The Three Ladies of London and the Pre-History of City Comedy

Roderick McKeown

Many considerations of city comedy add an additional distracting modifier: Jacobean. The Three Ladies of London and its sequel, however, are quite manifestly proto-city comedies, drawing on themes and anxieties about city life explored in such Tudor plays as Jack Juggler and Hick Scorner. This brief paper will use Three Ladies of London, and its early engagement with the tropes and topoi of city comedy, to problematize assumptions about the origins and development of the genre.

This paper will worry at the temporal edges of the genre of city comedy in order to problematize claims for the originality of the genre when it comes to prominence in the late 1590s. Blame Brian Gibbons. His seminal work on Jacobean City Comedy: A Study of Satiric Plays by Jonson, Marston and Middleton so successfully staked out the boundaries, both temporal and formal, of a genre, that the phrase ‘city comedy’ is more often than not qualified by ‘Jacobean’. As recently as 2011, Jean E. Howard could write that ‘around about 1598 playwrights quite suddenly began to write plays that in a sustained way depicted aspects of contemporary London life’.1 Gibbons’s definitions persist so that it is easy to miss or misconstrue the relationship between that genre and works that would seem to be outliers. One such work is Robert Wilson’s Three Ladies of London. Its popularity in the 1580s, generating both a play written in riposte and a sequel,2 has ensured that it has remained a fixture in the study, if not in the theatre. Scholarly commentary on Three Ladies tends to read the play as Lloyd Kermode does, a work that ‘pushes into several modes that later become dramatic categorizations in their own right: city comedy, merchant play, prodigal narrative’.3 Given the limitations of our record of extant early plays, claims to originality or innovation can be difficult to prove. I intend to argue that perhaps the play is less innovative than Kermode and others credit it. Rather, the importance of The Three Ladies of London derives in part from demonstrating the extent to which those ‘novel’ genres hearken back to past works. City comedy, although modern critics type it as Jacobean, continues tropes and themes that were well established in early Tudor drama.

There are obvious caveats. The first is that The Three Ladies of London, for all its topical allusions to daily London life, and for all its abstract moralizing about the nature of the city, lacks the granular detail of urban life depicted in its seventeenth-century descendants. Three Ladies is a morality play, and not a subtle one at that; its characters remain allegorical, lacking the psychological complexity of even the stock types of prodigal plays. Moreover, I am not going to try to argue that city comedies did not catch on in a really big way around the turn of the seventeenth century; given the fourfold increase in London’s population from 55,000 to 200,000 between 1550 and 1600,4 and given the arguable shift in theatrical practice from provincial touring to London-based permanent theatres,5 it would be surprising if playwrights had not adjusted their repertoire. I do contend, though, that Howard’s ‘suddenly’ is perhaps not fully warranted (Howard herself hedges slightly). In making this argument, I partly follow Theodore Leinwand’s lead, as he argues that Middleton, as early as A Mad World, My Masters,6 rather than deploying the standard tropes and types of city comedy for laughs, subverts them, showing how generic types act as de-humanizing heuristics.7 Which begs the question: when did these types and tropes become so well established that they can be undermined? Subversion, after all, requires ‘expectation: principles, patterns, and conventions [that have] become so well known that a form’s contents, trajectory, and outcome can be anticipated’8 before those expectations can be frustrated. If The Three Ladies of London merely looks forward to this sophistication, we might expect to find it deploying the same tropes Middleton would later interrogate; instead, we find that interrogation well under way.

In so brief a paper, my choice of works to which I compare the play will be somewhat arbitrary, and it will not be possible to discuss more than one or two salient features of what we think of as city comedies, features that are amply present in The Three Ladies of London. The play features an urban setting, socially heterogeneous characters, thematic engagement with money and social mobility, trickery and disguise, and moral ambivalence or ambiguity.9 In order to maintain focus, I would like to hone in on the principal characteristics of the city that are required for the action of the play – why, in other words, is this Three Ladies of London and not, say, Bristol? I have referred already to the explosion of London’s population, but the city had long been England’s pre-eminent centre of political power, culture, and commerce. The London of the play is a magnet for migrants: a thriving port city that affords opportunity, or so the four gallants and Simplicity imagine, for economic activity and social reinvention. Crucially, they imagine the city as a place of anonymity, a space where action will be unfettered by the pressures of a pre-existing social network. Their expectations are frustrated. The city is, instead, a large and complex social network, the connections of which make anonymity almost impossible.

The London Road

After a brief introductory scene, establishing the threat Lucre poses to Love and Conscience, the action of the play proper begins on the road to London. While the first scene introduces the Ladies, it is static, establishing the current state of the city, in terms reduced to the abstractions of morality – where does Lucre not threaten Conscience and Love, after all? Simplicity’s decision, along with that of the four gallant vices, to move to London sets the plot in motion. Despite their different moral valences, their motivations are the same. Davy Dissimulation hopes to ‘get entertainment of one of the three ladies, like an honest man’ (2.19, emphasis added) while Simplicity has heard ‘that there is preferment in London to have’ (20). Their friendly meeting is disrupted by the arrival of Fraud, whom Dissimulation hails by name, a name that even Simplicity must recognize as ‘a deceitful knave’ (41). What follows is striking, and worth noting in terms of reversing the expected antithesis between country and city. The two trickster figures would both rather not disclose to honest souls, their future victims, their actual identities. Dissimulation, though, cannot escape the recognition of the audience, as they are too well acquainted with him: ‘why make you it so strange that ever you knew me, / Seeing so often I range throughout every degree’ (15-16). His patter with the audience has a double effect, and those two effects are in tension. As a vice figure in a morality play, Dissimulation must be a universal figure, and logically must be known in one form or other to every member of his audience. As the title page advertises, this play is intended as ‘A Perfect Patterne for All Estates’ and has a lesson for everyone.

But the dramaturgy is telling. The play presents us with a vice, then our everyman, and then another vice. Although all three characters are seeking out the opportunities of London, it is Dissimulation who discourses with the urban audience, and implicitly his statement of familiarity is an indictment of an audience that, by 1584, would more and more have been composed of Londoners visiting playhouses and less and less rural audiences catching the show on tour. The whole point of having a vice figure confide in an audience is to drive home that audience’s complicity in vicious behaviour. Despite the requirements of the morality genre that vice be universal, the play draws on the age-old trope of the wicked city and the pure country. Three Ladies thus sets up an implicit binary between urban vice and rural virtue, between the city’s cynicism and the country’s core values.

Title page of Wilson’s Three Ladies of London (1584).
Fig. 1 Title page of Wilson’s Three Ladies of London (1584).

Fig. 1 Title page of Wilson’s Three Ladies of London (1584).

But the play barely suggests that opposition before it systematically dismantles it. Dissimulation and Simplicity, after all, are explicitly giving up their country trades, as farmer and miller respectively, to enter into the cash-based service economy of the city. Where we might expect Simplicity, especially given his name, to be a bumpkin, destined to be gulled by the vices of London, he and the vices turn out to be quite different entirely. As I have mentioned, even Simplicity can recognize Fraud when he is named. Not only that, but he also catalogues a list of Fraud’s past schemes, schemes which are very much crimes of the country. He identifies Fraud as having conned the guests at an inn in Gravesend (43) (then comfortably outside what we would now call metropolitan London) who catch on to his crimes, and see him out of town. His next scam is in Hertfordshire, where we do not learn of the outcome, but since Fraud is on the road to London, and even Simplicity knows not to trust an ostler from Ware, we have to assume that the jig is up. Wilson has, very subtly, set his audience up to expect rural characters such as Simplicity, who will be ‘past, present, or future victims of the city powdering’.10 Not only is the binary disrupted, but it is even inverted. While I will discuss the origins of the vice-figures in more detail below, they seem at first to come from the country.11 Although Wilson’s morality is an explicit critique of London, he hardly figures it as inherently vicious.12 Rather, the city is a blank space, to be populated and characterized by those who arrive to inhabit it; every successive generation of immigrants in turn affects the mores of earlier arrivals, and the character of the city as a whole.

Implicit in Simplicity’s recognition of Fraud, moreover, and (finally) of Dissimulation, is the suggestion that country folk, who well know the antics of their neighbours, are not likely to be taken in by Fraud’s tricks, or at least not for very long; the country is no seat of virtue, and its inhabitants are practiced at detecting shrewd practice. City dwellers, by contrast, do not enjoy the security of knowing who their neighbours, often recent arrivals, are, and they are thus far more likely to be taken in by a smooth-talking stranger. Far from suggesting that the audience should worry about rural innocents and urban predators, Wilson implies that we should rather fear for the naïve Londoners, unaware that a rapacious rural horde is descending on them. In a play intended to critique the moral standards of the capital, that is an unusual opening gambit.

Let us pause for a moment on the progress to London, and consider the implications of the fairly sophisticated invocation and disruption of binaries. This kind of sophistication argues strongly against a teleological reading of city comedy as developing under the pressures of a single historical moment; on the contrary, despite the relatively sparse record of drama we do have from London’s earlier theatrical history, that record is sufficient to show any number of aspects of the genre to be well-established from quite early. It is important not to be seduced by the heuristic of a genre per se developing in a smooth pattern from the simple, abstracted, presentational early Elizabethan theatre to complex, concrete, representational Jacobean theatre; Wilson had managed this particular sophistication in the 1580s. Despite the explosion of city comedy in the late 1590s, it is less a development of a whole new view of London, so much as the exploration and popularization of tropes that were sufficiently well established in the early 1580s for their inversion to generate dramatic friction.

The Anonymity of Urban Living

The supposed rapacity of city dwellers that The Three Ladies of London so deftly problematizes is the logical consequence of another feature of urban life which city comedy showcases, that of the easy anonymity of urban life. Dissimulation expects to be able to dissimulate because he will be able to present himself to fresh gulls; Fraud’s success in his criminal ventures is dependent either on his moving from place to place, seeking out new victims, or in the steady influx of travellers who do not yet know him. Both are attracted by the prospect of a city which will give them the opportunity to operate unrecognized. Anonymity is an enduring concept of London. Laxton fails to recognize Moll as a woman in The Roaring Girl, despite her notoriety, and a mask is enough to make Mistress Overdo unrecognizable to Justice Overdo in Bartholomew Fair. The idea, though, was hardly new. I would like to take the example13 of the interlude Jack Juggler, dating from Mary Tudor’s reign,14 to show an extreme presentation of the idea, and then examine how Three Ladies presents and immediately undermines it. While I will not argue that this undermining is original to Wilson, I will note that it reappears in writing about urban life in the 1590s and 1600s. In The Comedy of Errors, for instance, Antipholus of Syracuse expects to be able to lose himself like a drop of water, and is instead assailed by any number of people who claim to know him; the effect on his Ephesian twin is even more dramatic, as he is embedded in the complex network of social relations that catches at his brother’s cloak, but cannot hold him. Ephesus, like Cheers, or 1590s London, is where everybody knows your name. Similarly, while Andrew Lethe escapes recognition by his mother as Andrew Gruel, he is at risk of exposure simply because, sooner or later, everyone comes to London.

Jack Juggler is generally held to have been composed during the reign of Mary Tudor,15 and, three decades before Wilson’s play, is very determinedly a play about London, and offers an extreme dramatization of the fluidity of identity in urban life that apparently seemed plausible to an early modern audience. The anti-hero, Jack, is able not only deceive the hapless Jenkin Careaway such that Jenkin does not recognize him; he is able to so assail Jenkin’s sense of identity that he cannot even recognize himself. He announces his intentions to the audience:

This garments – cape and all other geare
That now you see apon me here –
I have doon oon all like unto his
For the nons, and my purpose is
For to make Jenkine bylive if I can
That he is not himselfe but another man!
For except he hath better loke than he had
He woll cum hyther starke staryng mad. (174-81).

Most modern audiences would have difficulty suspending their disbelief in Jack's conceiving a plot like this, much less successfully pulling it off – and it would be a mistake to condescend to a Tudor audience by supposing that they would mistake this for kitchen-sink realism. But the interlude’s reliance on its audience accepting such a prank as even marginally plausible suggests that the idea of the city as corroding or overwhelming an individual’s sense of self was a concept that had some currency. The dramaturgy of the piece, though, suggests that Jack benefits to an unusual degree from his surroundings; this is London, after all, and anything can happen.

It sounds facetious, put like that, but the anonymous author, through Jack, is careful to establish several points. The first is that Jack Juggler is not merely a play set in London, but moreover a play about London, as he describes Jenkin as being ‘asfolishe a knave withal / As any is now within London Wall’ (116-17). It is difficult to believe that an even marginally competent playwright (and whoever wrote Jack Juggler was more than marginally competent) spending so much effort in so brief a play to establish a location unless it means something.16 References to the city wall, to Smithfield (135), the royal court and London gallants (268), and Bedlam (975) are more than just local colour: they are essential for establishing the setting, and justifying the action.17 Jack’s plan depends on two stereotypical aspects of urban life. The first is its dissipation, for the plan would not succeed if Jenkin were not ‘stark staring mad’ with drink and frustration. As Jack outlines to the audience, Jenkin has gambled away his money, and had more than a drop or two to drink. In London, he can hardly go down the street without encountering another group of gamblers or drinkers. In his enjoyment of the afternoon, he quickly forgets himself, or at least his duties as a servant.18 Jack’s plan is to use this dissolution by pushing it one step further. The other aspect of London important to this play is the anonymity afforded by its London setting, and the fact that ‘nother of them [neither Jenkin nor his master Boungrace] both knoweth me verie well’ (123). If Jenkin recognized Jack he would not be so easily deceived, and his inability to recognize himself is merely an extension of his inability to recognize another. As Jack’s description of Jenkin’s antics shows, London is a place where one can steal fruit in one street, and by the simple expedient of running down a few lanes to another part of town, escape recognition and censure. Jenkin would not dare steal fruit from someone who might complain to Master Boungrace, yet he does so with impunity not far from his own house (164), making a clean getaway by running down ‘another lane as fast as he maye’ (167). Whatever the reality of Tudor London, the playwright is able to count on an audience finding this escape just plausible enough to suspend disbelief for a thousand lines or so.19 The departure from the source material in Plautus’s Apmitryo is telling. In Plautus’s retelling of the conception of Hercules, Mercury must delay a returning slave named Sosia, while Jupiter has his way with the mistress of the household. The extreme confusion of the classical model is plausible because Mercury, as a god, can magically disguise himself as the bewildered slave. Divine powers are not in evidence in Jack Juggler; in their place we have alcohol and a certain sense of London’s exceptionality.

Challenging the Accepted Narrative

This extremity of anonymity is what Wilson first invokes and then subverts in Three Ladies of London, as Dissimulation, unlike Jack, cannot even pull the wool over Simplicity’s eyes for very long. The very extremity of the concept as dramatized in Jack Juggler argues for its power as a cultural concept, as does its persistence in the comedies of Middleton, Jonson, and Dekker. The power of this concept is as central to my thesis as my argument that Wilson is subverting it in the early 1580s. In challenging the accepted narrative of the emergence of city comedy and its originality, I have no wish to throw out the generic baby with the teleological bathwater. The scope of this paper is fairly modest: I suggest that the supposed innovations of city comedy are perhaps not as innovative as they might at first seem. The structure of my argument demands modesty, as I do not have a sufficiently large sample to argue that Wilson himself is an innovator. One of the values of The Three Ladies of London is the extent to which the play demonstrates that the standard tropes of city comedy were well enough established by 1582 to be worth subverting.


Participating in a conference on Performance as Research was a richly rewarding experience, but one whose effect is hard to measure. I’m going to refer to the limitations of such a conference, but I hope these comments will not be taken as critical of the organizers: the conference was brilliantly run, and some of its components convinced me of the value of Performance as Research, while highlighting the inadequacy of conventional methods of knowledge transfer (eg, conferences) for capturing, transmitting, and applying the results of such research.

For me, the single most rewarding, and yet frustrating, part of the conference was the session in which the talented young cast, under the direction of Peter Cockett, worked through a scene from the play several times, altering their performances to reflect ideas that came and went in the rehearsal process. The session continued with academics from the audience making suggestions, which would then be incorporated into the next iteration of the scene and then discussed. Changes included body language, blocking, vocal performance, and costuming. For instance, did Gerontus wear a fake hooked nose? A simple yarmulke or an explicitly orientalized costume?

The results were fascinating, but they drove home the point that our watching the performance on the first night of the conference was at best the thin end of the wedge. What had I learned from seeing the play (twice in fact: once in Toronto, and then at the conference)? I did gain some insight into the extent to which performers’ interactions with the audience (Simplicity offering to sing, Conscience selling her brooms, the beggars’ song) interpellate those audience members as Londoners, complicit in the moral decline charted by the play. That’s nothing to sneeze at. The brief workshop with the actors, however, was much more exciting, as we got to review a range of differences, changing variable after variable. The effect, though, was curiously distanced: many of our suggestions had been tried and rejected by the production. It was like listening to the summary of a much longer conversation.

From this, I drew two conclusions. The first is that what interested me was more rehearsal as research, or improvisation as research than strictly Performance as Research. To consider plays in performance has always been part of the repertoire of literary criticism of drama, and performance reviews, director’s notes, and essays by actors have long been a part of my own writing. But to work through the many options available, to discuss incorporating local decisions from scene to scene into the overall vision of the production – those are critical interventions that depend on participation in rehearsal, rather than observation of performance.

The second point derives from the first. The conclusions of rehearsal as research cannot be adequately captured or transmitted by conventional means: essays don’t quite capture the full detail of discussion. This fits well with Rob Conkie’s presentation on non-traditional formats for presenting the results of performance-based criticism. But this process presents a whole new set of challenges. Early career scholars, trying to secure academic positions, may be reluctant to produce scholarship that will be difficult for their tenure committees to evaluate. If rehearsal as research is to achieve its full potential, then we will need to develop new means of presenting results, as well as new standards for peer-review and the assessment of the impact of such projects.

At present, my contribution to this development will be limited. I will continue writing performance reviews, and will seek opportunities to participate in an advisory capacity in productions of early modern plays. Of course, I would either have to choose plays to work on depending on the production schedules of local companies, or take on an active role in putting on performances; my ability to do the second will be sharply circumscribed by the necessity for an early career academic to produce traditional research as well. There are several possible solutions to this, including greater attention to community theatre as a venue for rehearsal-based research, increased advocacy from senior performance scholars for re-evaluating impact measurement of non-conventional research, and more frequent collaboration between established scholars and their junior colleagues to produce work in novel formats.

I have volunteered with the organizers of this conference to offer one specific contribution. Sometime in 2016, I will be canvassing contributions from conference participants who had not regularly incorporated performance into their research, to see whether or not their research practices have changed. It’s important to incorporate the responses of participants whose approaches have not changed, or, like me, whose approaches can only change very slightly in the short-term. I appreciate the irony of proposing a relatively conventional report as a means of assessing the impact of non-conventional research, especially given the importance I have just stressed of developing and adopting novel approaches to recording and transmitting the results of performance (or, my preference, rehearsal) as research.


[1] Jean E. Howard, ‘London and the Early Modern Stage’, Lawrence Manley (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of London (Cambridge and London, 2011), 34.

[2] Lloyd Edward Kermode (ed.), Three Renaissance Usury Plays (Manchester and New York, 2009) 28. All references to the text of Three Ladies of London are from Kermode’s edition.

[3] Lloyd Edward Kermode, ‘Money, Gender, and Conscience in Robert Wilson’s Three Ladies of London’, Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 52.2 (2012), 270.

[4] Howard, ‘London and the Early Modern Stage’, 35.

[5] Lawrence Manley, ‘Why Did London Inns Function as Theaters?’, The Huntington Quarterly 71.1, (2008), 183.

[6] Theodore B. Leinwand, The City Staged: Jacobean Comedy 1603-13 (Madison and London, 1986), 106.

[7] Ibid, 14.

[8] Marissa Greenberg, ‘Crossing from Scaffold to Stage: Execution Processions and Generic Conventions in The Comedy of Errors and Measure for Measure’, Peter Cohen (ed.), Shakespeare and Historical Formalism (Aldershot, 2007), 129.

[9] Wendy Griswold, Renaissance Revivals: City Comedy and Revenge Tragedy in the London Theatre 1576-1980 (Chicago and London, 1986), 16-24.

[10] Gail Kern Paster, The Idea of the City in the Age of Shakespeare (Athens GA, 1985), 176.

[11] Although there is no space in this paper to offer it, a comparison between the origins of vice figures in Three Ladies of London and those in Hick Scorner (ca 1514) illuminates the intractable difficulty in presenting a critique of the city while maintaining the universality of the figures in a morality play.

[12] Simplicity’s assertion in his song that ‘The country hath no peer / where Conscience comes not once a year’ (8.172-3) seems naïve; Conscience has, after all, just left the stage when he begins to sing, and if she is compromised, her fall is the subject of the play.

[13] Richard Hardin refers in passing to this interlude as ‘a primitive city comedy involving London middle-class manners’. Richard Hardin, ‘England’s Amphitruo before Dryden: the Varied Pleasures of Plautus’ Template’, Studies in Philology 109.1 (2012), 49.

[14] All references to the text of Jack Juggler are to William Tydeman, (ed.), Four Tudor Comedies (Harmondsworth, 1984).

[15] Peter Thomson, ‘Sound City Jests and Country Pretty Jests: Jack Juggler and Gammer Gurton’s Needle’, Peter Happé and Wim Hüsken (eds), Interludes and Early Modern Society: Studies in Gender, Power and Theatricality (Amsterdam and New York, 2007), 315.

[16] Douglas Bruster, too, argues that ‘an urban location is essential to the confusion of identity in the play’ but is more concerned with how ‘the proximity of characters and the conflict afforded by city crowding’ drives the plot. I am more concerned with the logistics or plausibility of the plot. Bruster, Drama and the Market in the Age of Shakespeare (Cambridge, 1992), 71.

[17] Note, too, that these references supply ‘the granular detail of urban life’ I admit is lacking in Three Ladies of London; again, the supposed originality of city comedy lies in combining existing tropes and techniques, rather than inventing them out of whole cloth.

[18] Contrast this with Simplicity’s suggestion that he works harder in London than the country: ‘when I was a miller, Will did grind the wheat while I did play’ (8.157).

[19] In private correspondence, Anne Lancashire has suggested that this aspect of city life needs to be examined in light of the wards into which the city was divided: ‘you might not be well known out of your own ward’ (emphasis hers).