The Monster in the Corner: Plague and The Three Ladies of London

Matthew Steggle

This essay asks: how does The Three Ladies of London relate to the plague, the monster in the corner of the early modern playhouse? Given the association between playhouse and plague, it is not surprising that plague is never directly staged in early modern commercial theatre. Ideas about the plague, however, chime with specific details of Wilson’s play, which participates in two public debates of the early 1580s, about immigrants in London and about public theatre, to which the plague is also integral. Furthermore, and hitherto little explored, plague is bound up in what one might call the fabric of the play. Thus while the pathotext of plague may include, as one of its many layers, the ideas of specifically sexual infection associated with other Elizabethan diseases such as syphilis, these concerns are of distant secondary importance compared to the play's engagement with the arbitrary, terrifying, and rapidly fatal plague.

There shall not be left a man against the wall to pisse,
And those that plagues consume not, shalbe destroyed with fire. (D1v )1

In 1578-9, two years before the Three Ladies was staged, an outbreak of plague had wrought havoc in London. Early modern accounts blamed it on a number of social abuses – personal immorality, financial inequality, immigration and globalization. But contemporary observers also blamed theatre itself. This essay asks: how does The Three Ladies of London relate to the plague, the monster in the corner of the early modern playhouse?

Plague as Pathotext

For all that scholars seek to reproduce and approximate early modern staging practice, and to imagine the mental horizon of the early audiences of The Three Ladies of London around the time of its first staging in or near 1581, the plague is one condition of the early modern Zeitgeist which, thank God, we find particularly difficult even to imagine.2 The first audiences of this play lived with a disease which could, and did, break out apparently at random in their city and kill thousands of them at once. Older audience members would have lived through the terrible plague of 1563, in which between a quarter and a third of all Londoners died, and all of the audience would remember the bad outbreak in 1578-9, two years before this play, which killed around 8000 Londoners. The same plague outbreak of 1578-9 devastated a number of England's regional towns, including the second city, Norwich, where one in three of all the city's residents died.3 Plague continued to flicker in London through 1579, 1580, and 1581. Theatres were closed, by order, through the summer of 1580, and again through the summer of 1581. In 1581 the plague appeared to be growing in strength again, and over 900 plague deaths are recorded for that year.4 The putative first audiences of the play in 1581 knew they were living through a new plague outbreak, and they did not know its magnitude.

How do we best think about early modern plague writing? While it would seem attractive first to identify the medical qualities of the disease, and then to evaluate texts as a response to that medical phenomenon, in practice things are more difficult than that approach allows. It remains far from clear whether all of the disease in the great Elizabethan epidemics was actually yersinia pestis, and, besides, early modern conceptualizations of those epidemics are at an absolutely fundamental level bound up with forms of politics and religion.5 Jonathan Gil Harris has explored these paradoxes in connection with syphilis, and proposes the useful term ‘pathotext’:

I shall insist that early modern syphilis, even in its most ‘scientific’ accounts, is a persistent effect of textuality … In its early modern literary and medical narratives alike, the disease is what I call a 'pathotext': an inscription rather than re-presentation of sickness that incarnates the Latin etymological root of ‘text’ – texere, to weave, twine together, or plait. Syphilis, I shall argue, is not a simple pathological fact outside of and prior to language (even if that is one of the principal effects produced by the language used to speak about it), but a textual palimpsest that splices together many strands of discourse.6
Title-page wood-cut from Thomas Dekker, A Rod for Runaways (1625).
Fig. 1 Title-page wood-cut from Thomas Dekker, A Rod for Runaways (1625).

Fig. 1 Title-page wood-cut from Thomas Dekker, A Rod for Runaways (1625).

Harris's idea is applicable as well, I would argue, to the related discourse of the plague. If early modern plague can be thought of as a multi-layered textual object, then one of its most obvious layers is a fundamentally moral understanding of health and sickness which it shares with all other early modern diseases. As Kevin Siena writes, ‘in early modern Europe all diseases were interpreted in providential terms; outward signs of illness stood for internal moral failure’.7 But the pathotext of the plague also had some more specific features which distinguish it from, for instance, the pathotext of syphilis, focused around ideas of a slow-acting, venereally transmitted, personally agonizing disease. Plague, by contrast, is inscribed as a swift, mysteriously transmitted, city-killer.8 As a visual shorthand for it, one could consider the title-page wood-cut from the later plague pamphlet A Rod for Runaways (1625), which shows London plunged, through God's displeasure, into an apocalyptic state. Dead bodies lie in the fields around the city. On the right-hand side of this woodcut, a group of citizens attempt to leave town, as the wealthy routinely did during plague outbreaks, only to find that they are turned back by hostile country folk fearing that they carry the infection with them. In the pathotext of the plague, another recurring element is that no geographical escape is possible.

Plague Debates and the Play

Given the association between playhouse and plague, it is not surprising that plague is never directly staged in early modern commercial theatre. (One partial exception is The Alchemist, described by Patrick Phillips as ‘the most overt depiction of plague-time London in all of English drama’.)9 The Three Ladies of London, though, comes closer than most, since it is a play very clearly participating in public debates linked to the plague.

For instance, in a letter written in 1580 Nicholas Woodroffe, lord mayor of London, offered his opinion on measures that could be taken against the plague. He argued that the plague was caused by economic and social factors which carried a double peril, ‘both naturarly in spreding the infection and otherwise in drawing Gods wrath and plage vpon vs’. He identified in particular the ‘multitudes of strangers & foren Artificers’ competing with British craftsmen and driving them out of business; more generally ‘the nomber of strangers in and about London, whereof many be of no church’; and the ‘erecting of smale tenemts and turning of great howses into smale habitations within the liberties of London by forens [ie foreigners]’. For the lord mayor, plague was caused principally by foreigners (and by ‘haunting of plays’) and should be tackled by taking measures against foreigners.10

These complaints about foreigners obviously chime with the specific details of The Three Ladies of London in the following year. Moral infection, in the play, comes over on a boat from Italy, as Simony is explicitly said to have done. English craftsmen, such as the Artificer seen early in the play, suffer from immigrant competition. Mercatore’s advice to Lucre even replicates the Lord Mayor's complaint about foreigners moving into tenements:

let dem to straunger dat are content,
To dwell in a little roome, and pay mush rent:
For you know da Frenchmans and Flemings in dis country be many,
So dat they make shift to be ten houses in one very gladly. (C3v )11

This play complains about the very aspects of globalization which, the Lord Mayor believes, are fanning contemporary plague. The pathotext of the plague contains not just moral but also social and economic elements, and these are reinscribed in the play.

Secondly, we know that the play once included a scene defending the value of public theatre. The Lord Mayor was not the only one who believed that theatre promoted plague both directly, as a site of potential infection, and also indirectly by offending God. In Thomas White's famous syllogism from 1577, ‘the cause of plagues is sinne, if you looke to it well: and the cause of sinne are playes: therefore the cause of plagues are playes’.12 Stephen Gosson, in the antitheatrical pamphlet Plays Confuted (1582), also spends considerable time on the moral connection between plays and plague. But Gosson's pamphlet additionally alludes to the fact that The Three Ladies of London once contained a robust defence of playing:

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 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.13

Gosson does not say that this lost scene mentioned plague, and indeed one might not expect it to, but his pamphlet does give further evidence that the whole landscape of the antitheatrical debates of the early 1580s was conditioned by contemporary suspicion of theatre’s role in the promotion of plague. Our play, in an early theatrical performance, explicitly participated in those theatrical debates.14

Plague in the Fabric of the Play

At a general level, then, this play participates in two public debates of the early 1580s, about immigrants in London and about public theatre, to both of which the plague is also integral. Furthermore, and hitherto little explored, is the way that plague is bound up in what one might call the fabric of the play.

The word itself jangles through the play, used too often and in two interestingly discordant metaphorical registers. ‘Plague’ makes its first appearance in the very opening scene of the play, where Fame promises Love and Conscience that Lucre’s lovers will get their just desserts: ‘Good ladies rest content, and you no doubt shall see / them plagud with painfull punishment for such their crueltie’ (A2v). In the context of a London, and a theatre, so sensitized to plague, this statement is hardly a dead metaphor. The play returns to this metaphor when Conscience warns Fraud and the others, ‘Thinke you not that God will plague your wicked practises?’ (A4v), and again when she warns Lucre, ‘But I feare the plague of God on thy head it will bring’ (D2r). A fourth and clinching use of this metaphor occurs in the final judgment scene, when the judge sentences Love to follow Lucre to hell, and suffer there the endless torments which constitute ‘a plague for thine offence’ (F3v). In this strand of the play’s plague imagery, the disease is an orderly and direct manifestation of God’s justice against sinners.

But listen to Simplicity’s use of plague language. Simplicity is excited by the money to be made out of dissembling: ‘If we can speake faire and semble, we shall be plaguie rich’ (C2v). Later he is amazed by Dissimulation’s wealth: ‘I thinke thou art growne plaguy rich with thy dissembling trade’ (C4v), and he later adds, ‘me thinkes thou art a plaguie rich knaue’ (D2v). The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) identifies this term as a colloquial form of ‘plaguily’, a word coined in the late-sixteenth century and itself colloquial when used vaguely, as here, as an intensifier.15 Simplicity’s speech, then, presents a somewhat comic and disorderly sense of plaguiness. From a sufficiently distant moral perspective, one may say that this use of ‘plaguy’ is harmonized with the other plague imagery by the implication that plague will ultimately punish dishonest wealth, but it also and more vividly demonstrates the extent to which the plague permeates the imagination of the Everyman figure Simplicity.

Furthermore, the master-trope of plague writing flavours, I would argue, the action of the play with the idea that no place is safe. For instance, Hospitality knows that Usury is coming to murder him, but is unable to find refuge: ‘I cannot rest in any place, but he hunts and followes me euery where / That I know no place to abide, I liue so much in feare’ (D1r). Those around him are helpless to prevent his death, even though it happens right in front of them. Having Usury murder Hospitality makes allegorical sense, but he could do so in various ways: that the play should present him as an inescapable, relentlessly hunting enemy chimes with the pathotext of the plague. The motif of ‘no place to abide’ rears its head again, when Lucre disowns both Love and Conscience. Simplicity’s song dwells on the fact that the two Ladies are now welcome neither in the city nor in the country:

Simplicitie sings, and sperience doth proue,
No biding in London for Conscience and Loue.

The Country hath no peare.
  Where Conscience comes not once a yeare
And Loue so welcome to euery towne,
  As winde that blowes the houses downe.
Sing downe adowne, downe, downe, downe.
Simplicitie sings it, and sperience doth proue,
No dwelling in London, no biding in London for Conscience and Loue. (D1v)

Like the townsfolk in the Dekker woodcut, Love and Conscience are caught between city and country, and left with nowhere to go.

The consequence is infection. Conscience eventually gives in to Lady Lucre, who paints her face with ink from a small box, the ‘boxe of all abhomination’ (E1r).16 This scene is one of the densest of the play in terms of layers of meaning. Denise Walen has drawn attention to its explicitly homoerotic nature; Jonathan Gil Harris and Stephen O’Connor have written about it in terms of iconographical and biblical traditions of spottedness.17 And while the primary referent of the allegory here is obviously to money corrupting one’s moral compass, the scene also presents the spots in terms which invite comparison to plague-sores, the visible marks of the infection of the plague. Thereafter, one of the play’s favourite epithets is ‘cankered’, as in Lucre’s ‘cankered coyne’ – moral corruption expressed in a metaphor of canker, or physical disfigurement (F3v). Conscience’s spotted face is an acting-out of what is already present in the language of the play.

Certainly, the judge sees Conscience's spots in terms of a contagious disease: ‘Declare that cause Conscience at large, how thou comest so spotted, / Whereby many by thee hath beene greatly infected’ (F2v). And the consequence of infection is fatal, since the three Ladies are arrested and brought before the judge, and the judge hands down punishments which are, allegorically at least, immediate death sentences. First Lady Lucre and then Lady Love are sent straight to Hell. Conscience is punished as follows: ‘carrie her to prison, / there to remaine vntill the day of generall session’ (F3v).18 She is remanded in the grave until the Day of Judgment. The allegorical narrative of this play is one of infection and death.

(The fact that this play ends in mass death is surprisingly little commented on.19 Scholars generally read the ending in terms of the play's sequel, The Three Lords and Three Ladies of London, which presents the Ladies as having been merely imprisoned at the end of the preceding play: but taken on its own, the ending of The Three Ladies of London indicates the deaths of all three eponymous characters.)

And this is ultimately where I find myself frustrated with Jonathan Gil Harris’s learned and provocative essay on ‘How to “Read” “Early Modern” “Syphilis” in The Three Ladies of London’. In an effort to avoid a mere ‘logocentric process of translation’, Harris's essay ducks the challenge of precisely historicizing this play in the early 1580s, talking instead about the textual features of disease writing in general through time:

Far from entailing period-specific cultural redactions of a knowable disease, then, literary treatments of the pox can help the formalist reader illuminate the pathotextuality and diachronic historicity of ‘early modern syphilis’ in all its inscriptions.20

This reasoning is fair enough, and Harris turns up a wealth of relevant material and suggestive connections. As a result of its totalizing perspective, however, the essay misses the period-specific, and disease-specific, features of this play, features which I would argue to be important and indeed central to it. This play is ‘about’ the contemporary plague, the unspeakable monster in the corner of the early modern theatre. The pathotext of plague may include, as one of its many layers, the ideas of specifically sexual infection associated with syphilis, but this concern seems to me of distant secondary importance compared to the play's engagement with the arbitrary, terrifying, and rapidly fatal plague. The play’s list of contemporary social problems maps closely onto that drawn up by the lord mayor to describe the sources of plague. It dramatizes a process of infection and ends with multiple simultaneous deaths. Three Ladies’s fascination with the idea of being unable to escape by flight is a classic feature of plague writing. Performed in the aftermath of a major plague outbreak, with another outbreak brewing, this play’s imagination is dominated by the disease it names seven times within itself.


[1] Robert Wilson, The pedlers prophecie (London: William Barley, 1595). All pre-1700 books are cited from their facsimiles on Early English Books Online (EEBO), and all references to websites are implicitly to those websites as they stood on 24 July 2014. This essay was written before the current Ebola outbreak.

[2] Critics generally accept the play's date to be 1581: see Lloyd Edward Kermode, ‘Introduction’, Lloyd Edward Kermode (ed.), Three Renaissance Usury Plays (Manchester, 2009).

[3] George Childs Kohn, ‘London Plague, 1563’ and ‘London plague, 1578’, Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence, 3rd edn (New York, 2007), cited from the database Modern World History Online

[4] For detail, see E.K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, 4 vols (Oxford, 1923), 4.347.

[5] Particularly helpful in this respect is Margaret Healy, ‘Discourses of the plague in early modern London’ in J.A.I. Champion (ed.), Epidemic Disease in London (London, 1993): 19-34; see also the classic study of Paul Slack, The Impact of Plague in Tudor and Stuart England (London, 1985); on the question of whether it was all yersinia pestis, see Graham Twigg, ‘Plague in London: spatial and temporal aspects of mortality’ in Champion (ed.), Epidemic Disease in London, 1-18. Both Twigg and Healy are cited from the online versions at

[6] Jonathan Gil Harris, ‘[Po]X Marks the Spot: How to “Read” “Early Modern” “Syphilis” in The Three Ladies of London’, Kevin Siena (ed.), Sins of the Flesh: Responses to Sexually Transmitted Disease in Renaissance Europe (Toronto, 2005), 110.

[7] Kevin Siena, ‘Introduction’ Sins of the Flesh, 7.

[8] Harris’s essay slips towards the conclusion that, in early modern disease writing, the disease is always the same: ‘It does not matter if this condition [venereal disease] is explicitly named leprosy, plague, or pox ... the afflictions were interchangeable’ (122). As will become apparent, I strongly disagree with this proposition.

[9] Patrick Phillips, ‘“You Need Not Fear the House”: The Absence of Plague in The Alchemist’, Ben Jonson Journal 13 (2006), 43-62.

[10] E.K. Chambers and W.W. Greg (eds), ‘Dramatic Records of the City of London. The Remembrancia’, Malone Society Collections 1 (1907), 48, 49.

[11] Robert Wilson, The Three ladies of London (London, 1592). The play is cited throughout from this edition.

[12] Chambers, Elizabethan Stage, 4.187.

[13] Stephen Gosson, Playes confuted in fiue actions (London, 1582), D2r.

[14] This version is discussed by Irene Mann, ‘A Lost Version of the Three Ladies of London’, Publications of the Modern Language Association 59 (1944): 586-9.

[15] plaguey a.2; plaguily, adv., Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

[16] For the idea of plague emerging from a box, see the story of Pandora's box, and also Elyot's infectious ‘coffer’ discussed by Healy, ‘Discourses of the Plague’.

[17] Steven Connor, ‘Maculate Conceptions’, Textile: The Journal of Cloth and Culture 1 (2003): 1–11, cited from the online version at; Harris, ‘[Po]X Marks the Spot’; Denise A. Walen, ‘Constructions of Female Homoerotics in Early Modern Drama’, Theatre Journal 54 (2002): 411-30.

[18] For arrest as a metaphor for mortality, see Hamlet's ‘fell sergeant, Death’.

[19] Kermode, for instance, observes the problem but is reluctant to accept that they are death sentences, arguing that death may just be a metaphor for incarceration: see ‘The Playwright's Prophecy: Robert Wilson's The Three Ladies of London and the “alienation” of the English’, Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England 11 (1999), 60-87, esp. 78.

[20] Harris, ‘[Po]X Marks the Spot’, 112.