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The prologue of Tamburlaine the Great by Christopher Marlowe begins:

From jigging veins of rhyming mother wits,
And such conceits as clownage keeps in pay,
We'll lead you to the stately tent of war,

and while I can find glosses of the overall intention ("you the audience, or perhaps other plays, are in an unserious mode, but here things are about to get serious") I can't find anyone explaining what the first line literally refers to. "Mother wit" is defined as "natural wit or intelligence" in M-W, but that doesn't seem to fit here. I can imagine it means folk-wisdom adages, but in what sense do those come in "jigging veins"?

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"Veins" does not have its modern anatomical meaning here. Onions's A Shakespeare Glossary gives two meanings that may be relevant here:

  1. disposition, humour; (…)
  2. particular style or manner of life or action; (…).

The same reference work also provides several meanings of the noun "jig":

  1. lively, rapid kind of dance; (…)
  2. (?) lively, jocular ballad; (…)
  3. lively, comic, or farcical performance given at the end or in an interval of a play; (…).

In addition, the verb "jig" could mean:

  1. to sing as a jig; (…)
  2. to move with a rapid jerky motion; (…).

("Jigging" is also used in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: "What should the wars do with these jigging fools?")

"Mother wit" or "mother-wit" is also used in Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew:

KATHARINA: Where did you study all this goodly speech?
PETRUCHIO: It is extempore, from my mother-wit.

G. R. Hibbard's edition of the play (New Penguin Shakespeare, 1968) glosses "mother-wit" as "natural intelligence", the same meaning one can also find on Wiktionary.

In Elizabethan theatres, the jig (third meaning of the noun, above) was performed by the actors, not by a separate group of performers, so "rhyming mother-wits" may refer to the actors, who speak lines of verse (even though the verse did not always rhyme). Based on this, I think the first line refers to some light entertainment (either a lively dance or a jocular ballad) performed by one or more actors before the beginning of the play. Due to the mention of rhyming, the performance of a ballad seems more plausible here.

References

  • Onions, Charles Talbut: A Shakespeare Glossary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911.
  • Shakespeare: The Taming of the Shrew. Edited by G. R. Hibbard. The New Penguin Shakespeare. London: Penguin, 1968.
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    This paper is quite interesting on the form of stage jigs and their usual placing in the programme of performance. It specifically refers to this quote. core.ac.uk/download/pdf/30318719.pdf
    – Spagirl
    Dec 12 '21 at 13:33

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