By the close of the sixteenth century the term ‘jig’ (variously spelt ‘jigg’, ‘jigge’, ‘gig’, ‘gigg’, ‘gigge’, ‘gigue’, ‘jigue’, ‘jeg’, ‘jegg’) had come to refer simultaneously to ‘a song’, ‘a dance’ and ‘a piece of music’, 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’.

Had you visited 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.

Often bawdy, sometimes satirical, usually comic, and something of the nature of ‘farce’, these sung-dramas, or ‘stage-jigs’, drew their plots from Folklore|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’.

Austin College Academic discussion of the Elizabethan jig (scroll to bottom of page)

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