Simple Judgment and The Three Ladies of London

Lloyd Edward Kermode

This essay is an initial attempt to understand the moral use of the concept of simplicity in The Three Ladies of London. It studies the conflict in the play (and arguably in Wilson himself) between the desire to produce ‘moral drama’ (ie theatre that presents moral issues for the betterment of its audiences) and the conservative religious conviction that the theatre is inherently bad. The play assumes that simplicity and singleness denote purity and perfection whereas duality entails antagonism, rebellion, and deception (Dissimulation); in the context of the theatre, whose very existence depends on deception, disguise, and duality, the attempt to present moral goodness and simple faith seems like a difficult task, if not an impossibility. The second part of the essay uses Gosson’s critique of the stage as a theatre of moral and political judgment to assess Wilson’s success or failure in combining his moral message with his immoral medium.

I. Simplicity

In this essay I examine the irony of producing a ‘moral drama’, – a pedagogy of purity conveyed through a contaminated medium. The Three Ladies of London is a play about simplicity troubled and singularity doubled, and I suggest that these dynamics open a small window onto the politico-moral outlook of Wilson himself: a playwright enjoying, but also struggling with, the difficulty of following his calling to preach morality within the confines of his skill in the ‘immoral’ pastimes of playmaking and acting. The ‘truth and simplicity’ that we have come to accept as tenets of the Queen’s Men’s production values were already complicated by the radical conservative Wilson, who aligns himself through his plot of Three Ladies with the desire for a moral and simple stage, yet simultaneously undermines his own aim by demonstrating the flaws of dramatic representation.1 Wilson uses the moral play as his stalking horse and from underneath that he shoots his witty equivocation.

To be simple, or to represent simplicity, is not just to register non-complexity; it is to be in a state of singleness that avoids evil, corruption, and duplicity (doubleness, hypocrisy, admixture). The Latin simplus, cognate with the Greek prefix sem- means ‘one’; plicare (Gk plekein) means to fold. But already folded into Wilson’s ‘simplicity’ are the dualities that register simplicity as goodness but also worthlessness, godly strength but also worldly weakness, simple truth but also simpleminded stupidity. As such, Wilson’s mimetic Simplicity cannot maintain truth and identity as can, say, Mankind’s Mercy, who, in spite of the three N’s mockery and Titivillus’s machinations, has the single-minded strength to rule the play at the end; and he lacks the invulnerability of the old man in Doctor Faustus, who, in spite of age and physical weakness, keeps a constant godly soul that cannot be touched.

Wilson’s Simplicity is the son of ‘Plain Dealing’ (7.5), and plainness too is a word of many enfolded meanings.2 In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in particular, ‘plain’ carried the adverbial meaning of ‘completely’ or ‘fully’, as when a character like Conscience, however frail she may be, commits herself to goodness, or when Mercadorus at the other moral end of things pledges his entire service to Lady Lucre: ‘Command-a me, Madam, and you shall see plain, / Dat-a for your sake me refuse-a no pain’ (5.89-90). To be plain is also to be like ‘plain’ cloth (Oxford English Dictionary (OED), ‘plain’ n.2, entry 2), unadorned, simply woven, and easily priced or valued. But from the start of Three Ladies, the claim that the play is ‘wares … well woven, good and fine’ (Prologue 17) carries within it a double sense of a perfect product of clarity or plainness and a cunning work of art (a process always already done in by the threat of deception, as the play demonstrates in the corrupted character of Artifex). Full simplicity or full plainness might imagine a good preaching job for Sincerity (scene 4) or some Christian hospitality from Fraud (scene 13); but such moral desire is denied – Sincerity receives the parish of St. Nihil and Fraud tells Simplicity that ‘all is gone, thou comest too late’ (13.52).

Plain Dealing is undone by Usury, and the son inherits the lack of worldly armour to protect him from the ravages of the world, which result in Simplicity being whipped off the stage of London. The notion of resilient simplicity, then, is a nonsense; it would encompass a pure singularity, unswerving goodness, and clear readability: an impossibility in a world where ‘[H]e dat will live in the world must be of the world sure’ (3.15). To be ‘of the world’ is always to be multiple, hypocritical, disguised, and interpretively elusive. This is not new stuff: ‘Ye, goth the worlde so now a day / That a man must say the crow is white’, says the character named B, in arguably the earliest fully extant interlude, Fulgens and Lucres – to which character A replies, ‘He must both lye and flater now and than / That castith hym to dwell amonge worldly men’ (168-89, 171-2).3 The difficulty of maintaining plain simplicity in a world of flattery and double-speak lies at the centre of such disasters as King Lear’s assessment of Cordelia: ‘Let pride, which she calls plainness, marry her’ (1.1.145).4 And when The Chronicle History of King Leir’s Ragan apostrophizes, ‘Oh, that my simple utterance could suffice / To tell the true intention of my heart’ (3.57), we should understand the ironic truth of her admission of falsehood – simple utterances are incompatible with duplicitous hearts. Moreover, truth, which should be a plain concept, is here the marker of hidden ‘intention’.

Stephen Gosson drew me to a concern with simplicity. In Plays Confuted in Five Actions (1582), just a couple of octavo pages before his comments on Three Ladies, he writes:

no manner of goodnes can bee learned at a play, partly because the best is a mixture of good and eu[i]ll ... The minde of it selfe is simple without mixture or composition, therefore those instructions that are giuen to the minde must bee simple without mingle ma[n]gle of fish & flesh, good & bad[. W]here both are profred, the hereditacie corruptio[n] of our nature taketh ye worst and leaueth the best.6

This belief in the necessity of a simple singularity for effective pedagogy is the product of Gosson’s puritanically reformist mind, and it means that only a sermon delivering a lecture solely on goodness is fitting for a congregation of sinful churchgoers or the students of this theatrical school of abuse. To live in the post-Edenic world is to have ‘hereditacie corruption’ and be necessarily predisposed toward evil whenever ‘both’ ‘good & bad’ are ‘profred’. If ‘truth and plainness’ join as the ideal of the Queen’s Men’s dramatic message, then Wilson’s play has already corrupted each truthful and plain/simple element with his compounded characters: Lucre and Conscience; Love and Dissimulation; Simplicity and Wily Will/Tom Beggar; Gerontus and Mercadorus; Artifex and Fraud. The thesis of Three Ladies does not seem very far from Gosson’s: given the choice, our fallen state entails that we choose evil over good. Furthermore –and as the episode between Gerontus and Mercadorus in the Turkish court shows – even if we don’t choose evil, we are fooled by it into complicity or into helplessness.

II. Judgment

For Gosson, the theatre must be a moral environment and therefore a place of judgment and learning. Even those who argued against Gosson’s extremity or wrote plays that Gosson could not abide were, in the late 1570s and early 1580s, nevertheless generally in accord with that assumption of the (potential) moral role of drama. Thomas Lodge’s early pamphlet in response to Gosson’s 1579 School of Abuse ‘prefer[s] [ie suggests, offers up] Wilsons shorte and sweete’ to Gosson. ‘[I]f I were iudge’, Lodge continues, it is ‘a peece surely worthy prayse, the practise of a good scholler, would the wiser would ouerlooke that, they may perhaps cull some wisedome out of a players toye’.7 Lodge’s choice of Wilson’s lost work arguably suggests that Wilson (and Lodge himself) may have been particularly attuned to (and sympathetic with) conservative arguments that pursued simplicity and singularity (ie good morality) in dramatic presentation. Even though Short and Sweet is ‘a players toy’ (and the term feels like Lodge ironically taking on Gosson’s voice for a moment), Wilson’s play is pitched as a piece of theatre from which a wise judge – Lodge’s preceding paragraphs have questioned Gosson’s intellectual abilities and his academic honesty – would be able to ‘cull some wisedome’.

The theatre as a workable environment for moral judgment seems to be a central concern for Gosson, who, after writing that ‘A Iudge must be graue, sober, discreete, wise, well exercised in cases of gouernement … immoueable, vncorrupted, vpright’,8 dismisses theatrical judgment as

ridiculous, … beecause the worste sorte of people haue the hearing of it, which in respecte of there ignorance, of there ficklenes, and of there furie, are not to bee admitted in place of iudgement. … If the common people which resorte to Theatres being but an assemblie of Tailers, Tinkers, Cordwayners, Saylers, olde Men, yong Men, Women, Boyes, Girles, and such like, be the iudges of faultes there painted out, the rebuking of manners in that place, is neyther lawfull nor conuenient, but to be held for a kinde of libelling, and defaming.9

Let us put this assertion in the context of Three Ladies again. Simplicity’s essential identity is allegedly his inability to discern differences, thereby leaving himself open to deception and danger. But the ironies abound. Simplicity can discern apparent contradictions, but he is not able reliably to maintain consistency in his judgment: on the one hand he accuses Hospitality of miserliness, not understanding the premise of charity; on the other, he rightly recognizes Fraud and the ‘clubbish knaves’ for what they are (2.175). So when Dissimulation alleges that Simplicity ‘knoweth not good from bad’ (5), he is both telling and obscuring the truth. Simplicity’s simple/natural ability to see truth drags with it the baggage of his simple/stupid character, so to credit him with anything more worrisome to the villains than heckling would be ‘mad’ waste of their time (66).

Simplicity, then, like Gosson’s audience, is an inadequate judge; if the comic actor Wilson himself played the role, then the division of selves between omniscient playwright and impotent character is perhaps the ultimate irony at once demonstrating and challenging Gosson’s concern with players themselves:

If any goodnes were to bee learned at Playes it is likely that the Players them selues which committ euery sillable to memory shoulde profitte most, beecause that as euery man learneth so hee liueth; … but the dayly experie[n]ce of their behauiour, sheweth, that they reape no profit by the discipline them selues; how then can they put vs in any good hope to be instructed thereby when wee haue the sight of such lessons, but an houre or two as they study and practise euerie daye, yet are neuer the better.10

Gosson goes on to suggest that it was as a response to the deliberate mocking of public figures by players and playwrights in Rome that ‘the ouerlashing of players was so restrained’, and it is this shift from the idea of the audience as judge to the players and playwrights themselves as judges that prompts him to comment on non-extant scenes from the Three Ladies:

Whether this be the practise of Poets in these dayes you may perceiue by the drift of him that wrote the play termed the three Ladies of London, which in the Catastrophe maketh Loue and Conscience to be examined how thrie [ie their?] good ladishippes like of playes? Loue answeres that she detesteth them, because her guttes are tourned outward, and all her secret conueighaunce, is blazed with colours to the peoples eye. Conscience like a kindharted gentlewoman doth alow them.

In this pointe the Poet makes so much hast to his iorneyes end, that he throwes him selfe headlong downe the hill. For neither Loue disliked them, before he had maried her to Dissimulation, whose propertie is to say one thing and thinke another: nor Conscience allowed them, before he had spotted her with all abhomination, whose nature is to allowe that which is like her selfe, filthie, corrupt, spotted, and defiled.11

Gosson seems to think that Wilson has contradicted himself in allowing the ladies to give evidence after their corruption late in the play, and he indicates lost scenes earlier in the play by talking of the ladies’ opinions ‘before’ marriage to Dissimulation and ‘before’ the spotting. I think there is little difference between the two writers’ senses of the flawed judgment of the theatre. It would be the naïve (simple, single) and true Lady Love who permitted plays before her dissimulative marriage; if she denies approving of them once she has turned to lust, and if Gosson is right that marriage to Dissimulation would make her ‘say one thing and thinke another’, then she is still in favour of them. And that is because plays appeal to both the good and the bad: the good assume that plays teach virtue in spite (or because of) representing ill (the position of theatre defenders like Lodge and Heywood), while the corrupted know that they are useful tools of vice (which, according to Gosson, above, will be the primary temptation).

The defiled Ladies Love and Conscience in the extant text as we have it, however, are aware of their corruption and do not continue to lie during the trial scene; so Gosson may be over-reading to think rather cyclically of Love only as Dissimulation’s Lust and therefore helplessly lying. Love’s assessment that plays expose her to the world is surely the complaint of a virtuous Love speaking through the face of Lust (Wilson has spent the play showing the instability of either/or singular, simple roles; by this point, his play has proven the inevitability of combinations of both/and good and bad character traits.12 The ‘truth’ of Love’s new falsity is revealed through the play (thus the play is both cause and judge of her corruption) – handy dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief? Moreover, the simplicity of Love is ‘black and white’, a character that cannot feign (the play has its constant anxiety about characters that ‘can make black white, and white black again’ [3.139]). Love’s ‘guttes are tourned outward, and all her secret conueighaunce, is blazed with colours’ of her motley husband (2.0 sd, 2.7); simultaneously herself and someone else, she is the essence of dramatic play. The questions of the consciousness of one character when overlaid or corrupted by another and of ‘playing’ truth and simplicity (ie simultaneously putting it on show and demonstrating its unsustainability) seem deliberately played with when Wilson has Lucre double as Love for the judgment scene before Nemo: ‘Let [Lady] Lucre make ready for [Lady] Love quickly, and come with Diligence’ (17.62 sd). Not only is corrupted Love being condemned as Lust, but she literally shares the acting body of corrupting Lucre. A couple of years before Three Ladies was composed, Gosson wrote that ‘Trueth can neuer be Falsehods Visarde’.13 Wilson maintains a spark of moral hope: he shows that falsehood can be truth’s vizard, but he holds onto the belief that truth can speak through the mask.14

This whole study of singularity, doubling, truth, and doubt is mocked by the play’s problematic textual history, for, as we have seen, the text of the play itself is multiple: the 1584 Q1 is haunted by a ‘lost version’ of 1581 that featured scenes (or at least passages) that have not survived; and early performances are overshadowed by what we know from the printed text and later contexts. The earliest text of the play post-dates the start of the Queen’s company, which tempts us to draw the play into a later oeuvre of which it was not designed to be part. Gosson’s passages could have been improvised sections, in which case we do not have what Irene Mann called a fully ‘lost version’. But if Gosson’s text indicates ‘before’ and ‘after’ opinions of the Ladies, as it seems to, then it suggests scripted scenes; and if Wilson is demonstrating the judicial weakness of the theatre in these passages, could this be a reason for their excision when the play gets taken into the Queen’s Men’s repertoire and published in 1584? If Wilson and/or his fellows in the Queen’s Men concurred with Gosson’s reading of the contradictory and unstable theatrical judgments (ie judgment of theatre and judgment by theatre), then this would have been an apt excision from a play taken into a company that to some extent had to railroad truth and simplicity into a single, straighter set of tracks.


I do not feel that PAR or PbR procedures significantly inform, or cause me to rethink, my paper on Simplicity and singularity/duality. Nor did the intelligent and entertaining production of The Three Ladies of London shift my ideas about character, context, or space in that play. Peter Cockett’s workshop on options for playing ethnicity and identity demonstrated nicely the need to play out alternative character representations and to respond to the play on its own terms – ie, without our own twenty-first-century political identities or our assumptions about ‘good’ dramaturgy and acting getting in the way.

There are two essential ways in which studying performance (and in particular, rehearsal) processes as process and change (rather than as answer-giving method) contributes to my own research practice and teaching. The first is in my insistence on attempting to ‘see’ and ‘feel’ 1580s drama without the Marlovian-Shakespearean veneer. During the conference, about ninety percent of analogies and comparisons cited when trying to expand ideas about Three Ladies came from 1590s and Jacobean drama. But of course Wilson was unaware that a particular theatrical phenomenon that we call ‘mature’ Renaissance drama was just around the corner. When we play, configure, and perform moral, somatic, and comic post-medieval, pre-Shakespearean drama, we have to reframe our instant questions about whether we liked something or whether something ‘worked’ as we watched or participated (because those responses are certain to be coloured by Shakespeare and [post-]modern theatre). Instead, we could ask the question, what did audiences in 1575-1585 want or expect from theatrical entertainment? How did such production interact with the aesthetic and political world of that moment, and how might such interactions differ from those of the 1590s and beyond? For example, pre-Armada anti-Catholicism must be different from post-Armada (as pre- and post-9/11 discussions and representations of Islam are contrasted). Clearly expectations, satisfaction, and purposes of playing shifted significantly from this period to the decade that followed.

The second way in which even a simple awareness of practice-based research influences my work is in pedagogy – and my thinking here has been informed by the two keynote presentations. It is very difficult to get English literature students to read drama for more than plot and character notes. The more we can insist on the three-dimensionality and the contingency not just of performance, but also of text, the easier students will find it to understand, and decide for themselves, when they want to read text as static evidence for analysis, when they are reading text as a prompting script for movement, (re)action, and ongoing change – and, indeed, when the two endeavours cannot be discretely practiced. Instead of the questions, ‘what does this line mean?’ or ‘What is the character saying?’ I might ask students to discuss how a line forces off-line characters to move on stage? Such a question will inevitably require follow-up questions about character relationships, blocking, stage space, audience perspectives, etc.

Or to feed the students’ desire to understand persona or realistic development, I might ask them in small groups to consider the accumulation of ‘character’ by providing a short list of textual moments that have brought a character to the point of saying what she says in a specific scene. Again, rather than prompting a single answer (or limited set of answers) from which the discussion moves on and away, this assignment tends to lead to a web-like discussion that re-considers assumptions of past moments in the play and predicts performance options for the remainder of the play (whether in the context of the play’s imagined plot or a modern production). Such assignments ask for investigation, imagination, and the suggestion of performative hypotheses as to complement close reading, contextualization, and the suggestion of textual theses. Inspired by Rob Conkie’s pinboard and Sudoku papers, I am currently experimenting with group ‘performance transmission’ poster and presentation assignments in my drama and Shakespeare classes. If this project is successful (and I’m not yet sure what a ‘successful’ poster and presentation will look and feel like), I will attempt to share the results in a published review, assessment, and analysis piece.


[1] ‘Truth and simplicity’ becomes a mantra for Scott McMillin and Sally-Beth MacLean’s representation of the Queen’s Men’s ideological brief in The Queen’s Men and Their Plays (Cambridge, 1998).

[2] All references to The Three Ladies of London are to the edition in Three Renaissance Usury Plays, ed. Lloyd Edward Kermode (Manchester, 2009).

[3] Henry Medwall, Fulgens and Lucres, Christina M. Fitzgerald and John T. Sebastian (eds), The Broadview Anthology of Medieval Drama, (Peterborough, ON, 2013), ll 168-89, 171-2.

[4] William Shakespeare, King Lear, Stephen Greenblatt et al. (eds), The Norton Shakespeare, 2nd edn (New York, 2008) 1.1.129 (conflated text).

[5] Anonymous, The History of King Leir (Modern), Andrew Griffin (ed.), Queen’s Men Editions, 3.256-7 (accessed 12 February 2015).

[6] Stephen Gosson, Plays Confuted in Fiue Actions Prouing that they are Not to be Suffred in a Christian Common Weale (1582), C7r.

[7] Thomas Lodge, ‘Protogenes Can Know Apelles’ (untitled, 1579), C6r.

[8] Gosson, Plays Confuted C8v.

[9] Ibid, C8v-Dr. This list leaves only middle-aged men as appropriate judges; interesting, then, that Gosson himself was only twenty-five years old when he wrote it.

[10] Ibid, C7v-C8.

[11] Ibid, Dv-D2r.

[12] Conscience’s shift from disapproving of plays to allowing them once corrupted seems like a clearer condemnation of playing, but again (as far as we know from our extant version) Conscience is aware of her own corruption as she is questioned.

[13] Stephen Gosson, The Ephemerides of Phialo and a Short Apologie of the Schoole of Abuse (1579), M3r.

[14] Any critical reading of the voice that comes from this Love/Lust figure at the end of the play has to put it in the context of its understanding of the ontology that judge Nemo represents.