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  • Print publication year: 2013
  • Online publication date: March 2014

12 - Music and Manly Wit in Seventeenth-Century England: The Case of the Catch

from The Performer as Creator


In Act II, Scene 3 of William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, first performed as the seventeenth century opened, the knights Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek call for wine. Immediately after the arrival of the clown, Feste, Aguecheek asks for a song and his drinking companion a catch. Their merry midnight revels are interrupted by Maria, serving woman to their hostess (who is also Sir Toby's niece), following their performance of the three-voice catch ‘Hold thy peace’. ‘What a catterwalling doe you keepe heere?’, exclaims Maria; ‘If my Ladie haue not call'd vp her Steward Maluolio, and bid him turne you out of doores, neuer trust me.’ The puritanical Malvolio is even more horriied by their acoustical antics. ‘My masters are you mad?’, he asks on his arrival,

Or what are you? Haue you no wit, manners, nor honestie, but to gabble like Tinkers at this time of night? Do yee make an Ale-house of my Ladies house, that ye squeak out your Coziers Catches without any mitigation or remorse of voice? Is there no respect of place, persons, nor time in you?

This brief scene, first brought to life approximately a decade before the earliest publication of English catches and over a century ahead of the greatest vogue for such canonical vocal part-songs, already encodes the most important aspects of the genre. As demonstrated by Shakespeare's three performers, the singing of catches was a form of participatory leisure entertainment for males of equal voice.