Finding Shakespeare in Central Park

Take this tour of New York City’s Central Park to see America’s first Shakespeare statue, its oldest Shakespeare garden, and much more.

Colleen Sehy
Feb 21 · 6 min read
Shakespeare stands guard over the Mall in Central Park (photo by Colleen Sehy)

Spring is just around the corner and this Shakespeare tour of New York City’s Central Park is a great way to get out and enjoy the warmer weather. The tour includes stops at America’s first Shakespeare statue, the home of New York’s famed free Shakespeare in the park, the oldest public Shakespeare garden in the United States, and more. You’ll be covering a lot of ground, so wear sturdy shoes!

“I like this place. And willingly could waste my time in it.” As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 4

Stop 1: The Dairy Visitor Center

Start your tour at the southeast corner of the park, at Fifth Avenue and Central Park South/59th Street. From here, head to the Dairy Visitor Center (hours vary seasonally). Pick up a free park map or buy a more detailed map for about $2 (maps are also available online). With map in hand, continue north to the Mall.

Note: If you want to do this tour in reverse, start at the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre on the west side of the park, about midway between West 77th Street and West 81st Street.

Central Park’s bronze statue of the Bard stares thoughtfully across the park from the south end of the Mall. This part of the Mall is known as Literary Walk, and in addition to Shakespeare, you’ll find statues of the Scottish poet Robert Burns, the Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott, and the American poet Fitz-Greene Halleck.

Famous 19th-century Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth led the drive to erect the statue, which commemorates the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. He and his brothers, Junius Brutus Booth, Jr. and John Wilkes Booth, staged a performance of Julius Caesar to help raise funds for the statue. It was the only time the three brothers performed together in public.

The statue was created by John Quincy Adams Ward, who’s known as “the dean of American sculptors.” It stands on a pedestal of Scottish granite designed by Jacob Wrey Mould, a British architect who also designed Belvedere Castle and many other park structures. The statue was unveiled in 1872, and is almost certainly the oldest public Shakespeare memorial in the United States.

After visiting Shakespeare and his companions, continue north on the Mall. Pass the Naumburg Bandshell and enter the pedestrian arcade that runs beneath Olmsted & Vaux Way and the upper level of Bethesda Terrace. The arcade’s stunning ceiling is decorated with more than 15,000 encaustic tiles made in the 1860s by the famous English pottery company Minton. Thanks to conservation work in the early 2000s, the ceiling is as beautiful today as it was when it was installed more than 150 years ago.

After enjoying the ceiling, exit the arcade, pass Bethesda Fountain, and walk along the lake until you reach the Loeb Boathouse. From there, continue north to the Obelisk, which is located just west of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Central Park’s Obelisk, also known as Cleopatra’s Needle (photo by Colleen Sehy)

At almost 3,500 years old, the 69-foot granite Obelisk is the oldest outdoor monument in New York City. Nicknamed Cleopatra’s Needle, the ancient, hieroglyphic-carved spire offers a visceral connection to the characters in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra.

Thutmose III erected the spire on the banks of the Nile in Heliopolis, Egypt around 1450 B.C. and the Roman Emperor Augustus moved it to the Caesareum of Alexandra around 12 B.C. Cleopatra VII (yes, that Cleopatra) built the Caesareum some time before her death in 30 B.C. to honor Julius Caesar, who was the father of her oldest son, Caesarion. Cleopatra also had three children with Mark Anthony.

The Khedive of Egypt gave the Obelisk to the United States in 1879. The 200-ton monument arrived in New York City in the fall of 1880, and it took more than a month to move it from the Hudson River to its present location.

According to the Central Park Conservancy, thousands of New Yorkers gathered to watch as the Obelisk was finally lifted upright. It stands on a time capsule that includes a copy of the complete works of William Shakespeare.

From the Obelisk, head west, skirting the Great Lawn, until you reach the Delacorte Theater. The 1,800-seat, open-air theater has been home to New York City’s legendary free summer Shakespeare for more than 50 years.

Joseph Papp founded Shakespeare in the Park in 1954. The productions moved to Central Park in 1958 and the purpose-built Delacorte opened in 1962. Shakespeare in the Park is produced by the Public Theater, which Papp also founded. Performances run for approximately two months every summer. The plays have featured many popular stage and screen actors over the years, including Andre Braugher, Danielle Brooks, Kate Burton, James Earl Jones, Raul Julia, Kevin Kline, Lily Rabe, Meryl Streep, and Christopher Walken.

You’ll find Milton Hebald’s bronze statues of Prospero and Miranda from The Tempest and the young lovers from Romeo and Juliet near the entrance to the theater. They can be viewed year-round.

As you pass the Delacorte Theater, look for signs pointing to Belvedere Castle. Take the stairs to the castle to begin your exploration of Central Park’s historic Shakespeare garden.

Note: if you want to avoid the stairs and the steeper parts of the garden, follow signs to the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre, where you’ll find a second entrance at the lower end of the Shakespeare garden.

The garden was dedicated on April 23, 1916, the 300th anniversary of the Bard’s death. This makes it the oldest public Shakespeare garden in the United States. The garden underwent a complete restoration in the late 1980s. It was expanded from two to four acres and revitalized with new plantings, walkways, and rustic fencing and benches.

When you reach the top of the stairs, watch for the small overlook on your right. That’s where you’ll find the Charles B. Stover bench. The curved, 20-foot granite bench is often called the whisper bench, because if you sit at one end and whisper, someone sitting at the other end should be able to hear you. (Full disclosure: I tried it on a windy day and it didn’t work.)

Next, cross the path to the clearing near Belvedere Castle. Depending on the time of year and the amount of foliage, this vantage point may provide you with a glimpse inside the Delacorte Theater. Keep an eye out for the bench dedicated to Philip Burton and his adopted son, the Welsh actor Richard Burton. The famous 20th century actor played many Shakespearean roles during his career. One of his most famous was Marc Antony opposite his soon-to-be wife, Elizabeth Taylor, in 1963’s Cleopatra.

As winter comes to an end, Central Park’s Shakespeare garden springs to life (photo by Colleen Sehy)

Head back to the main walkway for a leisurely stroll through the Shakespeare garden. The naturalistic landscape is home to more than two hundred varieties of herbs, flowers, and plants mentioned in the Bard’s plays and sonnets, including primroses, quince, flax, rue, columbine, eglantine, and cowslip. Keep an eye out for the ten small bronze markers with Shakespeare quotes that are scattered throughout the garden.

Once you reach the Swedish Cottage, you’ve come to the end of your Central Park Shakespeare tour. If you’re up for more exploring, check out the Central Park Conservancy website for information on the park’s other attractions.

Ready for more of the Bard? My book, Finding Shakespeare in America, provides hundreds of additional Shakespeare encounters in New York and around the country. You can find more information about it on my website, www.colleensehy.com.

Colleen Sehy

Written by

Writer, speaker, traveler, and Anglophile (www.colleensehy.com). Author of Finding Shakespeare in America; Eating British in America columnist at Anglotopia.net

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