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The play All for Love by John Dryden is a subverted version of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. However, in spite of having a close similarity to Shakespeare’s play, it differs to a great extent because of its themes and concerns.
To fully understand the background of the play, it is recommended to read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar which precedes its plot.
Antony, who along with Octavius Caesar (the brother of his wife Octavia) has defeated Brutus and Cassius (who murdered Julius Caesar), is now on bad terms with Caesar as he loves Cleopatra (the ruler of Egypt) and for her sake he has abandoned his wife (sister of Octavius) and daughters.
Caesar (the ruler of the Roman Empire) now wants to take revenge from Antony. For years Antony is living in Egypt with his beloved Cleopatra and is quite happy with his life. However, when the play opens, we find that he is quite sorrowful and depressed.
The play opens with the discussion of some citizens of Egypt. Serapion tells his fellows about the queer supernatural incidents that he witnessed last night.
Alexas, the eunuch, who is in the service of Cleopatra comes to them and scolds Serapion for telling his cooked dreams to others and warns him of doing so.
Ventidius, a Roman knight comes. Alexas recognize him and tells the citizens that though he hates Ventidius, yet it cannot be denied that he is the bravest Romans.
As Alexas sees Ventidius approaching him, he announces that Egypt will celebrate Antony’s birthday with great pomp and show. Ventidius is displeased with the Alexas announcement as Antony’s life is in danger and Egyptians are celebrating his suffering.
Ventidius goes to Alexas and abuses Cleopatra as “she has quite unmanned him (Antony)”. He says that Antony was a brave soldier but Cleopatra has made him useless with her false love.
Ventidius then asks about Antony and is told that he is quite depressed and does not meet anybody. He also comes to know that Antony has not eaten anything for days. Ventidius, being a close friend of Antony, goes to him.
Antony first repels him but when Ventidius weeps, he feels pity and both are reconciled. Ventidius praises his chivalry and asks him to accompany him to River Nile, where 10,000 brave soldiers are waiting for him so that he may command them to fight against Caesar.
Antony first denies his proposal but at last, agrees to quit Egypt. Ventidius talks bad about Cleopatra saying that she has ruined his life. Antony doesn’t like words against Cleopatra and asks him to prevent such statements. However, he agrees to leave her for the sake of honour.
Alexas has informed Cleopatra about the discussion of Antony and Ventidius. Cleopatra becomes sorrowful. Charmion enters and tells about the current situation. Cleopatra asks him about the behaviour of Antony.
Charmion assures her that Antony is as sorrowful as she is. Alexas tell Cleopatra a plan by which Antony will probably change his mind.
Meanwhile Antony and Ventidius ridicule and laugh at the cowardice of Octavius Ceasar. Alexas enter and tell Antony that Cleopatra has prayed for him and also given some gifts as a token of her love.
Saying this he distributes bracelets to the soldiers. Ventidius calling them “poisoned gifts” rejects them and says, “I’m not ashamed of honest poverty, nor all the diamonds of the east can bribe Ventidius from his faith.”
Antony, in spite of Ventidius’s disapproval, accepts the gift but is unable to wear it. Cleopatra enters. Antony starts blaming her as because of her, his first wife died and he left Octavia (his 2nd wife; the sister of Octavius Caesar) and because of it, Caesar has waged war against him.
He also reminds her of the last battle in which she left him alone on the battlefield and she ran away. He also tells her that she was the mistress of Julius Caesar and still he accepted her.
Cleopatra, to defend herself first tells him that though she had given her body to Julius Caesar, she gave her soul to Antony and also shows a page to him on which a message is written which Antony recognizes as the writing of Octavius Caesar.
Antony reads the message and comes to know that Caesar had offered Cleopatra her full safety if she would have handed over Antony to him. Antony melts.
Alexas exclaims, “He melts, we conquer.” Antony and Cleopatra are reconciled. Ventidius, being annoyed and helpless, goes away saying, “O women! Women! All the gods have not such power of doing good to man, as you of doing harm.”
Antony and Cleopatra are enjoying the pleasures of love. Both praise each other. Antony says, “In thy embrace, I would be beheld by heaven and earth at once.” Ventidius enters. Antony wants to leave unnoticed but Ventidius catches hold of him.
Antony requests him not to repeat the past statements again and tells Ventidius that he has killed 5000 Romans (of Octavius Caesar). Ventidius says that Octavius is not short of the army and danger stills prevail over them.
Antony tells him that he had a close friend (Dolabella) in the army of Caesar. But now they (Antony and Dolabella) are not on good terms as someday in the past, Dolabella fell in love with Cleopatra and Antony made him leave Egypt.
Ventidius then brings Dolabella. Both Dolabella and Antony explain how much they missed each other. Now Ventidius and Dolabella criticize Antony for being a servant of Cleopatra and remind him of Octavia.
They tell him that he should reconcile with Octavia and thus the danger of Caesar will wither away. Ventidius brings Octavia and her daughters with him.
Antony remains cold to them. Dolabella and Ventidius scold him for his behaviour and force him to accept his wife and daughters. Antony, at last, accepts them and once again agrees to quit Egypt. Meanwhile, Cleopatra is informed about the reconciliation between Antony and Octavia and becomes sorrowful.
Alexas once again ensures her that Antony will change his decision. Octavia enters and both the ladies indulge in a heated discussion over Antony. Octavia goes away and Cleopatra fears that she will lose Antony.
Antony persuades Dolabella to bid his goodbye to Cleopatra as he lacks the courage to do so. Dolabella refuses but when Antony insists, he agrees at last. Dolabella while going to Cleopatra thinks of deceiving his friend by proposing Cleopatra.
Meanwhile, Alexas persuades Cleopatra to show Antony that she loves Dolabella and out of jealousy, Antony will return back to her. Dolabella enters and tells falsely to Cleopatra that Antony has talked badly of her.
She faints. Dolabella repents over his lie and tells Cleopatra the truth and Cleopatra also tells him the real motive of showing sympathy to him (to make Antony jealous).
Ventidius and Octavia hearing some part of their discussion assume that they (Cleopatra and Dolabella) have fallen in love with each other and meeting Antony inform him about it.
Antony does not believe them. Ventidius in order to prove his statement brings Alexas, who gives his consent to Ventidius and Octavia. Antony is quite enraged.
A little later, Dolabella and Cleopatra enter, who are unaware of the situation. Antony blames both of them for being deceitful. They protest but Antony dominates. Both go away sorrowfully.
Cleopatra blames Alexas for bringing her to such a situation and orders her to resolve the matter by himself. On the advice of Serapion, she goes to her castle to remain safe. Alexas makes a plan to save his life.
He goes to Antony and tells him that Cleopatra has committed suicide. Antony recognizes the innocence of Cleopatra and considers the world and the kingdom to be useless for him without her.
He asks Ventidius to kill him. But Ventidius instead kills himself. Antony hits himself with his sword and is badly wounded but not yet dead. Meanwhile, Cleopatra becomes aware of the words spoken by Alexas to Antony and rushes to Antony.
Both reconcile. Antony dies in her lap. A little later Cleopatra dies in the arms of Antony by making a snake bite her. Egypt is conquered by Caesar.