[WILSON, Robert, the elder (d.1600)]. A Right excellent and famous Comedy, called The Three Ladies of London. London: Printed by John Danter, 1592.
4o (183 x 137 mm). Title printed within woodcut lace border. (B1.4 with tears in upper margins discreetly repaired crossing text.) Modern blue morocco, gilt-lettered on front cover and spine, edges gilt, by Riviere (some light rubbing to rear joint). Provenance: Lord Mostyn (sold Sotheby's, 20 March 1919, lot 352); John L. Clawson (bookplate; sold Anderson Galleries, 21 May 1926, lot 897).
Second edition, EXCEEDINGLY SCARCE, with F4 blank. Only four copies of the 1584 first edition are recorded, and of this second edition only six have been traced: British Museum (Dyson-Garrick, imperfect); Coleorton Hall, Huntington (Bridgewater bought at Churchill sale, 28 February 1815); Harvard (Corser-Addington-White); Folger (Devonshire-Huntington-Jones); Pforzheimer (Mostyn, lot 351); and the present (second Mostyn copy). This is the only known copy in private hands.
Recent scholarship ascribes authorship based on stylistic evidence to Robert Wilson, though for many years it was attributed to Robert Wilmot. A reference to Peter's pence suggests that the play was written in 1581. The first edition of 1584 differs somewhat from this second edition. In both editions, the text is subscribed "Paul Bucke," the name of a player and probably the copyist employed by the company which first produced the piece.
Wilson was one of the actors who joined the Earl of Leicester's company when it was founded in 1574. He quickly gained a reputation as a comic actor, nearly equal to Richard Tarlton. Several contemporaries referred to Wilson's gifts, notably Gabriel Harvey who, writing to Spenser in 1579, complained that his friends were thrusting him "on the stage to make tryall of his extemporall faculty and to play Wylson's or Tarleton's parte" (Harvey, Works). Wilson was chosen to be one of twelve actors who formed Queen Elizabeth's company in 1583 and he remained with the company until 1588. John Stow remarked that among the twelve players of the Queen's original company the most effective were the 'two rare men' Wilson and Tarlton. Stow credited Wilson with a "quick, delicate, refined, extemporal wit" (Stow, Chronicle). After he left the Queen's company, Wilson seems to have joined Lord Strange's company of actors, which subsequently passed to the patronage of the lord chamberlain, and was joined by Shakespeare. Frances Meres recalled in 1598 that the triumphs of Tarlton were now being rivalled by "our witty Wilson, who for learning and extemporal wit in this faculty is without compare or compeer; as to his great and eternal commendations, he manifested in his challenge at the Swan, on the Bank Side."
Wilson can be assigned authorship with some confidence to four extant plays. All are loosely constructed moralities in which personified vices and virtues play the leading parts. The Three Ladies of London is Wilson's earliest play, opening with a scene between Fame, Love and Conscience. Greg 85b; Pforzheimer 1076; STC 25785.