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History of Free Shakespeare in the Park


Continuing the work of its visionary founder, Joseph Papp, The Public Theater is dedicated to developing an American theater that is accessible and relevant to all people - including the great works of Shakespeare.

For over 60 years, The Delacorte Theater in Central Park has been a home for Free Shakespeare in the Park, including over 6 million artists, staff, and audience members. 

Free Shakespeare in the Park is made possible by the contributions of people like you. Learn more about how you can make a donation and support this New York City tradition!


Joseph Papp founded the New York Shakespeare Festival (now The Public Theater) in 1954, but it was originally chartered as the Shakespeare Workshop. Sharing excellent Shakespeare has always been at the core of our work. 

In 1956, Papp created a mobile theater using a 35-foot trailer pulled by a retrofitted NYC sanitation truck and brought Shakespeare to neighborhood parks, religious institutions, and civic organizations.

During its second season, the sanitation truck broke down on the shores of Belvedere Lake in Central Park.


The Delacorte Theater in Central Park opened in 1962, close to where the sanitation truck broke down in 1957.

Then-unknown George C. Scott starred in the inaugural production, THE MERCHANT OF VENICE.

Since then, countless incredible actors have captured over 6 million audience members across over 150 productions in Central Park.


Below are just a handful of notable Free Shakespeare in the Park productions.

  • THE MERCHANT OF VENICE with George C. Scott (1962)
  • OTHELLO with James Earl Jones (1964)
  • HAMLET with Sam Waterston (1975)
  • THE TAMING OF THE SHREW with Raul Julia and Meryl Streep (1978)
  • THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE with Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt (1980)
  • HENRY V with Kevin Kline (1984)
  • MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING with Kevin Kline and Blythe Danner (1988)
  • RICHARD III with Denzel Washington (1990)
  • OTHELLO with Raul Julia and Christopher Walken (1991)

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  • THE TEMPEST with Patrick Stewart (1995)
  • THE SEAGULL with Natalie Portman, Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline and Philip Seymour Hoffman (2001)
  • MOTHER COURAGE with Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline (2006)
  • MACBETH with Liev Schreiber (2006)
  • HAIR with Jonathan Groff and Will Swenson (2008)
  • TWELFTH NIGHT in 2009 with Anne Hathaway (2009)
  • THE MERCHANT OF VENICE with Al Pacino and Lily Rabe (2010)
  • AS YOU LIKE IT with Lily Rabe (2012)
  • Stephen Sondheim’s INTO THE WOODS with Amy Adams, Denis O’Hare, and Donna Murphy (2012)

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  • LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST, a world premiere musical adaptation by Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman (2013)
  • KING LEAR with John Lithgow (2014)
  • THE TEMPEST with Sam Waterston (2015)
  • THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, with Phyllida Lloyd directing an all-female cast (2016)
  • MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, with Danielle Brooks (2019)
  • MERRY WIVES, with Susan Kelechi Watson (2021)
  • RICHARD III, with Danai Gurira (2022)
  • HAMLET, with Ato Blankson-Wood (2023)