Robert Wilson’s Three Ladies of London and Three Lords and Three Ladies of London: A Comparison

Bryan Nakawaki and Paul Whitfield White

Robert Wilson’s Three Ladies of London and Three Lords and Three Ladies of London are often jointly identified as belonging to the moral genre of drama. Such classification overlooks the fact that the plays are notably different from each other – perhaps more so than is typical of any other set of ‘paired’ plays in early modern England. This essay examines several major differences between the two plays – including their depictions of characters and the genres of entertainment on which they draw – and considers what they may reveal about the differing goals Wilson had in mind when authoring each play. Along the way, the essay also considers the possible influence of a number of literary works on Wilson’s London sequel, including John Lyly’s Gallathea and Sir Philip Sidney’s Lady of May and Arcadia.

The Three Ladies of London and The Three Lords and Three Ladies of London were written about seven years apart. That seems like an unusually long time lapse between the composition of ‘paired’ plays in early modern England. Based on internal topical references, we can confidently date the former to 1581 and the latter to 1588.1 Comparatively speaking, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine I and II were composed and staged within a one-to-two year period in 1587-8. It also appears that Robert Wilson did not plan in advance for the sequel (as Marlowe almost certainly did). At the conclusion of Three Ladies, Lucre and Love are sentenced to eternal suffering in hell while Conscience’s fate is yet to be determined. Perhaps the ‘reply’ by a rival playwright (London Against the Three Ladies), along with the original play’s popularity, prompted Wilson, who had left Leicester’s Men to join the Queen’s Men in 1583, to write the sequel and stage the two plays as a pairing in the late 1580s and early 1590s. The republication of Three Ladies in 1592 (eight years after the original quarto of 1584) and a first edition of Three Lords in 1590 suggest that both plays were popular.2 The lapse in time before Wilson wrote the sequel, however, explains in part why the two related plays, while sharing some common features, are in fact very different from each other. This difference is not typically recognized in criticism (Ian Munro’s recent essay notwithstanding).3 Both plays have been treated as mid-Elizabethan derivatives of the moral play. However, as we argue, Wilson departs from the moral interlude tradition in the main plotline and characters of Three Lords, which are firmly rooted in chivalric romance and related court spectacle, including the ceremonial and festivities occasioned by the Accession Day Tilts.

Let’s first identify the points of commonality. Both plays are, obviously, set in London (with the exception of the Turkish courtroom scene of the Gerontus/Mercadorus subplot in Three Ladies) and both plays are highly topical in representing London’s civic life, notably its economic woes. The allegorical characters both plays have in common illustrate this currency. The three ladies are central to both plays’ plotlines; they personify important moral ideas but they are clearly gendered female, and as such are recognizable gentlewomen of the city and likely the royal court. The clown, Simplicity, returns in Three Lords as an impoverished Englishman victimized by urban trickery; he is also, like the jesting comics of Shakespeare, a singer, not to mention the play’s most prominent voice of truth, even if he is vulnerable to the same temptations of other Londoners. Also back are the four ‘knaves’ who specialize in financial vice and institutional corruption (Usury, Fraud, Dissimulation, and Simony), explicitly described as ‘gallants’ in Three Lords’ Dramatis Personae. Judge Nemo returns, as do an assortment of minor figures. Both plays deploy striking visual allegory and both feature music and songs appealing to elite and popular audiences alike.

On a practical level, however, some differences are particularly striking. Even though both plays feature numerous characters – Three Ladies has twenty-seven, Three Lords features thirty-four – the number of actors required is considerably different. Three Ladies, which was staged first by Leicester’s Men, can be performed with as few as seven actors on stage at once, aided by the doubling of Lady Love. In the published script of Three Lords, as McMillin and Maclean show, no fewer than fifteen actors are required for performance.4 We conjecture that Three Ladies, in both of its early published editions, was scripted for a company that toured with the play, whereas Three Lords was written for London performance, and probably for court staging, given its more elaborate staging, costume demands, and occasion of performance, to which we will return shortly. We have discovered in preparing our own 2015 production of Three Lords (now on YouTube) that the cast could be reduced by doubling; for example, we doubled the three pages with the three ladies without the need to tamper greatly with the script.

The company affiliation, at time of composition, reveals further differences when the plays are compared within their immediate historical contexts. The earl of Leicester, along with Dudley-family affiliate and fellow privy counselor Thomas Wilson (no known relation to the playwright), were at the forefront of the anti-usury campaign during the first half of Elizabeth’s reign.5 Growing up with the ‘commonwealth’ Protestantism of King Edward’s reign when Leicester’s father, the duke of Northumberland, ruled as lord protector, Leicester and Wilson, via the press and pulpit, inveighed against the monetary policies pushed through parliament by Lord Thomas Gresham (founder of the Royal Exchange in 1567) and other powerful London merchants. Three Ladies clearly responds to the statute against usury of 1571, which officially sanctioned moneylending at ten percent interest, and its debate in parliament precisely a decade later, in 1581, gave an urgent topicality to Wilson’s polemical treatment of the dangers of moneylending for individual spirituality and the nation’s political health. A series of debates and statutes in parliament relating to simony during the 1570s explains Wilson’s searing attack on simoniacal abuses in the play, even implicating the queen herself (via Lucre), the fount of all ecclesiastical patronage as head of the Church of England.6

Three Ladies’ daring polemic edge and satiric tone are largely absent from the sequel Three Lords. To be sure, Usury, explicitly identified as Jewish born (taking over Gerontus’s identity from the earlier play) is, in the sensational ending to Three Lords, branded on the arm with ‘a little x standing in the midst of a great C’ to highlight the state’s limitation on lending to ten percent interest, but the play is ambivalent about such policy, as appears in an exchange between Conscience and Usury.7 Moreover, while late in the action the foreign-born vices, dressed as sailors, resolve to leave England for Spain to practise their wiles, Usury, now an Englishman, is patriotic, refusing the invitation to join them, and thereby possibly winning some sympathy from the audience. As it turns out Fraud does not leave the country either, but it is Fraud, not Usury or Dissimulation, who is the featured villain in Three Lords, fleecing poor Simplicity of the little money he has in exchange for some worthless trinkets. The other vice figures, Simony and Dissimulation, who are quite prominent in Three Ladies, are given very few lines of dialogue and are largely peripheral to the action in the sequel.

The tone of Three Lords is largely celebratory, not satiric. As Roy Strong and others have shown, the climate in England in the fall of 1588 was festive across England, due to the failure of the Spanish Armada in its planned invasion of England during the summer months.8 The sequel’s three lords, Policy, Pomp, and Pleasure, channel that spirit of triumph and providential favour through their humiliation of the Spanish lords on stage in the ceremonial combat of Three Lords’ penultimate scene, mimicking the chivalric customs of the Accession Day Tilts, with its hanging up of shields to show a challenge to rival knights, heraldic speeches explaining aristocratic lineage and valour, and the clashing of lances in the manner of jousting. As Muriel Bradbrook suggests, Three Lords may have been part of the festivities of Accession week, 1588, when on a special occasion several days following November 17, the queen visited the city of London to witness entertainments and to deliver a speech which Bradbrook observes compares to the speech of the personified London at the beginning of Three Lords.9

In Three Ladies, the main action centers on Lucre and her serving men (the vices) who drive Conscience into poverty and Love into a soulless marriage with Dissimulation. In Three Lords, the ladies lose what little individuality they had in the original play and perform mainly as an ensemble, with the exception of Conscience’s participation in a harmless ruse with Judge Nemo. The source of their allegorical narrative in Three Lords is not the morality play but rather the chivalric romance and its ceremonial offshoots in courtly entertainments. As David Kathman shows, by 1585 Wilson was residing at the royal court, where he would have witnessed first-hand (and may have been involved in organizing) quasi-dramatic court ceremonials and plays such as those by John Lyly (more on Lyly below). And as a member of Leicester’s circle, he may well have been familiar in manuscript form with Philip Sidney’s Lady of May, Arcadia, and other writings with their depictions of ritualized combat, singing contests, and courtly love romances, all of which appear in Three Lords.10 By the mid-1590s, literary depictions of chivalry would become notably popular, featured in works as diverse as Spenser’s Faerie Queene, the anonymously written Clyomon and Clamydes, and others, and military manuals such as William Segar’s The Book of Honor and Arms (1590) further revived the medieval chivalric code. The heightened interest in chivalry is closely related to a wide range of writings, rites, customs, and entertainments centring around the legends and ‘history’ of King Arthur, including the 1588 court production of The Misfortunes of Arthur.11 In Three Lords, then, Wilson capitalizes on an emerging fad to help achieve the celebratory goal of his work. Three Lords picks up the action where Three Ladies leaves off with the play’s heroines in prison. The three lords, like Arthurian knights, pledge their honour to free them from captivity and will challenge any rival for their hand in marriage. Once they win their beloveds’ hearts, the lords accept their favours when they enter battle against the Spanish enemy. With the Spanish vanquished and rival provincial lords from Lincoln turned away in their effort to claim the ladies for themselves, the play concludes with the marriage of Policy to Lucre, Pomp to Love, and Pleasure to Conscience. Also featured in the main action are three pages serving the three lords: Wit, Wealth, and Will. Wilson has taken his cue from the plays of John Lyly here, and in a court production may have drawn boy actors from the Chapel Royal or Paul’s Boys to play these roles. The pages’ verbal sparring and clever mimicking of their elders is highly reminiscent of Lyly’s plays, and it is noteworthy that Gallathea was staged at the royal court in the Christmas season of 1587, perhaps eight months prior to the composition of Three Lords. Moreover, it is probably not merely coincidental that Lyly’s Midas, another post-Armada play dated 1588, and Three Lords and Three Ladies both feature a singing contest. Indeed Wilson, who takes a hard like on Spain in comparison to Lyly’s apparently conciliatory one may well be parodying his fellow playwright.12

If the vice characters are reduced in significance, Simplicity’s part is central to Wilson’s dramatic design in both plays. In Three Lords he appears as a ballad-seller, and on stage his market stall is the hub of much of the play’s action. We tend to think that the Elizabethan playhouse stage as completely free of furnishings, but Simplicity’s stall is real – shields and images are hung or tacked to it, and Simplicity’s relationship to it anticipates the traders and their stalls on stage in Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair some two decades later. As in Three Ladies, Simplicity dazzles the audience with his verbal wit, physical comedy, and singing. He is both inside and beyond the fictional world of the play, and nowhere is this more effectively illustrated than in the singing contest he has with Wit, the page of Policy. After both sing, Wit turns to his fellow pages for the winning decision, but Simplicity invites the audience to judge who was better, and he wins, as indicated by Will’s disappointment. Although impoverished, Simplicity is appreciated for his decency and charm in both Wilson plays. Critics speculate that the role probably went to Tarlton when Wilson transferred Three Ladies to the Queen’s Men, and he may have written the part in the sequel with Tarlton in mind when the famous clown died, probably very unexpectedly, in September 1588.13 Wilson himself, of course, was ranked with Tarlton as a great comic actor, and very likely he took the role when Three Lords was first staged with the Queen’s Men. About a quarter of the way through the play, the action comes almost to a complete halt to offer a touching commemoration of Tarlton. It begins when Simplicity tries to sell a single-sheet portrait of Tarlton to the pages who apparently view it in Simplicity’s market stall. Just before this event, Simplicity sings a few lines from ‘Peggy and Willy’, a ballad mourning Tarlton’s death. Actor Will Kempe, considered Tarlton’s successor as an accomplished song-and-dance man, recalls seeing a play featuring Tarlton’s portrait and relates the story that spectators thought Tarlton was still alive.14

In the preceding discussion, we have tried to show the value of comparing The Three Ladies of London with its sequel. In addition to recognizing their pronounced differences, we believe the analysis leads to a greater appreciation of their respective achievements. Wilson was at the height of his powers as a playwright with a strong social vision when he wrote Three Ladies. The play offers a passionate critique of governing class patronage and economic malfeasance impacting the social and spiritual lives of Londoners and of the nation as a whole. The play explores these problems through a range of interwoven plotlines and individual episodes, the main one centring on the three ladies, but notable subordinate ones focusing on the clerics Sincerity and Peter Pleaseman and the foreign merchants Gerontius and Mercadorus. Wilson’s unique representation of Jewish otherness in Three Ladies has been widely recognized, but his penetrating exposé of simony as principally a problem of secular patronage is nowhere repeated in the drama of the period. Where Three Ladies is uncompromisingly polemical in purpose, satirical in tone, and deeply pessimistic in its social commentary, its sequel is a very different play. Wilson clearly wanted to take advantage of the popularity and appeal of his earlier characters, not the least of which is Simplicity, whose charm, vulnerability, and humanity were likely enhanced on stage by Tarlton’s comic impersonation in Three Ladies. Wilson’s skill in staging powerful visual emblems, as in Lucre’s spotting of Conscience with the ink of abomination,15 and in Love’s two-faced mask a few scenes later,16 is even more apparent in Three Lords, in which he draws on the rich iconographic tradition of court spectacle. Three Lords is quite clearly an occasional play in the sense that its writing seems to have been prompted by England’s great sense of triumph in the wake of the Spanish Armada debacle and the need to honor Tarlton, the greatest celebrity of the time. Like Marlowe’s Tamburlaine plays, staged at the Rose in the summers of 1587 and 1588, it carries a pronounced martial theme and showcases the heraldic symbolism of England’s governing class in a scaled-down dramatized version of the Accession Day Tilts. Its prominent use of blank verse (however inelegant) may owe a debt to the success of Marlowe’s plays on stage.


The central point of our paper was that The Three Ladies of London is a very different play from its sequel, The Three Lords and Three Ladies of London. That contention was reaffirmed in watching the Purdue and McMaster performances of both plays last June at the Festival of Early Drama and the PAR conference respectively. The meetings at the PAR conference further affirmed our original conclusions. However, attending the performances and conference meetings has compelled us to make a few small but significant revisions to the text of our essay. The original essay stated that Three Ladies consists of one major plotline centring on the ladies and two subordinate narratives: the Sincerity/Simony sequence and the Mercadorus/Gerontus subplot. That now seems highly reductive, especially after witnessing the McMaster performance of Three Ladies. Wilson, while a good story-teller, is much more interested in structuring stage actions to support his polemical message, and indeed the play is teeming with minor characters and scenes only marginally connected to any of the aforementioned plot lines. In fact it is stretching it to see the scenes involving Sincerity as constituting a plot line. Three Ladies follows earlier moral plays in writing a series of dramatic episodes driven more by theme than by story-line (see All for Money, for example).

A second revision resulted from talking to Lyly scholar, Andy Kesson, at the conference, who pointed out that the singing contest in Three Lords and Three Ladies also appears as a trope in Lyly’s Midas. In preparation for our digital edition of Three Lords for Queen’s Men Editions, we want to pursue that matter further, since Midas is also regarded as a post-Spanish Armada play dated in the fall of 1588, and the relationship between the two plays is worth exploring, especially given that Lyly and Wilson project different politico-religious attitudes towards the Elizabethan Spanish problem.

Perhaps more importantly, this post-conference and post-performance reflection enables us to extend our comparison to the actual performances – not just the texts and imagined dramatic productions. We have the added perspective of being performers in one of the plays. (You can watch our filmed Three Lords and Three Ladies of London on YouTube). What follows are some points of interest.

What is clear is that while both the McMaster and Purdue productions attempted to reconstruct the staging practices of the 1580s, both recognized that accurately mounting a fully ‘Elizabethan performance’ is not only impossible but undesirable. First of all, as Leslie Thomson observed at the conference, so much about staging practices and even audience expectations and reactions from the period has been lost. But not everything has been lost, and with Wilson’s two plays offering among the richest stage directions of any drama during the period, we can learn much more than some skeptics of ‘original practices’ in the strictest sense of that term. The play texts, alongside cultural artifacts (eg, eyewitness accounts, extant musical notation, pictorial evidence of emblems, clothing that may have been costumes, etc.) do provide us with significant clues to staging, and those provide material for performance as historical research. Besides the remarkable vitality and visual richness that scholars for centuries have overlooked, there are many discoveries we made about Three Lords, one particularly notable one concerning the shields. Modelled almost certainly on the ‘pasteboard’ shields used by knights in the Accession Day Tilts, they are on stage through most of the play’s action, creating a strong martial presence and associating the Lords with the great counsellor knights of the royal court. These emblematic props are also an incredibly effective means of conveying Wilson’s ideological message to his audience, and they furthermore clearly differentiate the values of the English lords from their Spanish counterparts in the play’s climactic scene. One of the Spanish shields, the bloody one with the baby pierced through with a sword, was so shocking to us in rehearsal as a gift which Lord Policy hands to his beloved lady Love that we first contemplated toning it down in appearance. In electing to keep it, however, we discovered that its macabre aspects generated a mixture of horror and laughter from spectators. This same strangeness of tone and audience response applies to the concluding scenes in which Usury is scorched with a branding iron on stage and the plan to burn Fraud alive tied to a post.

Both productions recognized that Wilson’s drama must engage a modern audience. And indeed, that goal is in line with a less ‘pure’ or a broader sense of the term ‘original practices’ (if we can still use that term without postmodernism’s pejorative sense of ‘original’). If we as producers do not entertain and enlighten our audience, then we are missing an essential feature of Elizabethan stage practice. Entertaining the audience may involve cutting the script (a sound early modern practice); and in our case that’s what happened, although PLS in Toronto at first imposed a 90-minute limitation on the performance. Engaging audiences today, however, may arise directly from the script itself. Wilson’s critique of moral issues resonates with today’s spectators: greed, acquisitiveness, poverty, and institutional corruption are as prevalent now as they were in Elizabethan London. At the same time, it should be an aim of Performance as Research to reconstruct as faithfully as possible the cultural otherness of Elizabethan drama and culture, including the ugly, darker side of Wilson’s views and values. As conference papers and the McMaster performance demonstrated, any ‘modernist’ sense of tolerance for the Jewish other, or compassion for the poor, or insight into corrupt patronage in Three Ladies is offset by its maniacal xenophobia, sexism, and religious bigotry. The Three Ladies production made all these issues relevant and compelling to a western audience of 2015 by combining Elizabethan dramaturgy with present-day stage methods, such as using a racially diverse cast, naturalistic acting (selectively) and modern dress and props (with some characters). There are of course risks in trying to reconstruct the unpleasant side of Elizabethan culture. In Three Lords, the jingoistic rhetoric, contempt for Spaniards and Catholicism, and treatment of Usury as a Jew offended some in our Purdue and Toronto audiences, as the questionnaires distributed after each performance proved. A no less difficult challenge for producers today is to reconstruct historical aspects of performance that contemporary comment and play texts themselves suggest were important for audiences but for which there is only tantalizing evidence. Music is a case in point. Both productions took some liberties in this regard but did so in a way that was historically responsible. In our Three Lords, for example, we deemed that John Dowland’s songs about Richard Tarlton were appropriate in a play that commemorating the great comic, and used instruments Tarlton played (pipe and tabor), along with the lute, Dowland’s instrument; we now know that Lyly’s singing contest in Midas included lute accompaniment.

Two further observations. The conference proceedings and the productions convince us that there is not one, uniform way in which an Elizabathan play was staged throughout the period. Peter Cockett’s workshop on the trial sequence involving Mercadorus and Gerontus strongly suggests that multiplicity of performance choices (for more on this idea, see White’s coda in his paper on Simony). In determining how we wanted Usury to be performed in Three Lords, we also experimented with both naturalistic and more stereotypical takes on the character. Just as the McMaster Three Ladies ultimately opted for a more naturalistic approach to acting Gerontus, we followed a similar approach in acting Usury, the English-born son of Jewish parents in Three Lords. Usury generates an ambivalent response from the audience: he is a ‘Jewish moneylender’ who signifies greed, but unlike the other vices he is patriotic and, historically, may have elicited some sympathy in his last two speeches on stage, as he did with our modern audiences at Purdue and Toronto). And it is on the same basis that Simony might have appeared as a bishop, and not a ‘gallant’ (see White’s coda).

Our last point corroborates what several scholars at the PAR conference observed: dramatic productions are collaborative efforts; creativity is drawn from various artists working together. That was certainly our experience. Our director, Richard Sullivan Lee, guided the ship, but our dramaturge and actor (the characters London and Pure Zeal), Anne Fliotsos, and the two of us (one as a producer and musician; the other as assistant to the producers and the actor playing Usury, Nemo, and Tyranny) worked as a team. We drew on the unique combination of qualities and experiences that the actors and other members of the production team brought to Three Lords and Three Ladies of London. Another production team, with a different combination of participants and collaborators, would have mounted a notably different production. And that, again, demonstrates to me that in the early modern period, productions of the same play, separated by time and place, may have rendered extraordinary difference in performances using the same script.


[1] Scholars generally recognize the reference to Peter Pence dating back to Queen Mary’s reign as confirming the 1581 date of Three Ladies. Three Lords’ tribute to the recently deceased Tarlton suggests a date very shortly after the actor’s death in September 1588.

[2] For a discussion of the Elizabethan publication history of both plays, see Kirk Melnikoff’s posted paper, ‘From the Talbot to Duck Lane: The Early Publication History of Robert Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London’.

[3] Ian Munro, ‘Page Wit and Puppet-like Wealth: Orality and Print in Three Lords and Three Ladies of London’, Helen Ostovich, Holger Schott Syme and Andrew Griffin (eds), Locating the Queen’s Men, 1583-1603 (Farnham, 2009), 109-22.

[4] Scott McMillin and Sally-Beth MacLean, The Queen’s Men and Their Plays (Cambridge, 1998), 189.

[5] See Paul Whitfield White, Theatre and Reformation (Cambridge, 1993) for a discussion of Leicester’s patronage. For the play’s critique of Elizabethan economic polity, see Lloyd Edward Kermode, ‘Usury on the London Stage: Robert Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London’, in Ostovich, Syme and Griffin, Locating the Queen’s Men, 1583-1603, 159-70.

[6] See White’s posted paper, ‘Wilson, Tarlton, and the Scourge of Simony’.

[7] For Conscience and Usury’s exchange regarding the pros and cons of usury, see Robert Wilson, The Three Lords and Three Ladies of London, ed. H.S.D. Mithal, in his An Edition of Robert Wilson’s Three Ladies of London and Three Lords and Three Ladies of London (New York, 1988), 71, ll 876-87.

[8] Roy Strong, The Cult of Elizabeth (Hampshire, 1977), 120; Alan Young, Tudor and Jacobean Tournaments (London, 1987), 162-3; M.C. Bradbrook, The Rise of the Common Player (London, 1962), 184.

[9] Bradbrook, Rise of the Common Player, 184.

[10] David Kathman, ‘Robert Wilson’, The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford and New York, 2004-), doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/29682. We would like to thank our colleague, Charles Ross, for the possible Sidney connection.

[11] The chivalric revival in Elizabethan England is widely documented and discussed. See particularly Richard McCoy, The Rites of Knighthood: The Literature and Politics of Elizabethan Chivalry (Berkeley, 1989); for Arthurian revels and drama, see Elisabeth Michelsson, Appropriating King Arthur: The Arthurian Legend in English Drama and Entertainments 1485-1625 (Philadelphia, 1999); and Paul Whitfield White, ‘The Admiral’s Lost Arthurian Plays’, David McInnis and Matthew Steggle (eds), Lost Plays in Shakespeare’s England (London 2014), 148-61.

[12] For the Apollo and Pan singing contest in Midas and for Lyly’s treatment of Spain, see Michael Pincombe, The Plays of John Lyly: Eros and Eliza (Manchester 1996), chapter 5. We would like to thank Andy Kesson for calling our attention to the singing contest in Midas.

[13] See White, ‘Wilson, Tarleton, and the Scourge of Simony’, for references to Tarlton in the role of Simplicity; Bradbrook is the main source, but there are others (eg, Heinemann).

[14] The Kempe reference is discussed in Richard Levin, ‘Tarlton’s Picture on the Elizabethan Stage’, Notes and Queries 47 (2000), 435-6.

[15] See Andrea Stevens, ‘The Spotting of Lady Conscience in The Three Ladies of London’, posted on this website.

[16] See Helen Ostovich, ‘Doubling Love’, posted on this website.