In his play All for Love, John Dryden reflects on the theme of love as the play's characters feel and express love in various ways. Let's examine a few of these "loves."
Antony claims to love Cleopatra. In fact, he has abandoned his wife, Octavia, and their children to live with Cleopatra in Egypt. He clearly does not love his family all that much, but we wonder if he truly loves Cleopatra either or if their relationship is more about lust than love. When Octavia's brother, Octavius Caesar, threatens to attack Alexandria because of Antony's disloyalty, Antony starts to mope and distances himself from Cleopatra. His "love" quickly falls away when he becomes distracted from his lust.
Antony further reveals his lack of love for Cleopatra when Ventidius tempts Antony to take ten thousand soldiers and fight Octavius. There's a catch, though. Antony will only get those soldiers if he leaves Cleopatra. Antony decides the offer is too good to pass up.
For her part, Cleopatra seems to have a better grasp of love than Antony. Octavius tempts her to betray Antony, but she declines. She may not have even told Antony about Octavius's letter if Antony had not blamed her for all their problems, whining that he would be safe in Rome if he hadn't fallen in love with her and even questioning her devotion by reminding her that she had once been Octavius's mistress. Cleopatra patiently puts up with Antony's sulky complaining, and the two make up. We still might wonder, however, about the nature of Cleopatra's love. Their "love" is based on deception and disloyalty, so we have to ask ourselves if it is really true love.
At this point, Antony's wife arrives on the scene. Octavia knows that Antony doesn't love her, but he is still her husband, and she wants him to be with her and their children. She almost succeeds in convincing Antony to return to Rome, but then he hears that Cleopatra has betrayed him with another man and becomes jealous. Octavia gives up. Any love she once had for Antony is gone, and perhaps she realizes that she is better off without him.
By the end of the play, "love" is in shambles. Cleopatra tries to kill herself. Antony, thinking Cleopatra has been successful, actually does kill himself. Cleopatra finds Antony at the brink of death, and the two again reconcile. Cleopatra then takes her own life and joins Antony in death.
We're left wondering if there is any true love in this play. If love is willing the best for another person and trying in every way to help that person attain the best, then none of the characters are truly in love. Antony seems to want only what is best for himself, and he changes his mind about that frequently. Cleopatra wants another woman's husband. Octavia just gives up and decides it is easier to let Antony do what he wants. In the end, Antony and Cleopatra both destroy themselves for "love" of each other, but that certainly isn't willing the best for anyone. Indeed, this play seems to be more about what love is not than what it actually is.
The theme of love in John Dryden's 1677 drama, All for Love, can be discussed simply within the context of the title of the play and the Shakespearean tragedy upon which Dryden's play is based. The story of the ill-fated lovers Antony and Cleopatra is told in five acts, all of which focus on the last stages of their relationship.
Throughout the play, the theme of love comes into play in several ways that can be discussed through conflicts that take place between different characters. For example, in Act I, Ventidius tries to interfere with Antony's love for Cleopatra. In Act II, Cleopatra conflicts with Ventidius directly, so she tries to make her love and faithfulness to Antony clear to Ventidius; she is successful and Antony rejoices because of her demonstration of love for him. In Acts III and IV, the theme of love can be traced in the interactions between Antony and his wife, Octavia, whom he eventually alienates completely by his devotion to Cleopatra.
As the title suggests, both of the title characters make the biggest sacrifice of all for their love, and these sacrifices take place in Act V. In Act V, Antony commits suicide upon learning, falsely, that Cleopatra is dead, and then Cleopatra commits suicide upon learning of the death of Antony. Their love ends up consuming them, becoming a force for self-destruction.
The multiple meanings of love are explored through John Dryden’s poem. While the poet primarily attends to the passionate love between Antony and Cleopatra, he also considers the love for a country that Antony ultimately betrays. Tied to this is the affectionate bond among the Roman officers and soldiers, who embody the nation on which Antony turns his back. Antony’s love for his wife and daughters, largely cast aside by the poor judgment wrought by passion, represent the positive side of romantic and familial love.
Although both lovers paid with their lives, the overall impression is that the Egyptian queen is to blame for their fates. The Roman general Ventidius laments Cleopatra’s effect on the once-mighty Antony:
O, she has deck'd his ruin with her Love,….
Can any Roman see, and know him now,
Thus alter'd from the Lord of half Mankind,
Unbent, unsinew'd made a Woman’s Toy….
Antony understands , however, how much his undoing is his own fault, as he has cast aside what he valued most.
I was so great, so happy, so belov'd,
Fate could not ruine me; till I took pains
And work'd against my Fortune....
He lives long enough to realize that his loss in battle is partly Cleopatra’s fault and that his love for her was inadequate compensation for his loss of honor and the harm to his country: the world was not in any way “well lost.”
The story of Anthony and Cleopatra is one that is incredibly famous in literature. Anthony sacrificed everything he had, sending the Roman Empire into complete turmoil, all for love of Cleopatra, who herself committed suicide because she was not able to contemplate life without Anthony. Dryden's play, as its title suggests, focuses on the love between these two characters, and in particular the dignity that this love gives them. Note the closing words of the play uttered by Serapion:
See how the lovers sit in state together,
As they were giving laws to half mankind!
The impression of a smile, left in her face,
Shows she died pleased with him for whom she lived,
And went to charm him in another world.
The final words state that "No lovers lived so great, or died so well." This suggests that the theme of love in this play is that true love is beyond all value and Anthony and Cleopatra have made themselves great and famous through their love for each other. The description of the two dead lovers in the above quote is not condemnatory, but rather seems to bestow them with an authority that allows them to "give laws to half mankind." The way in which Serapion says that they are "secure from human chance" suggests that they are now able to be united in their love in a way that they were never able to during their lives because of fate. The theme of this play therefore suggests that love is so valuable as to be worth whatever the price.