Map of Illyria


This map is a contemporary image of Illyria, the fictional location of the action in Twelfth Night. At the beginning of the play, the twins Viola and Sebastian are shipwrecked and separated on its shores. The map itself comes from Theatrum orbis terrarum (1570), an atlas by the Flemish scholar and geographer Abraham Ortelius (1527–1598). The title of the book means ‘The Theatre of the World’.

England and Illyria

When Shakespeare was writing, Illyria referred to a region of land on the coast of the Adriatic Sea, north of modern central Albania, which was under the control of the Venetian Republic. Some scholars have argued the connotations of ‘Illyria’ are more important than the actual location. For some the sound evokes ‘Elysium’, the abode of the happy dead in Greek mythology. For others, it was a by-word for riotous excess.

Despite the exotic location, the society seems closer to 17th-century England than the Cyprus and Constantinople of Shakespeare’s most up-to-date source, Barnaby Riche’s novella ‘Of Apolonius and Silla’ (1581).

England and Italy

Part of the comic action of the play stems from contrasting unsophisticated Englishness with imported continental models of behaviour. The fashionable dances of which Sir Toby displays his knowledge in Act 1 are one example, and the aborted duel between Cesario and Sir Andrew in Act 3 are another, apparently drawing on a 1595 fencing manual by the Italian Vincentio Saviolo.

Scholars have read the location of the play in different ways. For Richard Wilson, ‘Shakespeare’s Illyria maps the religious politics of Elizabethan London’: by setting the action elsewhere, Shakespeare gave himself license to comment on his surroundings. There may be an analogy here with the commentary which the court fool, Feste, is allowed and the older ‘lord of misrule’ traditions which existed before the Protestant Reformation. In these, a safe space temporarily opened up for the critique of the social order. For the scholar Keir Elam, the undefined nature of Illyria 'allows audiences and directors to project their own mental sets onto the space'.

Related articles

An introduction to Shakespeare’s comedy

Article by:
John Mullan

John Mullan considers the key characteristics of Shakespeare's varied comedies, but he also considers the ways the playwright mixes genres by bringing comedy into his tragedies and tragedy into his comedies.

Braun & Hogenberg and after: the town plans of the 17th century

Article by:
James Elliot
Town and city

James Elliot explores the influence of Georg Braun and Frans Hogenberg's seminal atlas, the Civitates Orbis Terrarum, on 17th-century map-making.

Twelfth Night and festive comedy

Article by:
Penny Gay

Penny Gay considers the qualities of Twelfth Night that make it a festive comedy, from its romantic setting to the persistent riddling of its characters.

Related collection items

Related works

Twelfth Night

Created by: William Shakespeare

Twelfth Night is the last night of the Christmas season, when the normally rigid households of Shakespeare’s ...