his Old English ballad for voice, with fiddle and harp accompaniment, was Shakespeare’s favorite, and it has been argued that Bishop’s lyrics were the source of inspiration for the Bard’s propensity to base his plots on character mix-ups. The Bishop’s Whimsy tells the story of Egbert and Charles, two half-brothers who are identical except with respect to parentage—both are sons of Queen Matilde but while Egbert is King Henry’s son and rightful heir to the English throne, Charles is the son of a longbowsman of insignificant repute in the King’s army who accessed the Queen some twenty years ago. Having learned of the treachery, King Henry has sent Charles’ father to the gallows and has put the Queen up for foster care somewhere in Scotland. Unbeknownst to the sneezy and itchy-eyed Pope Clarinus, whose name appropriately has its roots in an eighth century allergy remedy, the King presently cohabitates with a nubile Spaniard.
Charles is in love with Swanilda, the Duke’s daughter, but she would prefer to marry a prince and live in a castle, both for the kitchen help and the view. To gain her hand, Charles presents himself to Swanilda wearing Egbert’s royal frock, and tells her he will introduce her to the King sometime after the marriage. The couple weds the next day at a chapel decorated with oleander, which is perceived by the guests as either a bad omen or a good omen, depending on whether or not they are aware of the toxic nature of the shrub. Prince Egbert, on the other hand, fancies Swanilda’s less material sister, Dulcia. Although Dulcia loves Egbert, her preferred body type is that of a commoner, and she cannot commit to bed a man with clean nails. On the verge of losing Dulcia, Egbert spends several hours pulling weeds and, making a show of his filthy hands, promises Dulcia that he will never wash them if she will marry him. Touched by this appeal, Dulcia consents to elope with Egbert on the condition that he will remove her chastity belt before making love to her.
The real drollery begins when the two couples return from their honeymoons. Prince Egbert has reneged on his oath and not only visits the manicurist weekly, but sleeps with his hands coated in paraffin. For revenge, Dulcia fits herself with a chastity belt and gives the key to a tanner whose mangled fingers reek of hide and are stained a bright hue of orange. Despondent, Egbert enrolls in the Navy and his ship is soon engaged in battle with a Spanish galley, during which Egbert kills a young Spanish stowaway who happens to be the brother of Maria, King Henry’s concubine. Maria returns to Spain to mourn her brother, and with his loins aching from his lover’s temporary absence, the King issues a warrant for Egbert’s head, or if that is not possible, for Egbert’s torso along with a sketch of the head and limbs that belonged to the torso. Egbert flees to Antwerp and finds asylum amongst a group of philosophy students who contemplate the complete overthrow of society (except they wish to retain the generous allowances they receive from their fathers). With their assistance, Egbert drafts a letter to Pope Clarinus, informing him of Dulcia’s and the King’s infidelity and that, in case the Pope ever travels northward, there is a lovely little shop down the street which sells a precocious lemon custard. Unaware that Egbert has fled the country, the King’s guards seize Charles, who still wears Egbert’s royal frock, and remove his head from his body as delicately as possible; Swanilda is devastated for several minutes until a page arrives with the life insurance settlement. The story ends with Pope Clarinus hunched over Egbert’s letter, blowing his nose.
The ballad is 207 minutes in length and will be sung tonight by Strum Linderthack, a world-class baritone who will be joining the symphony via teleconference.