Antony, like Julius Caesar, is descended from an ancient Roman family, though lately the family has fallen into disfavor. Antony seems to have been a rather worthless person in his youth; he liked to drink too much, and he tended to be a spendthrift. He continued to exhibit these qualities for the rest of his life. But he also has a generous nature and a good-humored personality, and eventually he becomes a lieutenant to Julius Caesar in Gaul. His troops like him, and he is courageous on the battlefield. He becomes a chief deputy to Caesar, and eventually he is a partner with him as consul in Rome.
Antony makes his “second home” in the mysterious East, in Egypt, the civilization of the Ptolemies, in the play. Rome seems cold and grey, whereas Alexandria shimmers with heat and sparkles with color and sensuality. Antony’s personality is much like the land where he makes his home in his middle years.
Antony seems to have acquired a new interest in the pleasures of living because of his residing in Egypt and because of his love for Cleopatra. Finally, however, he becomes a very troubled man because he found himself torn between a desire to be with Cleopatra and an equally strong desire to seek and maintain power in Rome.
His impulsiveness and his inability to make decisions make him appear weak, but he is not as weak as he appears, as the play illustrates. He is sensual, but he is also brave, and he withstands adversity well. He is insecure about his age, to some extent, for he worries about Cleopatra’s fidelity, since he is older than she is. But in spite of his insecurities, Antony more often than not is overconfident.
He seriously underestimates his youthful opponent, Octavius Caesar; he believes that his own vast experience and courage on the field can make up for Octavius’s inexperienced determination. He finds ultimately that they do not. Antony is finally driven to make a choice between his allegiance to Egypt and Cleopatra — or to Rome; he must declare his allegiance to one world or the other. He cannot have both, and it becomes clear early in the play that Rome’s problems demand his full loyalty, rather than half. Antony’s failure to see the nature of his problem causes him to endlessly vacillate, avoiding mailing a final decision until it is too late. Much of Antony’s apparent impulsiveness, first deciding to give up all for Cleopatra, then deciding to return to Rome, etc., is a direct result of his basic underlying indecision. Because he cannot come to a conclusion about what values take precedence in his life, he loses everything.
One of his first mistakes is letting himself be drawn into the world of Egypt and its delights. He forgets that not all Romans conceive of Egypt as he does. He loses much popular support, due in large part to Octavius Caesar’s criticism; thus, ultimately, his devotion to Cleopatra seems like disloyalty to Rome. Yet, despite all his mistakes, Antony is a heroic figure, drawn larger than life by Shakespeare’s poetry. His ever-increasing indecision is the mirror of his inner struggle to find a balance between two worlds and two sets of values. If he fails, it isn’t because he doesn’t try to achieve all that he can. His adventurous attitude suggests that he attempts to enlarge his awareness of what life can be. By contrast, Octavius is not heroic simply because he never questions his ideals nor deeply weighs his loyalties. Audiences, readers, and critics have always disagreed as to whether or not Antony made the right choice. Perceptions of the meaning of his actions will differ, but the end result is the same: Antony and Cleopatra is a powerful play because it has powerful characters who catch the imagination and never release it. They are lovers who are more mature than Romeo and Juliet and, for that reason, they are not easily forgotten.