Twelfth Night Setting

Instructor: Sarah Bostock
In this lesson, you will learn about the mysterious land of Illyria, the setting of William Shakespeare's comedy, ''Twelfth Night''. You will also learn some of the possible reasons why Shakespeare chose his setting.

William Shakespeare and Renaissance England

The play Twelfth Night was written by Renaissance playwright William Shakespeare in 1601. The Renaissance period spanned over two centuries from the late fourteenth to the early sixteenth century. The word 'renaissance' means 'rebirth.' During this time, particularly in England, theater and acting became very popular.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) lived during the last part of the Renaissance period, also known as the Elizabethan Age. Elizabethans were learning more about the world and hearing of far off places. Shakespeare uses his audience's interest in the unknown and the concept of rebirth in Twelfth Night. For example, one of his main characters, Viola, comes to a new land and pretends to be a man, so she is effectively reborn as someone else. Additionally, Shakespeare set his play in a place that was real but still mysterious to many of the people in his audience.

The Overall Setting of Twelfth Night

Malviolio and the Countess, R Staines, Engraving, 1859
R. Staines Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night is set in in Illyria, a real place from classical antiquity, that existed as far back as the tenth century B.C.E. During Shakespeare's time, the area, off the Adriatic Sea, was controlled by the Venetian republic. Today, Illyria makes up modern-day Croatia. However, with the exception of the name, Illyria, Shakespeare's setting is completely fictional.

To begin with, two of the main characters of Twelfth Night are shipwrecked in the land of Illyria. Viola and her twin brother Sebastian end up washed ashore in different locations. Both characters assume their sibling has drowned in the sea. Shakespeare doesn't tell his audience much about these characters' lives before they ended up in Illyria except that they are from a noble family in Messaline. Shakespeare created the fictional place of Messaline and never describes its geographic location.

The land of Illyria is an unusual place full of gardens and music and lovesick citizens, as indicated by Shakespeare's scenes. The main scenes take place in a few locations within Illyria, including Duke Orsino's palace, Olivia's house, Olivia's gardens, and the sea shore on the Adriatic Sea. The land is full of people in love, and in many scenes, servants often play serenading music. For example, in Act 1, scene 1, Duke Orsino commands his servants to play music, but then he has them stop as it has made him more melancholy. Additionally, many characters sing some of their lines including the clown, Feste.

Furthermore, the lovesick characters of Shakespeare's Illyria add to the mysteriousness and madness of the setting as many of them masquerade as someone else. Viola disguises herself as a man named Cesario, and her twin brother Sebastian keeps his identity a secret. Both of them pretend to be lower class servants instead of letting others know they are from an aristocratic family. Since characters are hiding their identities, the island is generally full of confusion, and Duke Orsino hints that there is a madness in the air.

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