Twelfth Night may be Shakespeare’s greatest play. It is not usually so regarded by the academy, the great tragedies holding pride of place, but that is because of a general critical bias that tragedy is a higher form than comedy, and that is because comedy is suspect because it is so much fun. There is a puritanical strain in literary and dramatic criticism, and a sense that entertainment panders to the low-brow in us. To be serious, we must be sad. To which we say, with Sir Toby: “Dost think because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”
Many of the characters in Twelfth Night would agree with the critics. The play begins with sadness: Orsino is sad because he loves Olivia and she does not return his love because she is sad because her brother has died (a year ago). The twins, Viola and Sebastian, are sad because each thinks the other has drowned. Viola grows sadder when she falls in love with Orsino, who cannot return her love because he thinks she is a man. Olivia grows sadder when she falls in love with Viola, who cannot return her love because she isn’t a man. Malvolio is simply congenitally grumpy. Sir Andrew is sad because he suffers from low self-esteem (and rightly so).
But then there are the other characters—Sir Toby, Feste, Maria, Fabian—who are congenitally cheerful. Twelfth Night, like the holiday for which it is named, is about the triumph of cheerfulness. The twins, of course, are not drowned, and the lovers all rearrange themselves and match up appropriately with each other. Only Andrew and Malvolio are left to mope and grump when the whirligig of time has brought in its revenges.
An odd thing about Twelfth Night: Shakespeare takes the .trouble to find a geographical setting for it. Virtually every one of his plays is based upon some other source: another play, a novel, a history. Shakespeare always sets his story wherever his source set his—except in Twelfth Night. The sources for this play are variously set in Modena, in Constantinople, in Cypress. Shakespeare chooses to set the play in Illyria.
Illyria is the Adriatic coast of the Balkan peninsula; north of Greece, south of Italy. It is—approximately—what we used to call Yugoslavia. It was not a political unit in Shakespeare’s time. Most of it was a part of the Ottoman Empire; the rest a part of the Venetian Empire. The original Illyrian people were an Indo-European tribe whose descendants today are the Albanians.
Shakespeare was no geographer, yet he seems to exploit his setting and expects his audience to respond to it. Viola asks to be presented to Orsino as a eunuch, and is described as having been fencing master for the Sophy: the Shah of Persia. So certainly there is a Middle Eastern sense to the place. And the melancholy that enriches the comedy has a vaguely Slavic—I would like to (but won’t) say Chekhovian—flavor.
So, we’ve set the play in what we think might have been Shakespeare’s idea of Illyria: a kind of Turko-Slavic duchy into which a couple of shipwrecked Italians intrude. No special concept, just following the playwright’s hints. We think it enhances and deepens the comedy; makes it both more serious and more funny.
Our text, as always, is from the First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays: no cuts, no additions, no re-writes.