At the time Shakespeare was writing, no actual place called Illyria existed. In the ancient Greek era, a region called Illyria was located off the Adriatic Coast in territory that now includes parts of Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia, as well as other regions. Illyria ceased to exist as an independent kingdom when it was conquered by the Romans in the 2nd Century BCE, and was reorganized as a Roman province called Illyrium, which was subsequently re-divided and renamed in 10 BCE. However, people still continued to use the name Illyria as a general reference point for the region. For Shakespeare, choosing this setting served a number of purposes. The ancient history of the setting meant the era could remain unclear, while the foreign and exotic nature of the location would have piqued an audience’s curiosity. Much like Viola, who is unsure what to expect from this fantastical land, audiences would have been more willing to suspend disbelief about the characters’ over-the-top adventures. Viola laments at the start of the play, “And what should I do in Illyria?” (1.2.). The answer is, as an unknown stranger, she can really do whatever she wants, propelling the fantastical plot.
Shakespeare weaves together real and invented place references in the play. Many of Shakespeare’s comedies are set in Italy, and most of the characters in Twelfth Night have Italian names, suggesting the play is set in the vicinity of Italy. Viola and Sebastian refer to their homeland as Messaline. Some scholars have suggested that Messaline is meant to correspond to either Mytilene, in Greece or Messina, in Italy, which would reinforce a more familiar Mediterranean context for the play. However, other references hint at a decidedly un-Mediterranean locale. When Antonio and Sebastian split up to explore the area separately, Antonio suggests they meet “In the south suburbs / At the Elephant / Is best to lodge” (3.3.). In Shakespeare’s time, the Globe Theatre, where many of his plays were performed, was located south of central London, and a well-known pub named the Elephant was close by and frequented by actors and playwrights. This reference is likely a joke to contemporary London audiences. The reference to the Elephant also suggests that the setting in Twelfth Night is meant to create opportunities for comedic developments rather than align with a single real world location.