Skip to main content
Shakespeare & Beyond

Visualizing Race Virtually: Exploring the art of Shakespeare

In this mid- to late-19th-century print engraving of the Macbeths in the play’s “banquet scene” (Act 3, Scene 4), artist Tobias Bauer creates an intriguing and important racialized distinction between the image’s foreground and background figures through a light and dark contrast. The darker foreground contains the murderous Macbeths, sinful figures whose dark appearance, signaled largely by their clothing, presents them as “less-than-ideal” white figures (or “white others,” as I call them in my book, Shakespeare’s White Others.)

Furthermore, the lighter background contains whiter-looking figures who stand apart from the Macbeths because they are not implicated in the killing of the late King Duncan, for example. Adding to the contrast between the foreground and the background, Bauer includes two heads in the engraving: that of what is likely the Ghost of Banquo—who is aligned with the whiter, ideal background figures—and the head of a boar—which is aligned with the Macbeths. The stark animalistic separation between the ideal and less-than-ideal white figures solidifies the artist’s choice to distinguish the Macbeths in a way that highlights their difference: their barbarity, their inhumanity, and their savage violation of hospitality code, all of which contributes to their being white others.

Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are dark figures in the foreground

Tobias Bauer. Macbeth, act III, scene 4. ART File S528m1 no.106 (size M)

The Tobias Bauer engraving is one of 39 Shakespeare-inspired pieces of art featured in “Visualizing Race Virtually,” my inaugural exhibition in the virtual-reality David Sterling Brown Gallery. Drawn from the Folger’s digital image collection, the artwork includes engravings, print images, watercolor, and paintings on canvas from the late 18th century to late 20th century, depicting characters and scenes from the following plays: Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing, Richard III, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, Titus Andronicus, and Hamlet.

The exhibition’s art serves as a visual complement to the key theoretical concepts—“white other” and “intraracial color-line”—I introduce in Shakespeare’s White Others to promote awareness about Shakespeare and race, as well as more specific topics such as anti-Black racism, white supremacy, intimate partner violence, domesticity, color-based stereotypes, sociology, mental health, trauma, racialized sound, performance, social psychology, and more. Most of the art in the exhibition, especially when considered in the context of the plays, helps generate discussion about these topics and others. Thus, one key function of the art exhibition is to promote awareness for the public about how invaluable the Folger’s digital collection is for the knowledge production process in our modern world.

I work to achieve this goal through the gallery’s layout, which I structured with pedagogical aims in mind because I want anyone who cares to enter the space to feel like they belong in it. Beyond the gallery’s entrance, or what I call the “Welcome Room,” there are four additional parts to the gallery that highlight some of the Folger’s digital art. Parts One, Two and Three include prompts to help people jumpstart their thinking about the function of the art. Part One centers on the “white other.” This room helps gallery visitors see how this figure exists visually in art that corresponds with the featured Shakespeare plays. Not every dramatic work I discuss in the book (about fifteen plays) is represented in the exhibition, but the concepts apply to Shakespearean drama broadly speaking. Thus, my hope is that people will explore the Folger’s collection beyond the exhibition offerings and see what they can uncover on their own. Part Two is called “the white other and the intraracial color-line,” and it asks gallery visitors to push their thinking even further as they view the art in this room.

Part Three focuses on a specific Shakespeare play, Hamlet, thus challenging viewers to use the tools from the gallery’s previous sections and apply them to Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy. I dedicate a room to Hamlet because the play is so popular; because I have a chapter on it in my book to help guide gallery visitors along; and because, importantly, Hamlet is not a play that people often look to when in conversation about Shakespeare and race or anti-Blackness. But yet, we can and we should have conversations about those subjects in relationship to this play. As such, it is my hope that the artwork I selected for this room will help people see how those conversations can happen.

Hamlet standing, dressed in black, beside the figure of Gertrude, seated and dressed in white

William Salter Herrick. Hamlet in the Queen’s chamber. Oil on canvas, ca. 1857

The gallery is structured in such a way that it pushes people’s critical thinking skills. One might think of the gallery as an educational virtual game, with Hamlet being level three, providing the ultimate challenge. Like any art exhibition, people should take from the gallery what they can, especially as they put the art pieces in conversation with one another through this immersive, interactive virtual reality experience. Visitors should have no fear of Shakespeare. I say this because the fourth gallery room, the Pedagogy and Research Resource Room, includes five art analyses of select pieces from the exhibition. The analyses were completed by my undergraduate students at Trinity College in Hartford, CT. So, if you make your way through the gallery and you’re unsure if you are “getting it,” so to speak, my brilliant students are there to help your thinking!

You can experience the exhibition by entering the virtual-reality gallery, which is hosted on Mozilla Hubs and is freely accessible to anyone. You can navigate the space by using VR Goggles or not. Guide your avatar through the different rooms, look at the art, read the labels (click on them, too), and interact with other people in the gallery space. Take selfies of your avatar while in the gallery by clicking “Place” on the bottom menu bar and then clicking “Camera.” Or for an even more interactive experience with other gallery visitors, perhaps a friend you arrange to “meet” in the gallery, “Share” your “Camera” and then click on your cursor somewhere in the gallery space to have a video screen pop up so you can be seen in real time and chat with others. By clicking on the wand icon in the top middle of the video screen that appears, you can take a real-time selfie in the gallery and receive a link that will allow you to share your selfie. Feel free to do so on Twitter using hashtag #DSBGVRV (acronym for David Sterling Brown Gallery Visualizing Race Virtually).

To access the virtual-reality David Sterling Brown Gallery exhibition: Visit and click “Enter Site and then click “VRV Exhibition” on the top menu bar. Next, click “Join Room” and then “Enter Room.” You will need to enable your devices’ camera and mic if you wish for people to see or hear you. Use your keyboard’s arrow keys and mouse or touchpad to navigate the gallery. To “fly” in the room and have the ability to raise yourself up higher, press the “G” key on your computer’s keyboard to enable “fly mode,” which also enables you to move through the gallery’s walls if you’d like. For more information, see this resource on how to join rooms in Mozilla Hubs.