What is the importance of the contrasts between Octavius Caesar and Antony in Antony and Cleopatra?
Originally, Antony and Octavius Caesar were sharing power, with Lepidus. When Lepidus was expelled for supposedly being disloyal, that left Antony and Caesar. Caesar was cunning, farsighted, and manipulative. Antony was passionate and open to manipulation. Because of Antony’s personality, Caesar was able to defeat him.
In matters of the flesh, Antony exercised poor judgement. His portion of the Roman holdings included Egypt, and he fell under Cleopatra’s spell. This was difficult, because he was already married. Then, at Caesar’s behest, he married again—to Caesar’s sister. Both marriages caused trouble for Antony. His first wife (in the course of the play), Fulvia, tried to act against Caesar. His second wife was Caesar’s sister, so by betraying her he was betraying Caesar. This was not a good move.
In a conversation between Antony’s man Enobarbus and Caesar’s man Maecenas, Shakespeare addresses the problems Antony’s relationship with Cleopatra is causing.
Now Antony must leave her utterly.
Never; he will not:
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies; for vilest things
Become themselves in her: that the holy priests
Bless her when she is riggish. (Act 2, Scene 2)
The implication is that Antony is under the spell of a woman, which makes him weak in the eyes of the Romans. Caesar uses this to discredit Antony, famously reading Antony’s will and telling the people about the Donations, a ceremony in Egypt where Antony bequeathed land to children he had with Cleopatra. This outraged the Romans.
During the battle between Antony and Caesar, Antony was beaten soundly. He had few men, and more deserting every day due to his erratic behavior. Caesar had Agrippa to run his battles. Antony was outstrategized and outnumbered.
Antony showed his volatility when he had Caesar’s messenger whipped. This was an egregious violation of protocol, but it also showed that he was losing control. He even challenged Caesar to a duel. Neither got the reaction Antony hoped.
He calls me boy; and chides, as he had power
To beat me out of Egypt; my messenger
He hath whipp'd with rods; dares me to personal combat,
Caesar to Antony: let the old ruffian know
I have many other ways to die; meantime
Laugh at his challenge. (Act 4, Scene 1)
Maecenas tells Caesar to pay no mind to Antony’s challenge. They will just use his state of mind against him. Caesar will never accept it. He has the advantage, and everyone knows it.
Antony commits suicide because he knows that Caesar has won. He is ruthless, and Antony is afraid of what will happen if he is captured. He has to take the only noble act left open to him, and take his own life. Cleopatra goads him to this, making him think that she has killed herself so that he will do it. Later, Cleopatra kills herself after talking with Caesar and realizing she cannot seduce him like she did his (adopted) father.