Outdoor theatre has been around since the Greeks and Romans built those massive open-air amphitheaters. Here in the US, we tend to think that outdoor Shakespeare began in the 19th and 20th centuries. But presenting the Bard’s works out of doors actually began with Shakespeare himself.  

Delaware Shakespeare FestivalTo accommodate big crowds and get the audience as close to the actors as possible, Elizabethan playhouses were open to the sky. Crowds were often rowdy, so seeing a play was more like going a fair. In England, with the exception of the Scottish Highlands, there’s a summer Shakespeare performance about every 20 miles.  

Though American geography is much more expansive, we’ve long our share of summer performances, too. In 1933 at the Chicago World’s Fair – and again at the San Diego World’s Fair the next year – troupes performed plays by the Bard for seven shows a day, every day! No festival does that now, but there are at least 51 Shakespeare festivals across the US – about one for every state. And Delaware has its own under-the-stars tradition.  

For their 22nd season, Delaware Shakespeare again treads the boards – actually the beautifully manicured lawn – in Wilmington’s bucolic Rockwood Park. Throughout its expansive 72 acres, the company has created the Forest of Arden (As You Like It), a magical island kingdom (The Tempest), an Athenian wood (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), and the “blasted heath” of Macbeth. This year the company takes us to the politically turbulent Rome of Julius Caesar.  

From July 18 through August 4, the reigning Roman emperor Julius Caesar will meet his fate at the hands of a group of senators and politicos that he once called colleagues. It might have been written centuries ago about events from millennia before, but looking at the world today, it’s clear that some things never change.   

Reigning emperor Julius Caesar is surrounded by men whom he considers political allies, including his friend and companion in arms Brutus. But attempting to stop Caesar from wielding too much power, a group of jealous Roman senators convince Brutus to join an assassination plot. The group of conspirators decides to kill him on the Ides of March (the 15th). Caesar is warned by a soothsayer of the danger that awaits him that day, but he ignores the prediction and is killed. After the assassination, with the city in turmoil, the general Mark Antony drives the conspirators out of Rome and engages them in a losing battle, leaving Antony to rule Rome.  Delaware Shakespeare Festival

Del Shakes Artistic Director Mariah Ghant believes that “Julius Caesar explores the full expanse of human relationships, both intimate and public. It interrogates tyranny and the pursuit of power. And, most excitingly to me, it uplifts the power of rhetoric.” 

Ghant will be able to take on some of that rhetoric since she also plays Mark Antony in director Tai Verley’s gender-expansive, 12-member cast. And like all of Shakespeare’s plays, in which his remarkable language illuminates his memorable characters, the work is peppered with powerful phrases that are still quoted today. There’s “beware the Ides of March,” or “the fault … is not our stars, but in ourselves,” or the famous “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.” 

In true festival style, the audience sits amid the action. Theatergoers bring chairs, blankets, and picnic fare – or purchase snacks, sandwiches, and libations at the refreshments tent.  About a half hour before the play starts, the company “warms up” the crowd with games, Shakespeare trivia, and general hijinks.  

But when the lights go up and the actors appear among Rockwood’s majestic trees and beautiful grounds, it’s all about the play. Delaware Shakespeare’s outdoor performances always create a memorable evening, one full of camaraderie, great storytelling, and the magic that only live theater offers.