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Analysis: Setting

Where It All Goes Down


Twelfth Night is set in the imaginary Dukedom of Illyria. Illyria happens to correspond to a place on the Adriatic coast, a place most Elizabethans knew nothing about and where most Londoners had never been. This distant and mysterious sounding place makes it a perfect setting for Shakespeare to stage his play.

In some ways, Illyria sounds a lot like Hollywood – it's full of celebrities (like the famous bachelor, Duke Orsino, and the beautiful and single heiress, Lady Olivia) whose personal tragedies and love lives are aired like dirty laundry for all the world to see. In fact, some juicy bits of gossip about these local celebs prompt Viola to cross-dress and head to the court where she gets a job as a boy servant – sounds like the ultimate acting gig if you ask us.

Our point? The thing that draws Viola to Illyria is the same thing that draws in the audience – the promise of mystery, romance, and all that good stuff we associate with dreamy, far-off places.

So, what do we actually find when we follow Viola to Illyria? Well, a world that's kind of out of whack. Over at Olivia's, Toby and Sir Andrew have turned the Countess's pad into something like an English "alehouse," where Toby and his crew party 24/7. Even though we're in the land of the nobility, Olivia's place often looks more like the streets of New Orleans during Mardi Gras than it does the household of a Countess. In this unlikely setting, the mood is festive, zany, and rebellious – like the streets of London would have been during Twelfth Night festivities. (For more on the festive spirit of the play, go to "What's Up with the Title?")

Meanwhile, on the other side of the house, Olivia locks herself up in a room (like a cloistered nun) to somberly mourn the death of her brother. We've never been in the home of a Countess, but we're pretty sure it's not supposed to look like a rowdy Elizabethan tavern or a nunnery.

That's just the point, right? The wonky setting helps to convey that the world has been "turned upside down." Toby and his crew are out of control and Olivia's behavior is ridiculous.

When we swing over to Duke Orsino's pad, we find another strange setting. Duke Orsino's live band plays at Orsino's whim while the Duke lolls around on the couch daydreaming about being in love.

As we follow Viola from the sea coast to the Illyrian court at the play's outset, we might expect something out of our favorite book of fairy tales. When we get there, the furniture looks right, but the characters and their behavior are just a tad off.

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