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The meaning and origin of the expression: On with the motley

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On with the motley

Meaning

Prepare for a stage performance. Latterly also used more widely just to mean let's begin or let's continue.

Origin

Motley, and its variants motlé and motlegh, are Anglo-Norman words meaning variegated. Motley was also the name of a type of cloth made from two or more colours and later clothing made from such cloth. There are several citings of motley in the late 14th century, including this from the Prologue of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales:

"A marchant was there ... In motlee, and hye on hors he sat."

on with the motleyThe best-known wearers of motley were jesters of harlequins and the patchwork costume became their standard style of stage dress, as in this painting by Frans Hals, circa 1620. To announce 'on with the motley' was to declare one's intention to get into one's stage costume.

Shakespeare referred to motley as a form of dress several times in As You Like It, 1600.

JAQUES:
A fool, a fool! I met a fool i' the forest,
A motley fool; a miserable world!
...
A worthy fool! Motley's the only wear.

He also calls the fool motley-minded, by which he meant inconsistent and erratic - but he doesn't use the phrase on with the motley.

The first recorded use of 'on with the motley' is in Pagliacci, an opera by Ruggiero Leoncavallo, 1892. The text was translated into English in 1893 by F. E. Weatherly:

Thou art not a man, thou’rt but a jester!
On with the motley, and the paint, and the powder!
The people pay thee, and want their laugh, you know!
If Harlequin thy Columbine has stolen, laugh Punchinello!
The world will cry, "Bravo!"

See also: Motley crew.

See other phrases and sayings from Shakespeare.