All for Love dramatizes the clash between the forces of authority in the world and the desire for personal freedom. The former is represented by Rome under the new emperor Octavius, with its strict laws, military power, and strong central government. The latter is represented by Egypt under Antony and Cleopatra, a kingdom outside the sway of the Roman Empire yet that values pleasure and personal choice. The clash between Octavius and Antony is particularly resonant for Dryden, who was writing in the aftermath of significant political upheaval. In the mid-1600s, a group of English Parliamentarians rebelled against King Charles I and executed him, setting up a republic to rule the kingdom. Dryden wrote All for Love after the English monarchy had been restored to the throne, but he was still very concerned with the proper relationship between authority and freedom in his own political context. Throughout the play, Dryden argues that authority and freedom should be mixed, though he particularly extols the value of authority in the form of a strong government. The fact that the play ends with Antony and Cleopatra’s double suicide, the ascent of Octavius, and the end of the Roman Republic suggests that Dryden was strongly invested in the assertion of hierarchical political authority, even as he values the romantic freedom and passion of his central protagonists.
In a literal sense, the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra stages the clash between authority and freedom because it is illegal. Under Roman law, Antony is married to another woman, so the authority of social and legal sanction is on Octavia’s side. Throughout the play, Cleopatra suggests that she would like to be married to Antony. She laments that her natural inclination is to be a “wife, a silly, harmless, household dove,” but that instead she is forced to act the dishonorable role of the mistress. She is clearly jealous of Octavia and obsesses about the personal qualities and beauty of a woman positioned as model of virtuous Roman womanhood.
However, she ultimately suggests that there is a legitimacy to her relationship with Antony that transcends Roman laws. Anticipating their double suicide, Cleopatra implies that this will be a truer marriage between her and Antony than his legally sanctioned connection with “dull Octavia.” She compares their deaths to “our spousals,” which will bind them together with “a tie too strong / For Roman laws to break.” By staging their deaths in this way, Cleopatra appeals to higher, divine laws that transcend human-made laws and conventions. Although Antony may be married to Octavia, she implies that she will be his true wife in a spiritual sense, when they ascend to heaven and are freed from “Roman laws.” In other words, Cleopatra elevates the value of freedom over that of authority—a position Dryden criticizes as the play unfolds.
The conflict between Antony and Octavius is framed as a problem of authority for the world, not simply for these two men. The “triumvirate”—a council of three who briefly ruled Rome, consisting of Antony, Octavius, and a character who does not appear in All for Love, Lepidus—ultimately emerges, in Dryden’s view, as an ineffective form of government. Dryden prefers a strong monarchy, a political position voiced by his characters in the play’s conclusion. Antony himself admits that the world needs a single strong leader when he gives up the fight against Octavius. He argues that “’Tis time the world / Should have a lord, and know whom to obey.” He acknowledges that the power struggle between the two of them has caused much war and death—the natural byproduct of divided leadership. By choosing to die, he cedes power to Octavius in order to facilitate political stability. Indeed, historically, the triumph of Octavius over Antony was the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire. Octavius became the emperor Augustus and led Rome through a so-called “golden age” of peace, flourishing, and great literary production. Dryden alludes to this in his citation of “golden age” classical poets like Virgil, implying that Antony’s defeat was the necessary precondition of Rome’s success as an authoritarian empire.
Antony’s statement that “the world / Should have a lord, and know whom to obey” mirrors Dryden’s own views about political authority. Dryden was a strong royalist who supported the centralized powers of the English monarch, a position he elaborates at length in his preface. At the same time, however, he suggests that authority should always be tempered with freedom, and vice versa. Dryden calls the English monarchy the best form of government in the world. He argues that the English have significant personal freedoms while still retaining the benefit of a strong monarchy—but a monarchy that is “without tyranny.” For example, he points out that no one in England is actively persecuted for their religious faith or forced to pay taxes for foreign wars.
Although Dryden is in favor of some degree of personal freedom, when it comes to outright rebellion, he is stern. He thinks that all attempts at “reform” are dangerous, since any rebellion—even if it just claims to want to reform rather than take down the government—strikes at “the root of power, which is obedience.” In other words, Dryden has little toleration for disobedience to the established political order. This real-world perspective on current events in England is expressed in All for Love when Antony cedes his authority to Octavius in order to avoid the dangers of rebellion and civil war. The fact Dryden had experienced the horrors of civil war firsthand in his own lifetime, may account for why he seems to support Octavius’s authoritarian power over the freedom represented by Antony and Cleopatra.
Ultimately, then, while Dryden argues that authority should be mixed with freedom, he generally tends to come down on the side of authority. For instance, he writes in the preface that English citizens are already as free as they can be—any additional freedom would just be “license,” or a pushing of boundaries beyond what is acceptable. Dryden is loyal to monarchical authority, above all else, and he doesn’t seem to see the need to advocate for any additional freedoms that aren’t currently permitted by the state. Similarly, while All for Love offers a sympathetic depiction of two lovers, Antony and Cleopatra, who rebel against forms of political and social authority, Dryden doesn’t allow them to triumph. This suggests the play’s fundamental political conservatism. In the end, Antony and Cleopatra commit suicide and Octavian takes power as sole emperor—thus teaching the world “whom to obey.”
Authority vs. Freedom ThemeTracker
Authority vs. Freedom Quotes in All For Love
We have already all the liberty which freeborn subjects can enjoy, and all beyond it is but license.
Nature meant me
A wife, a silly, harmless, household dove,
Fond without art, and kind without deceit;
But Fortune, that has made a mistress of me,
Has thrust me out to the wide world.
’Tis time the world
Should have a lord, and know whom to obey.