The text of the play being performed in this painting has by great good fortune survived in the archives of the Guild of St Luke in Antwerp. It is entitled Cluijte van Plaijerwater ('The Wonderwater Farce').
The wife of Werenbracht, an innkeeper, feigns sickness and sends her husband to fetch some plaijerwater (wonderwater; but the word also implies 'wound water' or 'hoax water') from Discontent in Eastland, where it flows high up from the Mountain of Folly near the Valley of Sorrows. With her husband gone, she arranges a romantic rendezvous at the inn with the village priest.
On his travels Werenbracht meets a poultry-seller who reveals his wife's deceit and infidelity. The two decide to catch her in the adulterous act and, hiding Werenbracht in his basket, the poultry-seller heads for the inn to ask for lodging. After a good deal of carousing and singing, the wronged husband leaps from the basket and confronts his wife and her priestly lover. After beating them both, he laments his misfortune.
Brueghel depicts the moment that Werenbracht emerges from the poultry-seller's basket. The following translation first appeared in the journal Dutch Crossing in 1984. It is quoted here with the kind permission of the editor:
Poultry-seller: Now Werenbracht, you can come out,
And give the priest a mighty clout.
He really has messed you around.
Your wife is playing fast and free;
They're going through your stores, you see.
So wonderwater at home you've found.
Werenbracht [emerging from the basket]: By all the devils!
Oh you false priest, you'll live to regret this.
Hell's teeth, you'll both pay dearly for this!
Oh, dear, where can I go?
What are you doing here, tell me, take that, you whore-monger!
Drench him with wonderwater,
And splash some on your wife too!
Ow, ow, ow, you've broken my arm!
Have mercy! What am I to do now?
Ow, filthy lies! Now cool your ardour.
Was that why you were ill? You'll be sorry for this.
Priest and the wife:
Ow! Ow! Dear me!
Keep pouring, Werenbracht, 'April showers'.
It would be a shame if any was wasted.
I'll pour from up here.
Oh yes, Werenbracht, quickly.
It would be a shame to stop now.
Blast your guts, I'll beat you both to death.
You false priest, how could you ever bring such shame on me!
Priest and the wife:
Oh, murder, murder, murder.
You pair of arseholes! Get out of the house,
While you're still alive. You see how things are here.
Oh, dear friend, get him off us,
For God's sake; these blows are wearing me down.
Quick, get through this opening here,
Both of you, or I can't help you.
Wait, don't hold me back, let me bathe their wounds
With the wonderwater she sent me to fetch.
Be content, you've found enough of it;
Now you don't need to go to Eastland for it.
That's true. After this I fear I'll have
Shame, sorrow, disgrace and great dishonour, all my life.
Let us honour all decent women
Who are happy to be with their own husbands.
Now go and may Mary protect you all,
And her son, Jesus of Nazareth,
And may he grant you all peace and happiness.
Conduct your marriage in such a way
That you may enjoy life everlasting.