All for Love might be regarded as one of the early texts of Romantic “sentimentalism”—a literary movement largely associated with the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that emphasized passion, sentiment, and feeling over rational considerations. Dryden clearly hoped that his play would appeal to the finer feelings of audiences, particularly women, since he writes in his verse epilogue that he hopes that he will be judged by the “fair sex,” who will enjoy the story of a man, Antony, who died “all for love.” Ultimately, All for Love is the story of the tragic outcomes that result from choosing passion over reason. Yet the play also suggests that passion is “noble,” admirable, and appealing as a character trait—and that however “unreasonable,” Antony and Cleopatra are tragic heroes for choosing that passion over the cold-hearted logic that would see them separate.
Both Antony and Cleopatra constantly emphasize that their passion for each other is illogical. Reason would dictate that they prioritize their duties as rulers above their personal life, but their feelings for each other are so powerful that they cannot be controlled or contained. Cleopatra even calls her love a “noble madness.” This emphasizes both the excessiveness of her love—it is “madness”—but also its associations with her nobility and royalty. Cleopatra says that only low-born people have “moderate sadness”; she has “transcendent passions” that “soar … quite out of reason’s view.” In this way, the “transcendence” of her passion is associated with the nobility of her social position as a queen. She is so greatly passionate, in other words, because of her “greatness.” Similarly, Antony also claims that “I have lost my reason” because of his love. The love between Antony and Cleopatra is so world-defining and famous precisely because it is inordinate and unreasonable. No one who loved “reasonably” would be able to give up everything for love.
At the same, however, Dryden is careful to stipulate that Antony and Cleopatra have the capacity for both reason and passion—it’s just that they choose to follow the latter course, which results in tragedy. In the preface to the play, Dryden explains that All for Love is not a tragedy in classical sense of a hero who is subject to a fate beyond his control. He argues that Antony and Cleopatra did not commit their “crimes of love” by any “necessity or fatal ignorance.” Their choice was “wholly voluntary, since our passions are, or ought to be, within our power.” In other words, they didn’t have to choose to overrule their reason. In this sense, Dryden’s version of the story depicts two people who deliberately allow their passions to rule them. For Dryden, this free choice is what makes Antony and Cleopatra such appealing tragic protagonists. They are neither pictures of “perfect virtue” nor “altogether wicked.” This “middle course” in their characterization makes them sympathetic figures, since it makes their choice of passion over reason seem relatable and understandable.
The dichotomy between reason and passion is particularly stark in Antony’s choice between Cleopatra and his wife Octavia. It is certainly the more reasonable choice for Antony to go back to Octavia, thus returning to his family and making peace with her brother Octavius. However, her reasonableness is precisely why he can’t love her. Octavia makes good arguments for why he should return to her, Antony admits, but these will not persuade him to leave Cleopatra. “I can ne’er be conquered but by love, / And you do all for duty.” Although Octavia is beautiful and virtuous, Antony can never love her because their relationship is bound by ties of duty, not passion and choice. For Antony, passion is what motivates romantic love—and by extension, the drama of his downfall.
Indeed, Antony’s evident passion for Cleopatra leads to tragedy because it causes Octavia to leave him again rather than making peace with Octavius. Thinking that Cleopatra is romantically involved with Dollabella, Antony becomes visibly enraged and devastated. Octavia complains that Antony should show so much distress at the loss of Cleopatra, coming to the conclusion that Antony will never truly love her—which is true. Cleopatra herself negatively compares Antony’s duty to Octavia with his passion for her. When Antony says he “respects” her, Cleopatra says that she despises that word—“Is that a word / For Antony to use to Cleopatra?”—because it is emotionally “cold,” fit for a wife like Octavia. Clearly the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra can never involve more moderate and temperate emotions like “respect.” Their relationship is depicted as always passionate, which is precisely why it leads to their downfall—since their immoderate emotions lead them to make poor choices, like Antony failing to make peace with Octavia and Octavius.
Antony and Cleopatra allow their passions to rule them into what Antony calls their “mutual ruin.” It is arguably not necessary for them to die: it would have been more reasonable to try to make peace with Octavius. Antony has the opportunity to reconcile with Octavius through the diplomatic efforts of his wife Octavia and his friend Ventidius. Cleopatra considers buying her freedom and the independence of her kingdom by betraying Antony. However, both come to the conclusion that their lives are not worth living without each other, and they prefer to die in a double suicide rather than compromise their convictions. In this way, their passion overrules their reason, leading them to choose death with each other rather than making a more rational choice.
Passion vs. Reason ThemeTracker
Passion vs. Reason Quotes in All For Love
[T]he crimes of love which they both committed were not occasioned by any necessity or fatal ignorance, but were wholly voluntary, since our passions are, or ought to be, within our power.
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.