Contexts

Historical Contexts: Gender Politics

Performing Gender in Robert Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London

Claire Jowitt

Abstract: The ethical dilemma that the play attempts to resolve is the competition between the female characters (Lucre, Conscience, and Love) for mastery over the behaviour and morals of Englishmen, and by so doing it initiates a battle of the sexes. But the terms of the debate make it clear that there can only be one eventual winner: the men. The text evaluates women morally by their sexual continence, but simultaneously it demonstrates that women can achieve power only through promiscuity. The inevitable result is that the women cannot win the battle of the sexes set up as the play's central psycho-sexual dilemma. The play lays a trap: Conscience and Love participate in a competition where success on one level means certain failure on another. Performance options (how these roles are gendered) will inevitably shape the ways an audience experiences the ethical dilemma, and interprets its gender politics.

Citation: Jowitt, Claire, ‘Performing Gender in Robert Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London’, Performance as Research in Early English Theatre Studies: The Three Ladies of London in Context, http://threeladiesoflondon.mcmaster.ca/contexts/ClaireJowitt.htm.

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Ladies of London: Prostitution in the 1570s

Duncan Salkeld

Abstract: In the tenth scene of Robert Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London, Lady Lucre takes ink from ‘the box of all abomination’ and spots the face of Lady Conscience. The action is designed to indicate the moral contamination and depravity of London. The City has prostituted itself to fraudsters, usurers, and foreigners, and allowed itself to be tainted through sordid deals or shameful behaviour. This article draws on evidence of prostitution from the Governors’ Minute Books of Bridewell Hospital to gain glimpses into the lives of London women in the 1570s. Many were vulnerable to exploitation. A few, like Anne Levens, Elizabeth (‘Bess’) Kelsey, and Mary Dornelly, managed to make a living from prostitution until they were prosecuted. Others, like Jane Trosse, Rose Flower, and Black Luce of Clerkenwell, enjoyed a degree of fame, surfacing in literary and dramatic texts of the time. The article illustrates ways in which women either suffered alone, or worked to achieve a measure of solidarity with others despite the risks. In refusing to romanticize London, and the women drawn to it in hope of prosperity, Wilson’s play conceals an implied realism beneath its cover of allegory.

Citation: Salkeld, Duncan, ‘Ladies of London: Prostitution in the 1570s’, Performance as Research in Early English Theatre Studies: The Three Ladies of London in Context, http://threeladiesoflondon.mcmaster.ca/contexts/DuncanSalkeld.htm.

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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, http://threeladiesoflondon.mcmaster.ca/contexts/AndreaStevens.htm.

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