Arcadian landscape. W. W. Gilbert called the setting of the play’s first act “Arcadian,” and his stage directions indicate a river and a rustic bridge. However, the scene in which the action of Iolanthe begins might be described more truly as Fairyland, a place in which an Arcadian shepherdess can be a ward of Chancery, wooed by a shepherd who is the son of a union between a mortal and a fairy and who is a fairy down to his waist but has the lower half of a mortal. To a picturesque vista of grassy lawns and goldfish ponds, Conservative peers come marching to pay their court to Phyllis, and in this realm of infinite possibilities the stout Wagnerian queen of the fairies has been able to nestle in a nutshell, dive into a dewdrop, and curl up inside a tiny flower.
*Westminster Palace. London home of the British Parliament, where the moonlit face of the clock below Big Ben anchors the play’s second act in the reality of Victorian London. A sentry marches back and forth in precise fashion, meditating on the structure of party politics. The fairies have come to London in support of Strephon, the half-mortal shepherd, and the power they bring from their own magical world upsets the boundaries and expectations of Westminster and the House of Lords. Ultimately, the fairy queen reunites Strephon’s mother with her long-lost husband, the lord chancellor, proposes marriage to the sentry, and pairs off her troops with members of Parliament, who immediately sprout wings, and “away [they] go to Fairyland,” where “they will be surely happier.”