Though Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra is undeniably seen as the story of the romantic relationship between these two lovers, it is only through Antony’s relationship with Caesar that the most accurate portrayal of events is made clear. As rulers triumvirate of Rome, Caesar and Antony possess a relationship that is not only unique in the world but extraordinary in its implications. Their individual successes and failures are tied to the other’s thus creating an intense and seemingly unbreakable bond. It is not until Antony and Cleopatra meet that the weakness of the relationship between the two Roman rulers is evident.
The failed relationship between Antony and Caesar demonstrates the futility of Antony’s struggle against the fated demise of his rule at the hands of Cleopatra’s affection and brings with it a mournful acceptance of human limitations. Antony’s inability to adequately prioritize his obligations causes him to neglect his relationship with Caesar in spite of the fact that his true place and most valuable responsibility is in Rome. Being one of the three rulers of Rome bestows upon Antony a very unique task with grave global implications and yet, when he is in Egypt, Antony unashamedly disregards his greater commitment to this position.
He heedlessly proclaims during one of his trips to Alexandria to “let Rome in Tiber melt and the wide arch / of the ranged empire fall. Here is my space” (1. 1. 38-39). Though it is his role as ruler that is his true station, he elevates his role as Cleopatra’s lover above it and declares Egypt, a world of pleasure and passivity that contrast immeasurably with the hardships and strict order of Rome, to be his rightful home. The imagery Antony provides of Rome sinking into the river Tiber is telling of how deeply he has sunk into Cleopatra’s affection.
If Cleopatra’s love can shelter Antony from the distress and apprehension that would otherwise result from seeing his illustrious empire crumble to the ground, then it suggests that there is nothing their love cannot defeat or anything that is above it. By demeaning Rome, Antony is belittling his responsibilities to Rome and his relationship with Caesar, unable to see that it is there where his true loyalties should lie. His relationship with Caesar is a bond sealed through blood, “from this hour / The heart of brothers govern in our loves / And sway our great design” (2. 2. 176-178).
The profound fraternal bond, meant to unite them eternally, could not help Antony in his struggle against his fate. Despite the great expectations that Antony’s epic battles created, Antony is unable to reach the grandeur anticipated by Caesar and the distinction that characterized his rightful place in Rome. With fondness and great admiration Caesar recalls the Antony of earlier days, he who “was borne so like a soldier that thy cheek / So much as lanked not” (1. 4. 80-81). Antony’s strength as an officer was unable to be encumbered even in the face of defeat; his body was impervious even to the natural elements.
Caesar describes a man who was Herculean in many respects but then discounts this portrayal of Antony declaring his disillusionment in saying “that he which is was wished until he were” (1. 4. 48). Antony had been greatly admired by Caesar before he ascended to power and now that he commands authority, he has been unable to fulfill the hope that his previous merit had inspired. His devotion to Cleopatra has caused him to falter in his conquests and made him weak for any future achievements. Caesar’s admiration has transformed into disdain and he sees Antony as “a man who is th’ abstract of all faults / That all men follow” (1. 4. 10-11).
Since his stay in Egypt, Antony has lost the excellence that was once associated with his name and it is this regression away from the qualities that brought him to the pinnacle of his success that verify the notion that Antony belongs to Rome; it is only in Rome and through his relationship with Caesar that he is able to achieve his potential. Antony fails to recognize the validity and truth of his life in Rome and instead, despite his efforts, becomes entrapped in the fantastic world and enchantment of Cleopatra.
Cleopatra finds joy in ensnaring men with her charm and Antony, like many before him has fallen victim to her trap. Though many of her actions demonstrate her affection for him, her frivolity towards the relationship express a different sentiment. She describes how her “bended hook shall pierce / Their slimy jaws, and as I draw them up / I’ll think them every one an Antony / And say ‘Aha! You’re caught! ‘” (2. 5. 14-17). Like a fish, Antony is being taken out of his own habitat, that place where he was born to dwell in, and forced to live in a situation that will inevitably lead to his death.
Cleopatra’s portrayal of Antony as merely another one of her conquests brings further validation to the belief that it is not Egypt which is his rightful place but Rome because it is only in Rome that Antony can escape the impending death that would result from either Cleopatra’s doings, piercing him with a hook, or by simply being out of his environment. Antony sees the impending danger that is associated with Cleopatra but is not strong enough to escape from her enchantment. “These strong Egyptian fetter I must break / Or lose myself in dotage” (1. 2. 128-129).
Antony depicts Cleopatra as a sorceress forcibly binding her victims and he, a poor prisoner yearning to break free from the other worldly chains that do not allow him to follow his true course. By referring to himself as a hostage to Cleopatra’s charm, he is declaring that had he free will, he would choose to return to Rome and honor his relationship with Caesar as his foremost responsibility. His ultimate failure demonstrates that Antony did not possess sufficient strength to crush the chains preventing him from following his predestined greatness.