All for Love is a play preoccupied with change. It asks how the sudden loss of power impacts two people, Antony and Cleopatra, whose sense of self been defined by their status as two of the ancient world’s most powerful monarchs. Antony’s response to the ruination of his fortunes is to constantly speculate about how his time in Egypt has changed him. Cleopatra, too, is obsessed with retaining her royal authority even as that power slips away from her. In a broader sense, All for Love is a play about change because it takes a very old story that has been often retold in literature—the decline and fall of the historical lovers Antony and Cleopatra—and offers a new, updated version for seventeenth-century English audiences that speaks to their own concerns. In the end, Dryden further subverts readers’ expectations by arguing that love is more constant than politics, fame, or wealth.
Dryden’s verse prologue admits that the story of Antony and Cleopatra has been “oft told.” However, his version is different from his predecessors’—most famously, William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. In this sense, Dryden sees the authority of antiquity and English literary history itself as subject to change and alteration. His willingness to innovate—inserting new characters, new verse styles, and unhistorical events—further implies his overarching interest in the theme of change and suggests the value of creating art that resonates with contemporary audiences. At the same time, however, his depiction of Antony and Cleopatra as constant in their love for one another also reveals his conservativism and investment in continuity. Although the political landscape of All for Love changes dramatically—not coincidentally, much like mid-late 1600s England, which had experienced a civil war and a consequent transformation in society and politics—Dryden’s central protagonists fundamentally stay the same. As in all other versions of the story of Antony and Cleopatra, the lovers remain constant to each other and die tragically at the end of the play.
There is continuity to Dryden’s version of Antony and Cleopatra in that, like other fictional depictions of the lovers, he has drawn heavily on classical sources (particularly Plutarch) in his generally positive depiction of the protagonists. However, his version is more contemporary in that it is written in a “neoclassical” style that was very popular in Dryden’s time. For instance, he has observed the “unities” of time and place—which is to say, the convention in classical drama that all the action of a play should take place in the same place and within twenty-four hours. Unlike Shakespeare’s play, All for Love is written exclusively in blank verse (non-rhyming poetry) rather than rhyme. In the 1600s, blank verse was a relatively new innovation and was associated with progress, as when John Milton claimed in Paradise Lost (1678) that he was restoring poetry to “liberty” by freeing it from the “bondage” of rhyme. Another major innovation is that Dryden uses artistic license in making Octavia, Antony’s Roman wife, come to Egypt and meet Cleopatra. In the preface, he defends himself for creating this fictional meeting on the grounds that it is dramatically necessary. He also innovates by attacking the strict rules of French drama (which was very popular at the time), complaining that such inflexibility makes it difficult to try anything new.
Yet even as Dryden rejects conventions that would limit his freedom as a playwright, he seems to praise the virtue of constancy within the play itself. In the play, both Antony and Cleopatra place a great deal of emphasis on constancy in love in particular. As everything else crumbles around them, both become paranoid that their lovers might also make a change in their affections. Antony almost leaves Cleopatra to return to his wife Octavia, a decision that throws Cleopatra into despair. Ultimately, however, Antony decides to remain on the grounds that it is better to be constant and loyal, even in a technically illegitimate and illegal love affair. In this sense, Antony is paradoxically a disloyal and changeable husband to Octavia and a constant lover to Cleopatra. Cleopatra also toys with the idea of leaving Antony for his friend Dollabella, whom she tries to use to make Antony jealous. However, she is unable to go through with it, since she loves Antony too much. For Dryden, this constancy in love is what makes Antony and Cleopatra admirable. Although they may have neglected their public and political duties, they are models of loyal lovers.
While Antony and Cleopatra’s love is ultimately presented as constant, Antony’s other defining traits—his power, authority, and military might—are stripped away from him one by one, leaving him to wonder whether he is even the same person at all. Ventidius, Antony’s old friend, claims that Antony is very changed from what he was before his affair. Where before he was “the lord of half mankind,” now he is “altered” and “made a woman’s toy.” The implication is that Cleopatra has made Antony soft and effeminate—that now he is unfit for the masculine pursuits of battle and governance because he has been spending all his time in sensual pleasures.
For Antony, change is also defined as cultural difference. He clearly sees himself as Roman still: for example, he declares that “I’m a Roman, / Bred to the rules of soft humanity.” The present tense—“I am a Roman”—suggests that Antony thinks this aspect of his identity has remained constant, despite the ten years he has spent in Egypt. At the same time, however, Ventidius suggests that there is something about Antony that isn’t quite Roman anymore: “Can any Roman see and know him now?” he asks. After spending such a long time away from Rome, a Roman might not be recognizable as a Roman anymore. This raises questions about what it means to be a Roman—does it require being in Rome, or is it a certain set of behaviors and values that can survive the loss of Rome itself? Similarly, Cleopatra tries to reassert her identity even when she has lost everything. Just before her suicide, Cleopatra dresses herself in her finest royal robes and seats herself beside Antony on the throne of Egypt. This is a reminder of their former greatness, demonstrating to the onlookers that she is still queen of Egypt, even if Octavius has conquered her country.
The conclusion of All for Love features a striking reversal to the conventional wisdom about continuity and change that has prevailed throughout the play. Antony ends up concluding that Cleopatra didn’t represent the change that “altered” him, as Ventidius accused him—rather, she was the continuity, the constant source of love and inspiration in his life. After learning that Cleopatra has allegedly died, Antony says that he has no more desire for power and glory. He admits that “I was but great for her; my power, my empire / Were but my merchandise to buy her love.” Throughout the play, people have accused Antony of losing his empire for love of Cleopatra. In this moment, however, Antony suggests that it is precisely the opposite: he only had an empire in the first place because of her. In this way, the real constant of All for Love turns out to be Antony and Cleopatra’s love for each other, not the rise and fall in their political fortunes.
Continuity and Change ThemeTracker
Continuity and Change Quotes in All For Love
Can any Roman see and know him now,
Thus altered from the lord of half mankind,
Unbent, unsinewed, made a woman’s toy,
Shrunk from the vast extent of all his honours,
And cramped within a corner of the world?
My Queen is dead.
I was but great for her; my power, my empire
Were but my merchandise to buy her love,
And conquered kings, my factors.
Ten years’ love,
And not a moment lost, but all improved
To th’utmost joys: what ages have we lived!
And now to die each other’s; and so dying,
While hand in hand we walk in groves below,
Whole troops of lovers’ ghosts shall flock about us,
And all the train be ours.