Where It All Goes Down
Buckle your seatbelts, Shmoopers, because the setting in Utopia is a whole web of goodness. One level of setting is where the action of the primary narration takes place; in other words, the stuff we hear from Thomas More about his conversation. The second level is the action of the secondary narration, the stuff we hear from Hythloday that takes place, well, pretty much everywhere.
The Primary Setting, brought to you by Thomas More
Okay, so if you think this primary/secondary stuff is kind of confusing, you can relax. The primary setting of Utopia is nice and simple: it's a city in Belgium called Antwerp and it takes place roughly in the year 1515. Within Antwerp, almost everything except the initial run-in happens in the garden of More's house. See? Simple.
Why Antwerp? Didn't More live in England? He did, but since Utopia is a story about travel, it does makes sense that More would want to set his story somewhere away from home. Even though he can't compete with the world traveling Hythloday is doing, he can show that being involved in Renaissance political and intellectual circles (as he was) means that travel is a part of day-to-day life.
It also shows that even though More works for the English King, he's still an internationally-minded person. Just because he has the interests of England close to his heart doesn't mean he isn't down with other countries. Hmmm, sounds rather different than the isolated island of Utopia, doesn't it?
If you're interested in the specific setting of More's garden, check out "Locus amoenus" in Symbols, Imagery, and Allegory.
The Secondary Settings, brought to you by Raphael Hythloday
While the gang's all chatting in More's garden, Hythloday's stories take us practically around the world. The two central world spots we hear about are the home of Cardinal Morton in England and, it almost goes without saying, the island of Utopia.
The home of the Cardinal is important because it represents another version of the kind of philosophical discussion that More, Giles, and Hythloday are all having. See? Secondary setting mirrors the primary setting... whoa.
Because Utopia doesn't actually exist, we only get a vague description of where the island might be geographically: somewhere between the Caribbean and India. Also remember that cartographers (people who make maps) were only just starting to figure out the organization of the planet, so we can cut them some slack.
If you're looking for the nitty-gritty details of the geography of the island of Utopia, you should check out the very beginning of the Detailed Plot Summary of "Book 2," where Hythloday tells you all you'd ever want to know... and more.
The fact that Utopia is an island is also really important. And if you weren't already thinking that islands tend to be places where special stuff goes down, More kind of hits your over the head with it: Utopia is a man-made island! One day it's a regular old peninsula, the next day, it's an island. In some sense, it seems like Utopia needs to be an island. Why? Well, islands are special places and are often the site of "off-the-grid" type activities. Check out "The Island" under Symbols, Imagery, and Allegory to have more of the mystery revealed.
The Historical Setting
The historical setting of Utopia might actually be, weirdly, even more important than its physical setting. Why? Well, one of the jokes of Utopia (and this tends to be true of u/dystopian literature in general) is that even though it appears to be all about this imaginary, non-existent place, it's really invested in its actual social, economic, and intellectual place in the real world.
For More, that world was Tudor England, aka The English Renaissance. The Tudors were the ruling dynasty of England during the 16th century and produced two of England's most famous monarchs: Henry VIII and his daughter, Elizabeth I.
Thomas More and Tudor England
Okay, now for the deets.
Thomas More was the Lord Chancellor to Henry VIII, which pretty much just means he was a big deal. The two men were actually quite close, and More advised Henry not only on issues of politics, but also on issues of morality, religion, and philosophy. He encouraged Henry to be an intellectually-minded king, tutoring him in various aspects of philosophy and literature.
Hopefully, it's starting to become pretty clear how Utopia is very directly dealing with these kinds of issues. More was a devout Catholic—he almost became a monk—but also cared deeply about being of service to his country. So we can imagine he spent a lot of time thinking about how to be both of those things simultaneously.
Considering that he did have a great deal of respect for Henry and thought he had the potential to be a philosophical king, it's possible that the ambivalence toward Utopian communism More-the-character voices was shared by More-the-man. Kings might be able to work, maybe.
We can think of Utopia as reflecting a larger trend in European politics at the time, which was an increase in the political power of particular, individual kings along with an increase in attention to questions of intellect and philosophy. More, it seems, is trying to think juggle these two realities. And you know what? It ain't easy.
Sadly, the promising relationship More and Henry had initially was to end in tragedy. Henry, as you probably know, decided he was so over his wife, Catherine of Spain, and wanted to marry this cute young thing Ann Boleyn (Elizabeth I's mama, by the way). Since divorce was pretty much a complete no-go in the Catholic church, Henry decided he would be his own church. How humble. More couldn't morally accept this break with his faith and refused to support Henry. Henry was not pleased and had poor Thomas More beheaded.
Thomas More and Humanism
Like the name suggests, at its core, Humanism was all about humans: how we should live, how we should learn, how we should govern ourselves, and so on. That might sound kind of vague and obvious, but before this, people didn't really think in those terms, often turning simply to God as the one, big answer.
The intellectual viewpoint of Humanism, instead, promotes the idea that God empowers individuals to figure things out for themselves and so, hello, we should all be doing that. It's these humanists who are responsible for the rediscovery of Greek and Latin learning and generally advocate for educational reform that puts philosophy and moral living—communicated through art and literature—first.
Thomas More was one of these guys, and he was a major force for bringing Humanism into England. Because Humanism is all about understanding ourselves philosophically, as opposed to nationally or strictly religiously, Humanists tended to be pretty international people. And sure enough, but what kind of people do we meet and talk to in Utopia? Yep, Giles, Hythloday, Cardinal Morton—all these people would have been considered part of a Humanist circle.
The question then becomes, is the island of Utopia More describes in his book a kind of Humanist ideal? There's no easy answer, but we will point out that there is a lot of philosophy and Greek learning happening on that island, but not a ton of individualism. As usual, we're going to let you think this one out.