The doomed love story of Antony and Cleopatra dramatizes the conflict between an individual’s personal desires and his or her public duties to the state, the community, and the greater good. This dichotomy between what Dryden calls “love” and “honor” is a rich source of dramatic tension in the play. It is the central conflict for the protagonist, Antony, who is torn between his love for Cleopatra and his obligations as a husband, father, and leader of Rome. Similarly, Cleopatra must decide whether to protect her kingdom or her lover. Ultimately, Antony and Cleopatra choose each other over these public duties—a decision foreshadowed in the play’s title, All for Love, which refers to Antony and Cleopatra’s choice to give up everything they have (“all”) for “love.” The play is a cautionary tale about the consequences of pursuing love at the expense of honor, though Dryden also somewhat contradictorily suggests that Antony and Cleopatra’s willingness to die for love makes them admirable, if morally flawed, romantic heroes.
From the beginning, Antony and Cleopatra’s love is “dishonorable” by society’s standards, since they live together and are not married. Worse, Antony is in fact married to someone else for most of the duration of his relationship with Cleopatra. Ten years before the events of All for Love, Antony left his first wife, Fulvia, to be with Cleopatra in Egypt. After Fulvia’s death, he became one of the three members of the triumvirate (counsel of three) who ruled Rome. Antony recognized that he needed to have good relations with his co-ruler, Octavius, so he married Octavius’s sister Octavia. However, this ended disastrously when Antony left his second wife for Cleopatra as well. In this way, his bid to make an honorable marriage failed because of his love for Cleopatra.
Antony and Octavia also have two daughters, Agrippina and Antonia, who have not seen their father in years. Antony has undeniably dishonored Octavia by leaving her and their children to live with Cleopatra—his friend Ventidius says that “you have ruined her.” When Octavia comes to Egypt, Antony is so moved by the sight of his two children that he pledges to return to his marriage, suggesting that he feels guilty for the dishonor he has inflicted on his family. Cleopatra also suffers from the dishonor and illegitimacy of her relationship with Antony. Although she has had many suitors, she turned down all their offers of “honorable” marriage to live with Antony. As a result, although she is faithful to Antony, the world thinks of her as a “faithless prostitute,” as Octavia calls her.
Antony’s personal romantic decisions also have disastrous consequences for his status as a military leader. First, he fatally insulted Octavius by abandoning his sister (and Antony’s wife) Octavia, leading to a breakdown in diplomatic relations between the two men. Consequently, Octavius brings a powerful army to Egypt to fight against Antony and Cleopatra. Even in these dire straits, however, Antony admits that he has not done much for his army: “I have … disgraced / The name of soldier with inglorious ease.” Although Antony was once a brilliant military leader, he is too infatuated with love for Cleopatra to win much honor in war.
During the Battle of Actium at sea, Cleopatra flees with her ships. Antony follows her in retreat, leading to his defeat. Antony calls this a “stain to honor” and a “lasting shame.” But although he recognizes that this is a dereliction of his duty as a commander, he loves Cleopatra so much that he can’t help following her and ensuring her safety rather than the welfare of the troops. Even after his dishonorable flight at the Battle of Actium, Ventidius tells Antony that not all is lost, since he has an army in Lower Syria that is loyal to Antony’s cause. However, the army will only fight for Antony if he comes to them. They do not want to fight for Cleopatra in Egypt, since they think that Antony is her “slave.” Antony is unable to leave Cleopatra to go lead them, even though it would save his honor and military standing. He ends up defeated by Octavius and committing suicide in the Egyptian palace, a humiliating end for a man who once ruled half the world.
Both Cleopatra and Antony are significant political figures with a great deal of power, which they both lose as a consequence of their love: Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, loses her kingdom, and Antony, one of the three rulers of Rome, loses his empire. Antony acknowledges that his decade in Egypt represented time away from “the business of the world” required of a leader. He gave “whole years” to Cleopatra instead of to the government of Rome, making him an ineffective politician. He would also never have begun the power struggle with Octavius if he hadn’t gone away to Egypt. In this way, love was in direct conflict with his duties to his country.
The friends and servants around Antony and Cleopatra can’t understand why they would throw away all their power and responsibilities for love. Ventidius accuses Antony of throwing away half the world’s empire—“Europe, Africa, Asia”—all for “one light, worthless woman.” Similarly, Cleopatra’s eunuch Alexas encourages her to betray Antony to Octavius and thus save herself and her kingdom’s independence. Although both consider the possibility of choosing honor over love—Antony considers returning to his marriage and leaving Cleopatra, and Cleopatra contemplates swearing loyalty to Octavius in a bid to preserve her freedom—they both ultimately decide to choose each other. As Antony observes, “we have loved each other / Into our mutual ruin.” Love leads to “ruin” because it draws down Octavius’s wrath upon them, leading to the destruction of their army and their joint suicide.
Throughout All for Love, Antony is conflicted about whether he cares more for honor or love. At times, he thinks of leaving Cleopatra in order to preserve his honor as a husband, father, and political leader; he claims that he loves her beyond “life, conquest, empire” yet not beyond “honour.” In reality, however, he can’t go through with it, suggesting that he does not in fact value honor more than love. Ultimately, he decides that “the world” is “not worth my care” in comparison to Cleopatra, and chooses suicide and military defeat in order to be by her side. In this way, then, love turns out to outweigh all other considerations—an admirable romantic choice, if not necessarily a sound political or moral decision.
Honor vs. Love ThemeTracker
Honor vs. Love 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?
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.
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.