Viola and Sebastian’s Illyria: Sea people and land people

Looking out on the Adriatic from the coast of north western Croatia.


The water at Rovinj sea-port on the west coast of Croatia, historical Illyria, is still, clear and green-blue. Artisan jewellery is draped on the stucco walls and last night’s wine bottles have been tidily placed on the window-sill for collection. Olivia has locked herself away; Orsino is dozily sighing in his lounge; and this static, still world is about to be violently interrupted by a catastrophic wreck.

When Viola sloughs up on the rocky shore, she’s so disoriented from the shuddering crash that split her from her twin brother that she doesn’t even know what country she’s in. And Rovinj could be in any country; in fact, over the past hundred years or so it has been. It’s on the western edge of the Istrian peninsula, which has been handed around among the Austro-Hungarian empire, Italy, Yugoslavia and now Croatia. The people eat truffles on weekdays, make the world’s best olive oil and have rich sharp wines with lunch. In the summer they drink Aperol in the market, and in the mild winter they share a bottle of sweet dark Prosek. Unlike most Mediterranean cultures, Istrians don’t sail, which I thought was very odd until I realised, why would they bother leaving? What could they possibly find that would be better than here? They have made wine for thousands of years and refined oil, honey, distilled alcohol and tourism. This is Illyria, lady.

A lot of people have talked about the “Illyria” in Twelfth Night and its meaning, reality and unreality: Illyria was a historical tribal region and Roman province that had disappeared from maps by Shakespeare’s time and in the play is a kind of loopy fantasyland. Very few people have looked for Messaline, where Viola and Sebastian come from, and their father, “that Sebastian of Messaline whom I know you have heard of”. Editors in footnotes have theorised “Messaline” is an anglicised version of Mytilene (Greece), Manzolino or Messina (both Italy), but I’m most persuaded by the theory it’s connected to Marseilles (France), which is “Massilia” in Latin. Critic Leo Salingar spotted a peg to a line in Plautus’ Menaechmi, one of the play’s sort-of sources, which reads “Istrians, Spaniards, Massilians, Illyrians…we’ve visited in our travels” (italics mine).

Marseilles is also a sea-port and maybe Viola and Sebastian survive the wreck because they can swim and adapt, and keep their heads above water. Viola tries out several oblique plans in her first scene, quickly testing and discarding them with the captain who was wrecked with her. First, she remembers that Orsino was a bachelor the last time she heard; the captain shoots her down, telling her about the duke’s obsession with Olivia. Viola immediately proposes entering Olivia’s service. The captain pooh-poohs that too, so Viola diplomatically compliments him and asks for his help to “conceal me what I am” and creep into Orsino’s household as a boy.

When Sebastian arrives on stage, he has been hustling just as much as his sister: he’s also disguised himself, as “Roderigo”, and like Viola has gained the financial and personal assistance of a benevolent sea captain. Antonio is much more deeply and emotionally committed to Sebastian than the nameless captain is to Viola, though, which makes sense since Sebastian is more forthcoming than his guarded sister. Even during the shipwreck Sebastian was spotted holding acquaintance with the waves, perched on a mast and gaily chatting away with the water. Viola’s captain calls Sebastian “most provident in peril”, ie most suited to and successful in danger, a description that could apply to both of them. The Messaline twins are adaptive and clever, and slightly selfish in love. They’re also damp and dangerous: sea people that surge onto a country of land people.

I realise I’m making Viola and Sebastian sound like grifters and I think part of their appeal is that they are. Sebastian milks his friend for money then falls into the household and bed of the richest lady in the country. Viola has fancied Orsino without seeing him, schemes to enter his life and eventually wins him  as a husband. But I think one of the play’s points is that all this energetic shape-shifting (whether for survival or opportunity) permanently changes people: Malvolio is irrevocably ruined after he tries to transform himself, and Viola suffers greatly during her time as Orsino’s servant. (Sebastian seems to breeze through relatively unharmed, which is so Sebastian, although he is physically attacked by Sir Toby and Sir Andrew.) But although she may start out with a plan, throughout most of the play Viola is just doing her best to dog-paddle through without being wrecked again. By the end she is so exhausted that she superficially accepts Orsino’s threat to kill her: “I, to do you rest, a thousand deaths would die”. She is a teenage girl who has gotten to experiment with sexual ambiguity and power, but she has also had to suppress her own identity to survive. In rereading the play for this post I noticed that her name “Viola” is never spoken until the last act, when she is reunited with Sebastian; the audience doesn’t hear the name of her true identity until her twin self recognises her.

It’s barely touched on in the play, but although Viola and Sebastian both shed their false identities of “Cesario” and “Roderigo” at the end, they also lose their birth identities of Viola and Sebastian of Messaline. Their father is notable enough for Antonio to have heard of, but Viola is all the daughters of her house, and Sebastian is all the brothers. What will happen to their estate now that they have married into the nobility of Illyria? (For that matter, where were they sailing together before the shipwreck – towards Messaline, or away from it?)

Wherever they were going, Viola and Sebastian seem happy to have landed in the static world of Illyria, where they can stop swimming and rest, drink wine, eat olives and learn to take root and grow.

On our first night in Rovinj we were walking around the stupidly beautiful coast when I spotted a woman and a man sitting on the rocks at the far western edge. Again I was struck by how still and calm the water was. It’s impossible to imagine a shipwreck here, although I could see a gentle breeze bringing driftwood up to the shore. The couple’s relationship was hard to tell: close, but not very sexual. Maybe they were backpackers; maybe winemakers; maybe they were on the last night of their honeymoon; maybe they were Viola and Sebastian. They weren’t moving. They were sitting in love and silence and grey waterproof jackets, watching a fisherman on the rocks, casting out into the still glimmering sea.

Sunset Viola and Sebastian

4 thoughts on “Viola and Sebastian’s Illyria: Sea people and land people

  1. Tess Barnes says:

    Hi Kerry,
    I am writing an analytical piece on Twelfth Night, specifically paralleling the water motif with the characters.
    I think this is a great article and would love to quote it in my assignment.
    Would that be okay with you?
    If so, I would need to reference your last name which I can't seem to find on your blog.

  2. Maria says:

    Dear Kerry,
    This piece is amazing, it was really a pleasure! And I loved the connection to the actual town of Rovinj.

    Actually, my question is the same as the one before me – I'm writing a paper on Illyria in Twelfth Night and would love to
    quote some lines from your article. Do you mind? If not, please let me know your last name, since I too cannot find it anywhere on the blog)

    Thank you in advance!

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