Welcome to Episode #47 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

I believe that if you want to understand Shakespeare’s plays, then understanding the life of William Shakespeare, the man, is essential. This podcast is designed to help you explore early modern England as Shakespeare would have lived it by interviewing the historians, performers, authors, and experts that know him best.

Many times when Shakespeare would perform a play, there would be a bawdy and comical song and dance show performed after the play, even if the play was a tragedy or something more serious. A traditional part of Elizabethan theater, the jig was a not only an expected part of playhouse performances but they represent a slice of culture from Shakespeare’s liftime. Many of the song and dance routines performed were inspired by, or examples of, Elizabethan pop culture. The tunes were a kind of street music, and the stories represented popular tales that would influence playwrights like William Shakespeare.

Here to share with us the history of broadside ballads and the Elizabethan jigs is our distinguished guest, Lucie Skeaping

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Lucie Skeaping is a British singer, instrumentalist, broadcaster and writer. She was a founder of the early music group the City Waites and the pioneering klezmer band The Burning Bush. She presents BBC Radio 3‘s Early Music Show, a weekly programme dedicated to the early music repertoire.She is co-author (with Dr Roger Clegg) of Singing Simpkin and other Bawdy Jigs: Musical Comedy on the Shakespearean Stage (UEP 2014) , an edition of nine ‘dramatic jigs’ from the Tudor and Stuart period, many reunited with their original music for the first time in 400 years. Her other books are Broadside Ballads (Faber Music 2006), Winner of the Music Industry Association Award for Best Classical Music Book 2006; Let’s Make Tudor Music (Stainer and Bell 1999), runner-up TES Best Primary schools music Book; and the recorder anthology Who gave thee thy Jolly Red Nose (Peacock Press 2008). She has contributed articles for the BBC Music Magazine, Early Music Today, BBC History Magazine, History Today, Financial Times and others. Skeaping is Ambassador and a member of the judging panel for ‘Live Music Now‘ (promoting young performers), Patron of the Finchley Children’s Music Group, and a member of the Samuel Pepys Club.


In this episode, I’ll be asking Lucie about :

  • How were broadside ballads used or for what purpose were they performed in Shakespeare’s lifetime?

  • What instruments would accompany a broadside ballad?
  • Jigs had something of a controversial reputation, being popular among audiences but annoyances to authorities in Elizabethan England. Were the jigs unique to the playhouses in particular, or would that have been part of a production held at court as well?
    …and more!

This is a merry ballad, but a very pretty one.


A Winter's Tale, IV.4

A broadside ballad released in the late 17th century, detailing the plot with anti-Catholic sentiments.

Opening text of the broadside ballad is as follows:

True Protestants I pray you do draw near
Unto this ditty lend attentive ear,
The lines are new although the subject’s old
Likewise it is as true as e’er was told.

When James the First in England reigned King…


Broadside Ballads

A broadside ballad was a street song, printed for public distribution. It was the early modern equivalent of releasing a single. 

Unlike modern singles, they weren’t typically love songs, but were rather descriptive narratives of events happening around them. Sometimes comical, sometimes politically minded, they represent a slice of history from the moment during which it was penned. 

You can see a representation of how ballads were used in Shakespeare’s lifetime from the play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In that play, Bottom declares that he will record a dream he has had by having Peter Quince write it down as a ballad (IV.1) Sold in the streets, at fairs, and festivals, broadside ballads were everywhere in Shakespeare’s lifetime and are a great source of learning about the average, every day, happenings, goings on, and mindset of the people for whom Shakespeare was writing. 

You can read many of these broadside ballads online. Here are a few resources: 

English Broadside Ballad Archives at University of California

Broadside Ballads Online from the Bodelain Library. 


English Elizabethan clown Will Kempe dancing a jig from Norwich to London in 1600. FromKempes Nine Daies Wonder Source

The Elizabethan Jig

The word, “jig”, with various spellings in the 16th century, could be applied to mean song, dance, piece of music, or a short comical performance at the end of a play. The content of the jig varied widely, containing everything from a dramatic tale, to a bawdy presentation, or even a comic drama. For playwrights like William Shakespeare, the jig came at the end of a production and was performed to the tune of a popular song, which is one reason jigs are often thought of as musical pieces today. The jig was designed to tell a story, and could feature dances, fight scenes, costumes, and disguises just like a larger production. Based on folktales, the stories would feature a menagerie of characters and was often less than sophisticated (it could be pretty raunchy).  Aside from the raunchiness, a decent comparison for today is when movies have an animated short at the end of a feature film when you go to the theater or inside the bonus features on a DVD. Academics and historians studying these short dramas today refer to them as a “stage jig” or “Elizabethan jig” to be specific about the kind of jig, or the time period during which the jig they are referencing was either performed, written, or staged. 

Here are some resources Lucie shared with us. These are not affiliate links.






Woodcut of a Falconer, from George Turberville´s The Booke of Faulconrie or Hauking and the Noble Arte of Venerie (also called the Book of Hunting) (1575) Source

The original woodcuts  

Broadside ballads were designed to be published with a woodcut illustration. As with most illustrations, the picture was made to visually depict what was described in the ballad itself. 

The woodcuts are a unique part of history, though they are not treated with the same respect as other forms of art, the woodcuts are often featured in articles about Shakespeare’s history because various aspects of the woodcut will demonstrate unique parts of life in Elizabethan England.

For example, when we wrote about witches in Shakespeare’s plays, as well as about cats in early modern England, we referenced woodcuts on both occasions because woodcuts featured images of witches and cats together, which illustrates the relationship of Shakespeare’s culture to those items. Because the woodcuts that accompany broadside ballads are a pop culture item based on current events,  it’s closer than some other forms of published works to representing the average mindset or overall society. 


I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of 
this dream: it shall be called Bottom’s Dream, 
because it hath no bottom; and I will sing it in the 
latter end of a play, before the duke


A Midsummer Night's Dream, IV.1

Instruments on stage

Music was infused into the culture in which Shakespeare was living. Not merely a performance piece, it was common for households to produce music as well and certainly at court there would have been a variety of musical instruments used to create both atmosphere and entertainment. 

For the Elizabethan jig, instruments would be included in the performance, often on stage with the actors themselves. Theaters like The Globe did not have, nor use, an orchestra pit (or indeed, an orchestra), so when music had a role to play, it was a fellow actor on the stage. 

Popular instruments included the Hurdy Gurdy (called a Symphonia), the Virginal, Lute, Crumhorn, Shawm, Fife, Spinet, and Hautboy, among others. 




Hurdy Gurdy owned by David Cantrell of the music group, PanHarmonium. David met with Cassidy Cash in the youtube episode How To Play The Hurdy Gurdy and One Jacobean Ballad for Cassidy’s youtube series, Experience Shakespeare. 

I met up with a local hurdy gurdy player, who has been performing with a historical music group for 20 years. In this video, he teaches me to play the hurdy gurdy and demonstrates a ballad that was first published in 1611, the year William Shakespeare performed The Tempest at Whitehall Palace. 

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Books Lucie Recommends:

Most of the links to these books are affiliate links. Part of the way we generate the income needed to support a show like ours is through affiliate sales. If you’re going to purchase a new book about Shakespeare’s history anyway, please consider purchasing here as a way to support the show.

Children of the Revels by Michael Shapiro

The Rise of the English Street Ballad by by Natascha Würzbach (Author), Gayna Walls (Translator)

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