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Volume XXIX, Number 6078
Wednesday, Apr 16, 2014

Stratford-on-Avon's Bard Celebrates 450th Birthday

This April marks the 450th anniversary of the birth of the celebrated playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Though the precise date of his birth remains unconfirmed (he was baptized April 26), numerous festivities will honor the occasion including the 4th annual Shakespeare Sonnet Slam on April 25 at Central Park's Naumberg Bandshell from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. There, 154 participants (ages 8 to 96, from more than 30 countries) will recite Shakespearean verse.

William Shakespeare was enormously prolific and in a relatively short career he authored 13 comedies, 13 historical dramas, 6 tragedies, 4 tragic comedies and 154 sonnets. Many of his plays, such as A Midsummer’s Night Dream, Julius Caesar, Henry V, Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth, have become classics of the stage, while his poems revered for their mastery of language and verse. Thus this modestly educated man of the Elizabethan age left an indelible mark on the English language and Western culture.

Not far from the Bandshell, at the southern end of Literary Walk, visitors to Central Park can admire John Quincy Adams Ward's full-standing bronze portrait of Shakespeare. Inspired by the 1864 tricentennial of Shakespeare's birth, the piece was dedicated eight years later on May 23, 1872.

In 1864, a group of actors and theatrical managers, among them noted Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth (1833-1893), received permission from Central Park’s Board of Commissioners to lay the cornerstone for a Shakespeare statue at the southern end of the mall between two elms. Nothing further was done until the end of the Civil War and, through a competition in 1866, Ward was selected as the sculptor.

Later referred to as the “Dean of American Sculptors,” Ward contributed nine sculptures to the parks of New York, among them Roscoe Conkling (1893) in Madison Square Park, Alexander Holley (1888) in Washington Square Park, William Earl Dodge (1885), now in Bryant Park, Horace Greeley (1890), now in City Hall Park, Henry Ward Beecher (1891) in Columbus Park, Brooklyn, and The Indian Hunter (1869), The Pilgrim (1885), and the Seventh Regiment Memorial (1874) in Central Park.

The committee raised funds through several benefits, including a performance of Julius Caesar. Jacob Wrey Mould (1825-1886), chief parks architect at the time and responsible for much of the ornament and architecture in Central Park, designed the elaborate pedestal. Ward’s conception combined a classical pose with many details of contemporary Elizabethan dress. He relied on numerous previous images of Shakespeare, especially a bust in Stratford. The sculpture was cast in Philadelphia in 1870 and due to lengthy delays in procuring and cutting the granite pedestal in Scotland, was unveiled in 1872 on a temporary base. Though some commentators found the work a noble effigy, other critics derided the statue as a costume piece.

In 1986, a replica of the sculpture was made by Tallix Foundry for the State Theater in Montgomery, Alabama, which hosts an annual Shakespeare Festival, and in exchange, Montgomery benefactor Winton M. Blount established a maintenance endowment for the original statue. In 1995, the Central Park Conservancy conserved the sculpture, which during the late 1990s was the scene of an annual reading of Julius Caesar during the Ides of March.

Central Park has other Shakespearian associations. In 1890, Eugene Schieffelin (1827-1906) a well-to-do citizen who wished to introduce to America those bird species popularized in Shakespeare's plays, released starlings in the park. In 1915, the Shakespeare Society assumed maintenance of a rock garden built on the park’s west side near 79th Street in 1912. In 1934, the Shakespeare Garden, which features species from the literary works of Shakespeare, was relocated to the hillside between Belvedere Castle and the Swedish Cottage and, in 1989, a new landscape design by Bruce Kelly and David Varnell was created.

In 1958, after two seasons at the East River Amphitheater, Joseph Papp’s Shakespeare Festival moved to Central Park, and the Delacorte Theater, its permanent home, opened in 1962. With sponsorship from the Public Theater, Shakespeare in the Park remains a coveted ticket, with the public lining up in the wee hours of the morning to land free seats to the annual summer shows. This year's line-up includes Much Ado About Nothing (with Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater) from June 3 to July 6, and King Lear (with John Lithgow in the title role) from July 22 to August 17.

So whether you are a poet, or a sculpture, drama or bird lover, salute Shakespeare and his lasting influence.

Submitted by Jonathan Kuhn, NYC Parks' Director of Art & Antiquities


"To die, to sleep -

To sleep, perchance to dream - ay, there's the rub,

For in this sleep of death what dreams may come."

William Shakespeare


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