This essay proposes a sixteenth-century provenance for the ass’s head in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a history that includes orthodox liturgies and festivals, mid-century Reformed polemics, and above all provincial mystery plays. What would it mean if this famous prop was inspired by or acquired from a Chester guild that had once used it to advertise the artisanal skill of its craftsmen-players? Tracing the ass’s cultural associations implicates long-held views of the medieval/early modern divide and of Shakespeare as an author. For once the ongoing agency of supposedly superseded theatrical objects is appreciated, it is possible to consider how the mystery plays shaped dramatic production long after their demise. In this context, Shakespeare may be seen as a play-wright, a dramatic artisan who forged new theatrical works from the material remnants of an older dramatic tradition.
Research Article|May 01 2012