Following the assassination of Julius Caesar and the battle of Philippi, Mark Antony, Octavius Caesar and Lepidus are the joint rulers of the known world. Antony, however, is captivated by Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, and neglects his responsibilities to spend time with her in Alexandria. This scandal is the talk of Rome and creates a rift between Antony and young Octavius Caesar. News comes from Rome that Antony's wife is dead. More urgently, the power of the triumvirate is being challenged by Pompey. Antony is forced to return to Rome and resume his responsibilities. When it is suggested that he should cement the alliance with Octavius by marrying his sister, Octavia, Antony agrees. Back in Egypt, the news of Antony's marriage sends Cleopatra into a jealous tirade. On the brink of war, Antony and Octavius make peace with Pompey. Shortly afterwards, however, Antony learns that not only has Octavius attacked Pompey after all, but he has also spoken scornfully of Antony in public and has had Lepidus imprisoned on dubious charges. Antony sends Octavia back to negotiate with her brother while he returns secretly to Alexandria. News arrives in Rome that Antony and Cleopatra have crowned themselves and their children kings and queens in Alexandria. Octavius declares war on Egypt. The Egyptian forces lose the sea-battle of Actium when Antony deserts the battle to follow Cleopatra's fleeing ship. Antony is consumed with shame and despair. However, hearing that Octavius has offered to make a secret treaty with Cleopatra, he rouses himself for a second, victorious battle. On the eve of the third battle, Antony's soldiers are nervous and fear bad omens. Even the faithful Enobarbus deserts him. The Egyptian fleet surrenders and Antony, in his fury, accuses Cleopatra of betraying him to Octavius. She retreats from his anger to her monument and sends a false report that she is dead. On hearing this, Antony attempts suicide and is brought to Cleopatra's monument to die in her arms. Rather than be captured and enslaved by the Romans, Cleopatra also kills herself. With all his enemies eliminated, Octavius returns victorious to Rome.
In 1580, de Vere was not on the best of terms with Elizabeth. De Vere had had discussions with his Catholic cousin Henry Howard and Howard's cousin Charles Arundell, and Francis Southwell, about schemes to returning England to the Catholicism. Just before Christmas 1580, de Vere confessed to Elizabeth that he and his friends had reconciled to Rome. Howard and Arundell were arrested. De Vere returned to the Anglican fold. There followed a number of accusations against de Vere by both Howard and Arundell. By 1583, Elizabeth still had doubts about de Vere's loyalty, and was considering legal proceedings against him as a warning. Henry Howard prepared a pamphlet against de Vere. De Vere gets the last word on the pamphlet, by making mocking quotations from this pamphlet in Antony and Cleopatra.
On June 5, 1588, de Vere's wife Ann Cecil unexpectedly died at the age of 33. In the Spring of 1588, Sir Francis Drake intended to lead an English fleet south to stop the Spanish Armada before it could leave Spanish waters. However, strong winds prevented the fleet from leaving port. On May 30, the English fleet set sail. De Vere was among prominent Englishmen who took to sea against the Spanish. However, by June 6, the fleet returned to Plymouth. They tried to set sail again on June 19, but encountered headwinds and returned to port on June 21. On June 24, the English fleet set sail again, but could not find the Spanish Armada, and returned to Plymouth on July 12. A week later, the Armada was sighted near Cornwall. By July 27, de Vere was at an English camp near Tilbury, at least four days journey from Plymouth. Leicester reports at this time that de Vere seemed willing to risk his life against the Spanish. The Armada was expected to make landfall at Essex, and Elizabeth gave de Vere the job of leading 2,000 men in the port of Harwich. De Vere did not want the job, and returned to London, annoying the English military commanders. The Armada was defeated at sea. For de Vere, the period included the death of his wife, a failed naval mission, and conflicts with the English military leadership.
Lives by Plutarch tells the story of a celebrated Roman (Marc Antony) who had gone from losing a wife to forfeiting a naval battle, in part because the Roman worthy had retreated before his fleet could engage the enemy. Marc Antony had had a celebrated relationship with Cleopatra. Plutarch's Lives provides the background against which de Vere presented his life at that time.
In the first scene of the play, Cleopatra (Elizabeth) asks Antony about his inconvenient marriage to Fulvia:
CLEOPATRA: Excellent falsehood!
Why did he (Antony) marry Fulvia and not love her?
I'll seem the fool I am not …
ANTONY Let's not confound the time with conference harsh:
There's not a minute of our lives should stretch
Without some pleasure now.
This probably reflects years of conversations between Elizabeth and De Vere.
Shortly afterward, Antony is informed of his wife's death.
MESSENGER Fulvia thy wife is dead
ANTONY There's a great spirit gone! Thus did I desire it:
What our contempts doth often hurl upon us,
We wish it ours again. The present pleasure,
By revolution lowering, does become
The opposite of itself: She's gone, being gone
The hand could pluck her back that shov'd her on.
At a later point, Antony states: "My idleness doth hatch."
Like de Vere, Antony does not appear overly upset by the passing of his wife.
In the play, Antony by now has offended Octavius Caesar, and prepares for war. Cleopatra lost at the Battle of Actium, before the enemy could be engaged, Cleopatra turned her ship around and fled, and Antony, "like a doting mallard", followed her.
For de Vere and Antony, there was a turning around of the fleet before engagement. For de Vere personally, the retreat of the English fleet before engagement with the Spanish was a defeat (even though the English eventually prevailed), whereas for Antony, there actually was a defeat. Mallard is a pun on Drake, the English leader who turned his ships around before the search and destroy mission against the Spanish.
After Actium, Antony feels he has acted dishonourable, and realizes that he is not a military or political leader, but a follower.
ANTONY O whither hast thou led me, Egypt (Elizabeth)? See
How I convey my shame out of thine eyes
By looking back what I have left behind
'Stroyed in dishonor
Egypt (Elizabeth), thou knowst too well
My heart was to thy rudder tied by th' strings,
And thou shouldst tow me after:
This undoubtedly represents de Vere's outlook. His personal shame perhaps comes from abandoning his allotted role in defending England. After 1588, he essentially retreated from public life.