The All-Singing, All-Dancing Elizabethan Stage

Sexually explicit jigs were a major part of the attraction of the Elizabethan, Jacobean and Restoration stage, as Lucie Skeaping explains in this History Today article.

The crowds who flocked to the London playhouses in the late-16th and early-17th centuries could expect to be amused, amazed and moved. Not only would they experience the drama of some courtly comedy or woeful tragedy but, in many cases, if they stayed on after the play had ended, they would also be treated to a sort of ‘B-feature’, a rude, lewd farce, commonly known as a ‘jig’. Featuring songs, dancing and slapstick, jigs involved far more than the simple Irish folk dance that the word has come to denote. In the playhouses of Elizabethan London dramatic jigs were established as the standard ending or afterpiece to more serious theatrical fare.Not that everyone approved. The playwright Thomas Dekker wrote in 1613:

“I have often seen, after the finishing of some worthy tragedy or catastrophe in the open theatres that the scene after the Epilogue hath been more blacke – about a nasty bawdy jigge – than the most horrid scene in the play was.”

To the literary world they were an object of disapproval. Ben Jonson (1572-1637) loathed the ‘concupiscence of jigs’, believing they prevented audiences from appreciating plays. Shakespeare’s Hamlet, after drawing Ophelia into a particularly vulgar exchange, apologises to her by calling himself ‘Your only jigmaker’. The satirical poet Everard Guilpin (born c. 1572) dismissed the ‘whores, bedles, bawds and sergeants’who ‘filthily chant Kemps Jigge’, noting how, on leaving the playhouse fired up with lust, ‘many a cold grey-beard citizen’would sneak into ‘some odde noted house of sin’: easy to do, as theatres, bear-baiting pits and brothels were situated in close proximity on London’s South Bank, outside the formal control of Dancers perform in a circle around musicians in a masque at a banquet held in the home of the courtier Sir Henry Unton (detail, c.1596). Inset: Richard Tarlton, a popular jig-maker and clown, portrayed in a manuscript from 1588. the City authorities. Even Thomas Heywood, a dramatist and actor with the Lord Admiral’s Men, felt disgust at these sub-literary dramas. While on the one hand delighting in the comic farces he called ‘merry accidents’, he wrote in An Apology for Actors (1612): ‘I speak not in the defence of any lascivious shrews, scurrilous jeasts, or scandalous invectives. If there be any such I banish them quite from my patronage.’

The history of the stage jig is complex but it is likely that its origins are to be found in the oral tradition, in the dancing, clowning and misrule of the carnivals, May Games and festivals held in rural communities during the Middle Ages. It was a natural development to add words to the dance tunes; the verb ‘to carol’ – these days the preserve of Christmas – originally meant ‘to dance’, probably in some kind of circle with the singers chanting the words as they moved.

Singing, dancing and play-acting were also popular pastimes in the more sophisticated environs of the royal courts. The chronicler Edward Hall gives an account of the young Henry VIII in 1510 surprising the queen in her chamber with 11 of his nobles ‘all appareled in short cotes of Kentish Kendal [a type of wool from Cumbria], with hodes on their heddes, and hosen of the same, every one of them his bowe and arrowes, and a sworde and a bucklar, like outlawes, or Robyn Hodes men’.Henry’s court songbook contains several part-songs which naturally lend themselves to being acted out, while his daughter Elizabeth I was said to have danced a galliard every morning to keep herself fit.

As such courtly pastimes moved into professional realms, the term jig became used to describe anything from a solo song, dialogue ballad or dance to a full-blown mini-drama.

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