PETER Then have at you with my wit! I will dry-beat you with an iron wit, and put up my iron dagger. Answer me like men:
‘When griping griefs the heart doth wound,
And doleful dumps the mind oppress,
Then music with her silver sound—’
Why ‘silver sound’? why ‘music with her silver sound’? What say you, Simon Catling?
FIRST MUSICIAN Marry, sir, because silver hath a sweet sound.
PETER Prates! What say you, Hugh Rebeck?
SECOND MUSICIAN I say ‘silver sound’ because musicians sound for silver. (4.5.118-128)
More top banter. Wit is a weapon, as well we know; to dry-beat is to thrash, so he’s offering a verbal thrashing rather than a physical one. As ever, anxious masculinity and its associated status games lurk here (no possibility of rapiers; these aren’t gentlemen) – even the wit has to be iron, hard, the dagger’s equivalent in penetrating force – Answer me like men, therefore. This is a mostly accurate quotation of a real madrigal, which had been printed in 1576. (Richard Edwardes, ‘In commendation of Musick’.) There might be a laugh in Peter quoting – singing, possibly? Kempe certainly sang as Bottom – a rather old-fashioned song, certainly not the latest hit single. (Is that even a thing any more?) Nearly twenty years old, at any rate. It’s clear that the musicians aren’t English students, because otherwise they would be giving Peter a withering stare and muttering, ‘because, alliteration?’ But they duly play along: silver hath a sweet sound (the First Musician implicitly gets alliteration) and so does music, although he’s also thinking about getting paid. The Second Musician is thinking about money too: musicians only play for money, and this particular gig isn’t looking good; they’re certainly not going to play for Peter for nothing. (Fun fact: early modern coins, much smaller, thinner, and lighter than their modern counterparts, do not so much jingle as tinkle, sweetly.) It’s tempting to think that these are in fact the names of the musicians (compare Hugh Oatcake and George Seacole, the watchmen in Much Ado), but Peter could as well be making them up, slightly pejoratively: a catling is the gut string of an instrument (a lute, a viol, a fiddle; sheep gut, not feline!), but the –ling also makes it a diminutive. A rebeck is a three-stringed fiddle. But Peter isn’t really interested in what they have to say, only in showing off: Prates! Rubbish! (there are many, many textual variants here, but the general sense is clear…) There’s more of this to come…