Contexts

Historical Contexts: Love & Prostitution

Courtesan, Merchant, Zany: Italian Knockoffs in The Three Ladies of London

Pamela Allen Brown

Abstract: Wilson's Three Ladies of London offered its first audiences entertaining stereotypes of 'naturally' vicious southerners who corrupt the vulnerable English with lechery, greed, papistry, and love of foreign luxuries. The only word-mangling clown in the play is the Italian merchant Mercadorus, whose total sexual abasement to Lady Lucre renders him absurd and effeminized. His double-dealings with the Jewish moneylender Gerontus have drawn a great deal of critical attention, but this essay will examine the Italian sex comedy that Wilson uses to leaven his far more solemn-minded plot. Wilson deploys a typical commedia dell'arte character system. In some arte plots a Venetian courtesan toys with, tricks, and robs the lovesick merchant Pantalone, whose low Venetian dialect render his attempts at love-talk and eloquence laughable. Mercadorus's vows to 'Madonna' Lucre bear a distinct echo of Pantalone's romantic and linguistic excesses, a sample of which reached print in the comic letters of the clown-author Andrew Calmo.

Citation: Brown, Pamela Allen, ‘Courtesan, Merchant, Zany: Italian Knockoffs 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/PamelaBrown.htm.

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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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Playing the Whore: Performing and Contextualizing Prostitution in
The Three Ladies of London

Edel Semple

Abstract: This essay explores the literary and social contexts of prostitution in The Three Ladies of London. Drawing on a diverse range of texts from the sixteenth century (including sermons, moral treatises, educational tracts, and drama), I investigate how Wilson represents prostitution not only as a moral evil, but also as a particularly social and economic failing. By the conclusion of Three Ladies, each of the female characters is identified as sexually transgressive; but how exactly is Lucre identifiable as a whore, why does Conscience turn to brothel-keeping, and how does the newly-married Love degenerate into Lust? Ultimately, I suggest that Wilson drew on and helped to establish a series of interlinked social, linguistic, material, and performative markers to delineate and stage the whore and that Three Ladies thus contributed to the development of the whore as a figure of dramatic interest.

Citation: Semple, Edel, ‘Playing the Whore: Performing and Contextualizing Prostitution 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/EdelSemple.htm.

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