Viper and her Brood
Thomas Middleton, 1606
In Trinity Term, 1609, Robert Keysar, manager of the Children of the Queen's Revels, brought a suit against Thomas Middleton. He claimed that on May 6, 1606, Middleton had entered into a contract, and now owed him £16, having failed to fulfil its requirements. Middleton responded that he had fulfilled the contract on May 7 by presenting Keysar with a "librum lusorium tragicum" entitled "the vyper & her broode" (Hillebrand, 35).
The reference appears in the following extract from the suit:
- Quibus lectis & auditis idem Thomas Middleton dicit quod predictus Robertus keysar accionem suam predictam inde versus eum habere seu mauntenere non debet quia dicit quod post confessionem scripti Obligatorij predicti Et ante predictum decimum quintum diem Junij in Condicione predicta mencionatum scilicet septimo die Maij Anno regni dicti domini Regis nunc quarto supradicto predictus Thomas Middleton apud domum mancionalem cuiusdem Willelmi Bannyster scituatam & existentem in Warwicke Courte in parochia, Ecclesie Christi in warda de ffarringdon infra london deliberauit prefato Roberto keysar quendam librum lusorium tragicum vocatum the vyper & her broode in plenam satisfaccionem contentacionem & exoneracionem predictarum Octo librarum & decem solidorum in Condicione predicta superius specificatarum quem quidem librum predictus Robertus keysar adtunc & ibidem de eodem Thoma Middleton recepit & acceptavit Et hoc paratus est verificare vnde petit indicium si predictus Robertus keysar accionem suam predictam versus eum habere seu mauntenere debeat &c. (Hillebrand 37-8, quoting Coram Rege Rolls, Trinity Pt. II, A° 7 Jas. Memb. 1056b)
Viper was delivered to Robert Keysar, manager of the Queen's Revels company. There is no evidence that it was ever staged.
Possible sources and analogues
References to the Play
Relationship to the legend of the viper's brood
Doris Feldman and Kurt Ketzeli von Rosador note that the viper's brood was a common Renaissance trope, based on legends recorded by Herodotus and Pliny. Vipers were believed to copulate violently, in an act that culminated with the female viper killing the male. The baby vipers would then hatch inside their mother and gnaw their way out, killing her in revenge for their father's death. This image was often used as a moral emblem of ingratitude or of revenge. Feldman and Tetzeli von Rosador suggest that the emblem could provide the basis for a tragedy (332-3).
Martin Wiggins agrees that this image is the likely inspiration for the play, proposing that it "probably dealt with sex, murder and matricide, possibly by poison" (5:291).
Relationship with The Revenger's Tragedy
In 1931, Wilbur D. Dunkel noted that The Viper and her Brood is close in composition date to The Revenger's Tragedy, often attributed to Middleton. He suggested that Viper and Revenger's may be the same play, given that Revenger's features a wicked duchess with a clutch of evil sons akin to a viper's brood (784-5).
R.A. Foakes, who rejects Middleton's authorship of Revenger's, disagrees. He notes that Middleton would have been able to contest Keysar's suit decisively if he had referred to the title of a play already in print (as Revenger's was by 1609). Instead, he gave a title the existence of which "is only attested by his word" (135-6). Foakes also points out that Keysar was manager of the Queen's Revels company, whereas Revenger's was performed by the King's Men (136).
Brian Jay Corrigan, who supports Middleton's authorship of Revenger's, is not convinced that it is the same play as Viper. He doubts that the play would have been named after the Duchess, who "is neither the focus of the play nor of Vindice's wrath" (295, n.26). Dunkel, had, however, noted that it is not uncommon for plays to be named after minor subplots (785).
Despite Corrigan's doubt that Revenger's and Viper were the same play, he notes that if they were, it might have been possible for a play to move from Keysar to the King's Men: he suggests that the Queen's Revels "had connections to the King's Men through their Blackfriars landlords, the Burbages" and wonders whether Viper may have been stolen "Malcontent-style" by the King's Men and renamed Revenger's (287).
For what it's worth
Dunkel, Wilbur M., "The Authorship of The Revenger's Tragedy", in PMLA 46 (1931): 781-5.
Feldmann, Doris, and Kurt Tetzeli von Rosador, "Lost Plays: A Brief Account", in Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works, ed. Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007), 328-333.
Foakes, R.A. "On the Authorship of The Revenger's Tragedy", in Modern Language Review 48 (1953): 129-38.Hillebrand, Harold N. "Thomas Middleton's The Viper and her Brood", in Modern Language Notes 42.1 (Jan, 1927), 35-8.