious threat or as the advice of a seasoned expert.

In the evening performance, Gerontus contributed to a scene that treated the trial less as a formal event with its own procedures and rules than as an individual opportunity to attack an enemy. In the workshop the following day, the crooked, stereotypical Gerontus seemed a lesser participant in a legal process that had already positioned him as a ‘distortion’ (suggested by the actor’s bent body) and as the least credible figure among the three. In this case, the trial was an embodiment of the antisemitism prevalent in the culture, a legal process that was not above or apart from or impartial about the accusers and accused, but that was deeply coloured itself by those cultural biases. In the final version in the workshop, the confident Gerontus carried himself as an equal under the law and spoke with the authority of a successful figure in the local society. In this case, the law emerged as a quasi-rational thing, a system of order (however arbitrary) in which adversarial claims are moderated under the gaze of an ideal of justice (even if that ideal is unmet, as is the case in this play).

Although it may seem obvious, what had not occurred to me until I was reflecting on the production and workshop is the importance of Gerontus’s performance to the depiction of the law: with his dignity, the dignity of legal process seemed validated. Absent his dignity, the dignity of the legal process was erased. I’m not suggesting that Wilson’s play means to show the worthiness of early modern legal process. Far from it. The play despairs that divine law has ceded social relations to positive law, which is as flawed as the humans who created it. I am suggesting, however, that the performances exposed the deep links between the dignity (or in Simplicity’s case, indignity) of the individual and what we might call the ‘personalities’ of a legal system.


[1] Grant Williams, ‘Law and the Production of Literature’, Introduction, Taking Exception to the Law (Toronto, 2015), 5.

[2] L.W. Abbott, Law Reporting in England, 1485-1585 (London, 1973), 31; Philip Finkelpearl, John Marston of the Middle Temple (Cambridge MA, 1982), 19. Among the writers who passed through the Inns are More, Ascham, Gascoigne, Sackville and Norton, Raleigh, Donne, Bacon, Marston, Ford, Beaumont, Suckling, and Congreve.

[3] Paul Raffield, Shakespeare’s Imaginary Constitution (Oxford, 2010) 7-8.

[4] Ibid, 11.

[5] My focus here on contract law necessarily does an injustice to the many other aspects of legal culture Wilson threads throughout his play. Among these, especially relevant is the association between the common law’s self-perception and developing national identity, which includes the notion that any non-English law is not only inferior but also may be a form of foreign intrusion. The trial in Turkey and the multinational commercial activities in the play touch on this cultural anxiety.

[6] Bradin Cormack has recently characterized the relationship between English Renaissance law and theatre as ‘twin arts for making something in language, for using language to produce an effect in the world’; both ‘change the order of the real by offering a set of textual and technical substitutions for the real’. ‘Paper Justice, Parchment Justice: Shakespeare, Hamlet, and the Life of Legal Documents’, Taking Exception to the Law (Toronto, 2015), 47.

[7] Lloyd Kermode, ‘Introduction’, Three Renaissance Usury Plays (Manchester, 2009), 36-7. Kermode’s introduction provides a helpful, detailed picture of relevant English legislation.

[8] Robert Wilson, The Three Ladies of London, Lloyd Edward Kermode (ed.), Three Renaissance Usury Plays (Manchester, 2009). All references are to this edition and will be cited parenthetically in the text. See 8.59n.

[9] J.H. Baker, An Introduction to English Legal History, 4th ed. (London, 2002), 342.

[10] Ibid, 343.

[11] The language of debt would also have resonated widely: early treatises described debt as a kind of trespass (a wrong), and ‘the variant English versions of the Lord’s Prayer use the words “debt” and “trespass” interchangeably’ (Baker 341).

[12] John Bellamy, Tudor Law of Treason (London, 1979), 12. Kermode notes the relevance of the Ridolifi plot (15) and the Lopez treason (17).

[13] Luke Wilson, ‘Nobodies that Matter’, in Wilson, Theatres of Intention: Drama and the Law in Early Modern England (Stanford, 2000), 217.

[14] I am indebted throughout this discussion of Nemo to Luke Wilson’s study. Wilson points out that if we translate ‘Nemo’ as no-body, it’s a pun available only in English. He presents a rich history of the figure from a Homeric joke in the Odyssey through Ben Jonson’s plays. Different from Everyman, Nemo was seen by some as a ‘fool for Christ’.