Shakespeare first depicted Mark Antony in Julius Caesar, where the Roman general heroically vanquished the treacherous assassins, Brutus and Cassius. Although historically the events depicted in Antony and Cleopatra take place about two years after the Julius Caesar, Shakespeare presents Antony as a man who’s left behind the heroism of his youth and who has, in his middle age, fallen hopelessly in love with the entrancing but mercurial Egyptian queen, Cleopatra. For his many admirers in Rome, Antony’s affair with Cleopatra signals the great general’s decline. They see him as a shadow of his former self, emasculated by an exotic woman whom they perceive as “gypsy” (1.1.3) and a “whore” (3.6.77). Antony must contend with this public image, which sparks an internal conflict between his love for Cleopatra and his sense of duty to the Roman Empire. In act 1, scene 1, he expresses his love for Cleopatra through a rhetorical rejection of his homeland: “Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch / Of the ranged empire fall” (1.1.38–39). In the very next scene, however, Antony worries that he is about to “lose [him]self in dotage” (1.2.129).

The two poles that draw him in opposite directions represent deep-seated conflicts between reason and emotion, duty and desire. As the play progresses, it becomes increasingly evident that Antony cannot bear the stress of these tensions. He often casts his thoughts back to his glory days as an accomplished young soldier. But now that he’s entangled in an affair with Cleopatra, his memories do little more than demonstrate how far he has strayed from his former self. As he points out to Octavia in act 3, scene 4, his current actions imperil his honor, and without his honor—the defining characteristic of any Roman worthy of the name—he can no longer be Antony: “If I lose mine honor, / I lose myself; better I were not yours / Than yours so branchless” (3.4.24–26). Later, having been defeated by Octavius and betrayed by Cleopatra, Antony returns to the imagery of the stripped tree as he laments, “[T]his pine is barked / That overtopped them all” (4.12.25–26). Rather than amend his identity to accommodate these defeats, Antony chooses to take his own life, an act that symbolically restores him to his brave and indomitable former self. In suicide, Antony asserts that he is “a Roman by a Roman / Valiantly vanquished” (4.15.66–67).