The Three Ladies of London
is an Elizabethan
era stage play, first published in 1584
. It is unusual and noteworthy as a philo-Semitic
response to the prevailing anti-Semitism
of Elizabethan drama
and the larger contemporaneous English society.
Date, authorship, publication
The 1584 quarto
was published by the bookseller Roger Warde; a second edition appeared in 1592
, published by John Danter. The title page of the first edition assigns the play to an "R. W." The consensus of modern scholarly and critical opinion identifies R. W. as the comic actor and playwright Robert Wilson
; strong commonalities among three plays, The Three Ladies of London
, it sequel The Three Lords and Three Ladies of London
), and The Cobbler's Prophecy
(printed 1594), indicate that all three dramas were written by the same person. Three Ladies
appears to date from the year 1581; an allusion to the (temporary) restoration of Peter's pence
by the Roman Catholic
in the winter of 1554–55, as having occurred 26 years earlier, favors that dating. The proclamation controlling usury
issued on May 19, 1581 would have made the play's subject topical at that time; Queen Elizabeth
's 1571 statute against usury was scheduled to expire in 1581, making the topic a matter of public interest.
In his Plays Confuted in Five Actions (1582), Stephen Gosson provided a description of the story of The Three Ladies of London that does not match the extant version of the play — perhaps indicating that Wilson revised the work between its premier and its first publication. The revision might have been provoked by negative reactions to the original — Gosson's, and the play London Against the Three Ladies (see below).
The limited survival of historical materials prevents certainty on matters of dramatic influence and interconnection; yet many critics have seen relationships among a set of Elizabethan plays on the subjects of Jews and usury in this historical era. In this view, The Three Ladies of London
may have been a response to the prior anonymous lost play The Jew
(1579 or earlier), which portrayed the conventional social attitude toward "the bloody minds of usurers. Three Ladies
is thought to have prompted a hostile response in another anonymous lost play, London Against the Three Ladies
(c. 1582). In turn, these plays influenced the important later plays on the subject, like Christopher Marlowe
's The Jew of Malta
. It has been argued that The Jew
may have influenced Shakespeare
's The Merchant of Venice
. Wilson's play itself has been perceived as, if not a source, then an "analogue" of Shakespeare's play.
Form and plot
In its form and structure, The Three Ladies of London
looks back to the medieval allegory
and the morality play
, with characters who are personifications
of abstract qualities rather than distinct individuals. The three ladies of the title are the Ladies Lucre, Love, and Conscience; the story shows Lady Lucre gaining control over Love and Conscience with the help of Dissimulation, Fraud, Simony, and Usury. Their regime of greed and deception penetrates the Baker's house, the Chandler's, Tanner's, and Weaver's houses too. Lady Lucre forces Lady Love into a marriage with Dissimulation; Lady Conscience protests vainly when Usury murders Hospitality ("Farewell, Lady Conscience; you shall have Hospitality in London nor England no more"). When Lady Conscience is reduced to selling brooms to survive, Lucre makes Conscience her keeper of a house of sexual assignation. Diligence, Simplicity, Sincerity, Tom Beggar, Peter Pleaseman the parson, and similar figures populate the play. In the final scene, the upright judge Nicholas Nemo ("Nemo" being Latin
for "No one") attempts to restore order to society, through harsh punishments of the three Ladies.
The Levantine Jewish moneylender Gerontius is a supporting character; but his portrayal as an honest businessman and a generous, good-natured, moral person is diametrically opposed to the standard image of the grasping and ruthless Jewish usurer. In contrast, it is the Christian Italian merchant Mercadorus, who borrows money from Gerontius but refuses to repay, who is the economic villain. Gerontius is shocked by Mercadorus's assertion that he would convert to Islam to avoid repayment.
Curiously, Wilson makes his personified Usury an Englishman of Jewish descent. The play's villains tend to be cosmopolitan foreigners: Dissimulation is a "Mongrel," half Italian and half Dutch, while Fraud is half French and half Scottish; Simony is a Roman.
The play is written in a very rough and uneven verse, a jumble of alexandrine and heptameter or fourteener meter:
- But senior Mercadorus tell me, did ye serve me well or no?
- That having gotten my money would seem the country to forego:
- You know I sent you two thousand ducats for three months' space,
- And ere the time came you got another thousand by flattery and your smooth face.
- So when the time came that I should have received my money,
- You were not to be found but was fled out of the country:
- Surely if we that be Jews should deal so one with another,
- We should not be trusted again of our own brother....
Clearly, the author was not a professional poet — which fits with Wilson's biography.
- Bullough, Geoffrey, ed. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. 8 Volumes, New York, Columbia University Press, 1957-75.
- Chambers, E. K. The Elizabethan Stage. 4 Volumes, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1923.
- Halliday, F. E. A Shakspeare Companion 1564–1964. Baltimore, Penguin, 1964.
- Mackenzie, William Roy. The English Moralities from the Point of View of Allegory. Boston, Ginn and Co., 1914.
- Mann, Irene. "A Lost Version of The Three Ladies of London." Papers of the Modern Language Association Vol. 59 No. 2 (June 1944), pp. 586-9.
- Palmer, Daryl W. "Merchants and Miscegenation: The Three Ladies of London, The Jew of Malta, and The Merchant of Venice." In: Race, Ethnicity, and Power in the Renaissance. Edited by Joyce Green MacDonald. Madison, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1997.
E-text of play