Stage jig

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By the close of the sixteenth century the term 'jig' (variously spelt 'jigg', 'jigge', 'gig', 'gigg', 'gigge', 'gigue', 'jigue', 'jeg', 'jegg')[1] had come to refer simultaneously to 'a song', 'a dance' (see 'jig'), and 'a piece of music' (see 'gigue'),as well as taking on a specialist meaning in the early modern playhouse to refer to a relatively short drama sung to popular tunes of the day, and featuring episodes of dance, stage fighting, cross-dressing and disguisings, asides, masks, and elements of (what today would be called) 'pantomime'. These short comic dramas are often referred to by scholars and historians as a 'stage jig', 'dramatic jig' or, popularly, 'Elizabethan Jig' -- after the title of Charles Read Baskervill's seminal monograph on the subject, The Elizabethan Jig and Related Song Drama, published in 1929—to mark the dramatic form from its use as simply 'song' or 'dance'.[2]


In London’s public playhouses in the last decade of the 16th century and through into the 17th century, chances are that after the main play you might have witnessed one or more performers enter onto the stage to perform an after-piece or 'jig', and a number of references to theatre practices between 1590 and 1642 suggest the sort of post-play entertainment one might have expected to witness. Thomas Nashe, in Pierce Penniless (1592), tells us that ‘the quaint comedians of our time/That when their play is done doe fall to ryme’[3] and in Have With You To Saffron Walden Or, Gabriell Harveys Hunt is Up (1596) Nashe threatens Gabriel Harvey that ‘Comedie upon Comedie he shall have, a Morall, a Historie, a Tragedie, or what hee will . . . with a jigge at the latter end in English Hexameters of O neighbour Gabriell, and his wooing of Kate Cotton’.[3] In 1599, John Davies, in Epigrammes and Elegies (1599), suggests that ‘For as we see at all the play house dore,/When ended is the play, the daunce, and song,/A thousand townsmen, gentlemen, and whores,/Porters and serving-men together throng…’,[4] the same year that Thomas Platter, a Swiss-German tourist witnessed that 'At the end of the play, as is customary, they danced quite elegantly, with two people dressed as men and two as women'[5] and the next day, following a comedy, ‘they danced very charmingly in English and Irish fashion’.[6] Paulus Hentzner, a German traveller to England, also observes that the many tragedies and comedies performed in the theatres conclude by ‘mixing acrobatic dancing with the sweetest music, they can expect to receive the final reward of great popular applause’[7] A year later, Ben Jonson, in Every Man Out of his Humour (1600; 2.1), talks of ‘as a jigge after a Play’,[4] as does John Marston who, in Jack Drum’s Entertainment (1601), tells us that ‘the Iigge is cald for when the play is done’.[4] At the end of the sixteenth century, Jean Bodin in The Six Bookes of a Commonweale, Out of the French and Latine copies, done into English by Richard Knolles (1606), is wont to complain that ‘now adayes they put at the end of euerie Tragedie (as poison into meat) a comedie or jigge’;[4] and by 1611 Randle Cotgrave, in A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues, defines French ‘farce’ by comparing it to ‘the Jyg at the end of an Enterlude, wherein some pretie knauerie is acted’.[4] By 1612, the Westminster Magistrates were so concerned by such post-play entertainment that they saw fit to issue an Order for suppressinge of Jigges att the ende of Playes, referring to ‘certayne lewde Jigges songes and daunces’,[8] and a year later Thomas Dekker, in Strange Horse-Race (1613), observes that in the open playhouses ‘the sceane, after the epilogue, hath been more black, about a nasty bawdy jigge’ than any scene in the play.[9] William Davenant, writing in The Unfortunate Lovers (performed 1638 [published 1643]), but looking back twenty years, says that attendants to the theatres would ‘expect a jig, or target fight’.[4]

Often bawdy, sometimes satirical, usually comic, and something of the nature of 'farce', these sung-dramas, or 'stage-jigs', drew their plots from folk tales, jest books, and Italian novellas and were populated by an assortment of traditional stock characters and tricksters, such as 'cuckolds, rustic clowns, fools, bawdy wenches, enterprisingly faithless wives, gullible and cuckolded husbands, blustering soldiers, slippery gentlemen, foolish constables easily outwitted, prurient Puritans, falsely coy maidens and drunken foreigners'.[10]

Following on from Richard Tarlton, London's first jigging stage clown, Will Kempe, an actor of the time of William Shakespeare was as famous for his stage jigs as for his acting in regular drama.[11] A famous 17th century jig called Kemp's Jig was named for him and outlived him by some decades, being published in the first book of John Playford's The English Dancing Master of 1651. Another blackly humorous and eponymous 'jig' of this period was Jack Ketch's jig, the agonies of a hanged man, named after the infamous Restoration executioner.[12]

The surviving texts of stage jigs feature between 3-6 male performers, some cross-dressed, in a sung-drama that on the page last between 10–25 minutes, but would have been extended in performance (the extant texts call for comic sword fighting, episodes of dance and comic routines) and include impromptu improvisation. They were probably related to French farce or sotie and Italian commedia dell'arte.[13] The stage jig probably developed out of, or had some relationship to, the street- or dialogue-ballad which could easily be converted to a sung-drama: 'The process of embellishing a dialogue ballad for an on-stage performance featuring dancing pairs in role was not particularly complex. The narrative may be such that props are called for to underpin the action, or changes of location to follow the movement of the story. When the performers throw in some simple choreography, mime, stage-fighting, slapstick humour and simple blocking for comic and dramatic effect, you have a dramatised ballad ... The transition from song-or-dance to song-and-dance, and then to song-and-dance-with-dramatic-action on the early modern stage was accelerated by the artistic flair of particular players such as Richard Tarlton, William Kemp and George Attowel, among others, for whom the professional stage became the clown’s playground.'[14]

The writing and performance of jigs wasn't just reserved for professionals on London stages. Two of the surviving jig scripts appear as evidence appended to the Bill of Complaint in two separate cases of libel bought before the Court of Star Chamber in the early seventeenth century. The documents setting out the proceedings for the cases detail that the 'libels' (verse that is sung of published in an attempt to defame a person's reputation) were written and performed by amateurs about the infamies of their neighbours and were sometimes taken up by semi-professional players and toured around towns and villages in England's localities.[15]

Discounting the many dialogue-ballads (whether termed jigs in their titles or not) that survive which may have features as on the early modern stage (and included as jigs in Baskervill's monograph, The Elizabethan Jig),[2] a number examples of ‘stage-' or 'dramatic-jigs’ from the Tudor and Stuart period have survived as texts, spread across the collections at The Bodleian Library, The British Library, The National Library of Wales and Dulwich College Library.[16]

In 2011 the first Stage jig on the site of the Elizabethan Rose Theatre in over 400 years was performed by the Owle Schreame theatre company, as part of Brice Stratford's acclaimed production of Measure for Measure.[17]


  1. Clegg, R.; Skeaping, L. (2014). Singing Simpkin and Other Bawdy Jigs: Musical Comedy on the Shakespearean Stage - Music, Scripts & Context. Exeter: Exeter University Press. p. 55, n1. ISBN 978 0 85989 878 2.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 Baskervill, C.R. (1965) [1929]. The Elizabethan Jig and Related Song Drama (repr. New York: Dover Publications ed.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 Singing Simpkin (2014), p. 25
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 Singing Simpkin (2014), pp. 60, n69
  5. Singing Simpkin (2014), pp. 8–9
  6. Singing Simpkin (2014), pp. 56-57, n20
  7. Singing Simpkin (2014), pp. 60-63
  8. Singing Simpkin (2014), pp. 43–44
  9. Singing Simpkin (2014), p. 42
  10. Singing Simpkin (2014), p. 2
  11. Singing Simpkin (2014), pp. 14-24
  12. Gavin Kostick (1994). "Jack Ketch's Gallows Jig".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Singing Simpkin (2014), pp. 13-14
  14. Singing Simpkin (2014), p. 13
  15. Singing Simpkin (2014), pp. 5-38
  16. For a performance edition of nine surviving texts reunited with original music see Singing Simpkin (2014)
  17. Walpole, Elinor (11 November 2011). "Review: Measure for Measure". A Younger Theatre. Retrieved 2013-03-05.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>