Study Guide

The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra Duty

By William Shakespeare

Duty

CAESAR
You are too indulgent. Let's grant it is not
Amiss to tumble on the bed of Ptolemy,
To give a kingdom for a mirth, to sit
And keep the turn of tippling with a slave,
To reel the streets at noon, and stand the buffet
With knaves that smell of sweat. Say this becomes
   him—
As his composure must be rare indeed
Whom these things cannot blemish—yet must
   Antony
No way excuse his foils when we do bear
So great weight in his lightness. If he filled
His vacancy with his voluptuousness,
Full surfeits and the dryness of his bones
Call on him for 't! But to confound such time
That drums him from his sport and speaks as loud
As his own state and ours, 'tis to be chid
As we rate boys who, being mature in knowledge,
Pawn their experience to their present pleasure
And so rebel to judgment. (1.4.18-37)

Caesar contends that the greatest fault in Antony is not that he’s a fool for Cleopatra, which could even be excused. It’s that in order to be with her, Antony has ignored his duty in Rome and placed the burden on his friends. He compares Antony to a young man who betrays both friendship and his duty for his immediate pleasure, even though he knows better. This is an interesting comparison, since Antony, being the elder, is the one who always calls Caesar a young man.

LEPIDUS
Noble friends,
That which combined us was most great, and let not
A leaner action rend us. What's amiss,
May it be gently heard. When we debate
Our trivial difference loud, we do commit
Murder in healing wounds. Then, noble partners,
The rather for I earnestly beseech,
Touch you the sourest points with sweetest terms,
Nor curstness grow to th' matter. (2.2.21-29)

Lepidus appeals to the friendship between the three men as the basis for their civility.

ANTONY
May I never
To this good purpose, that so fairly shows,
Dream of impediment. Let me have thy hand.
Further this act of grace; and from this hour
The heart of brothers govern in our loves
And sway our great designs! (2.2.173-178)

Antony wrongs Caesar here. While he claims to become a brother to Caesar by accepting Octavia’s love, it’s not long before he’s already planning to head back to Cleopatra. It's unclear whether he honestly means to honor his duty to Rome and his new wife, or if he intentionally deceives. However, it does seem more likely that this is another of his passionately rash decisions to be a friend to Caesar and Rome, rather than a willing deception.

CAESAR
There's my hand.
A sister I bequeath you whom no brother
Did ever love so dearly. Let her live
To join our kingdoms and our hearts; and never
Fly off our loves again. (2.2.179-183)

Caesar pledges he and Antony will be joined by Octavia, as he loves her dearly. Yet no sooner than Antony leaves for Athens do we hear that Caesar has already moved to betray Antony. Octavia’s own brother should be more tied to his declared bond of love for her than to immediately start a war with her new husband.

ANTONY
When I did make thee free, swor'st thou not then
To do this when I bade thee? Do it at once,
Or thy precedent services are all
But accidents unpurposed. Draw, and come.
EROS
Turn from me then that noble countenance,
Wherein the worship of the whole world lies.
ANTONY
Lo thee!                              [He turns away.]
EROS
My sword is drawn.
ANTONY
                               Then let it do at once
The thing why thou hast drawn it.
EROS
                                                    My dear master,
My captain and my emperor, let me say,
Before I strike this bloody stroke, farewell.
ANTONY
'Tis said, man, and farewell.
EROS
Farewell, great chief. Shall I strike now?
ANTONY
                                                         Now, Eros.
EROS
Why, there then.
                          Thus do I escape the sorrow
Of Antony's death.      [Dies] (4.14.96-114)

Eros owes Antony a duty, but his friendship inspires him even more than that pledge. Eros agrees with Antony that he’d rather not see Antony bow before Caesar, but rather than kill Antony to avoid the scene, Eros takes his own life. It’s an incredibly noble sentiment, and one of the play’s only acts of utterly willing self-sacrifice. The question is whether this is an act of pure friendship or pure duty.