Historical Contexts: Cosmetics & the Box of Abominations

The Spotting of Lady Conscience in The Three Ladies of London

Andrea Stevens

Abstract: The allegorical figure of ‘Usury’ brings on stage a ‘paynted boxe of incke’ out of which Lady ‘Lucre’ paints the face of Lady ‘Conscience’, possibly in full view of the audience. The ‘painted box’ likely contained black face paint: by 1581, besmirching the face with black paint was a common method for signaling ugliness and moral corruption. In scripting this scenario from beauty to blackness, Wilson was invoking a complex performance tradition, from the symbolic use of blackface in late medieval drama, to the similarly symbolic use of blackness in Tudor interludes and morality plays, and finally to the use of blackface paint to signify racial difference in court masques and popular plays. This paper considers the dramatic analogues for this scene (in performances that both pre- and post-date The Three Ladies of London) before addressing how Wilson exploits the real-world religious, cultural, and medical associations of face paints to reinforce his allegorical narrative of the fall of Conscience.

Citation: Stevens, Andrea, ‘The Spotting of Lady Conscience in The Three Ladies of London’, Performance as Research in Early English Theatre Studies: The Three Ladies of London in Context,

Download PDF
View Online