Act Three, Scene One. A plain in Syria. Ventidius, with Silius and other Roman soldiers, surveys the field. Ventidius has beaten the Parthians, a great feat. When Silius encourages him to pursue the Parthians, and heap up more victories for himself, Ventidius declines. A subordinate should not be too successful, lest he rouse the envy of his superior. Ventidius will meet Antony in Athens.
Scene Two. Rome. Caesar's house. Enobarbus and Agrippa enter from different sides. Enobarbus informs Agrippa that Pompey has departed, and the triumvirs are making final arrangements before leaving. Caesar seems sad, Octavia is weeping, and Lepidus has been ill since the feasting. Both men mock Lepidus' weak position in the triumvirate. Enobarbus and Agrippa part.
Octavia and the triumvirs enter. Octavius and his sister are extremely emotional as they part. Quietly, Enobarbus asks Agrippa if Caesar will weep, mocking the idea of a man who cries. When Agrippa points out that Antony wept openly after Julius Caesar's and Brutus' deaths, Enobarbus mockingly says Antony had a cold. He wept that year for things he'd tried to destroy [Brutus committed suicide after being defeated by Antony].
Scene Three. Alexandria. Cleopatra's palace. Attended by Charmian and Iras, Cleopatra bids Alexas fetch the fearful Messenger. When the terrified man arrives, she questions him about Octavia's looks. The Messenger has learned his lesson, and describes Octavia in comically unflattering terms. She dismisses him, saying she'll need him again when she sends off her letters.
Scene Four. Athens. Antony's house. Antony tells Octavia that her brother has been slandering him. Octavius makes new wars against Pompey, unapproved, and drums up public support by proclaiming a will where his wealth is left to the people of Rome. Octavia is distraught, torn between brother and husband. Antony suggests she act as emissary, and she agrees. He authorizes her to go in his name, with whatever company and at any expense she chooses.
Scene Five. Athens. Antony's house. Eros brings news from Rome to Enobarbus. Though Caesar and Lepidus warred together against Pompey, Caesar has now imprisoned Lepidus, claiming (falsely) that Lepidus conspired with Pompey. Eros reports that Antony is incredibly upset. He is furious with the officer who assassinated Pompey [at Antony's request]. Eros brings Enobarbus to meet with Antony.
Scene Six. Rome. Caesar's house. Caesar confers with Maecenas and Agrippa. He tells them that Antony is back in Alexandria, and he has in public acknowledged his relationship with Cleopatra. They made a public appearance in the marketplace on thrones of gold, with Cleopatra dressed like the Egyptian goddess Isis. Antony has divided the Eastern territories of Rome between Cleopatra and their sons together. He has made various accusations of wrongdoing against Caesar, which Caesar has sharply answered. Caesar has made all this known to the public. Octavia enters with her Train. Caesar criticizes the paltriness of her train, implying that Antony treats her lightly, and informs her of Antony's return to Egypt. Antony is preparing for war, and Octavius must prepare to fight him. He lovingly welcomes his sister back to Rome, pitying her suffering and condemning her husband. War is about to begin.
Ventidius' scene (3.1), like 2.4, is a scene that gives little insight into the main characters' personalities and does nothing to develop the plot. But Ventidius' remarks about the dangers of too much success speak volumes about the Roman world. We are fresh from 2.7, in which the triumvirate might have lost their lives to a treacherous and ruthless assassination. Here Ventidius shows us another ugly side to the Roman world of duty and valor. A subordinate who does too well can be perceived as a threat, and to be perceived as a threat is dangerous. Duty and ambition have a strained and complex relationship.
Does Caesar give his sister to Antony in order to have pretext for war? Octavius seems to love his sister deeply, but using her as a political tool and loving her are not mutually exclusive. Enobarbus sees the whole situation plainly in 2.6, when he predicts that Antony's shoddy treatment of Octavia is inevitable, and his return to Cleopatra will give Octavius reason to go to war. Probably, Octavius sees it just as clearly from the start. Although we cannot know his motivations with certainty, an Octavius who uses his sister for political ends is not inconsistent with the man we see elsewhere. His tears at the parting show his human side, but they don't rule out a deeper political motivation for allowing the marriage.
The different needs of human emotion and political ambition are commented on by Enobarbus, even as he watches Octavius weeping. Antony wept at Brutus' death, even though he was hunting Brutus down for Julius Caesar's assassination. Enobarbus comments that when he did so, "What willingly he did confound [destroy] he wailed" (3.2.58). Although Enobarbus is talking about Antony, Shakespeare has placed these comments strategically. Although we can't know if Enobarbus is consciously implying that Octavius is weeping for a sister whom he knowingly is putting in harm's way for political ends, certainly the audience can notice the parallel.
Cleopatra's second scene with the messenger is comic in effect. Cleopatra is not that interested in the truth; she is interested in play. The messenger is turned into a bit of fun, and Cleopatra is able to comfort herself, even if that comfort doesn't come from truth and is sadistic.
These scenes condense an incredible amount of time, and they are not necessarily chronological. 2.5 was the last time we saw Cleopatra with the messenger, at the end of which she demanded that Alexas bring the messenger to her so she could question him about Octavia's looks. Here in 3.3, we have the interrogation scene, which should follow, chronologically, the events of 2.5. But between 2.5 and 3.3, the triumvirate moves to Misenum, deals with Pompey, and makes the final arrangements before parting. Also, the time it would take for a message to go from Rome to Alexandria is considerable. Shakespeare is arranging the scenes for the purpose of juxtaposition, and not for chronological fidelity.
The following scenes condense great amounts of time, and effect leaps in space. In Athens, Antony informs Octavia that her brother is on the move, warring against Pompey. In the next scene, the war is apparently over. In two scenes, the balance of power has changed radically, and the action has all been Octavius'. By 3.5, Lepidus is imprisoned for life, his wealth confiscated by Octavius. The charges against Lepidus are patently bogus: as proof of Lepidus' treachery, Octavius has used letters to Pompey that Octavius himself urged him to write (3.5.10-11). In 3.6, Caesar himself states other supposed reasons for imprisoning Lepidus: "I have told him [Antony] Lepidus was grown too cruel / That he his high authority abused / And did deserve his change" (3.6.32-4). This description of Lepidus is totally inconsistent to the Lepidus we have seen. Lepidus is mild, conciliatory, a bit foolish. Nothing about him suggests tyrant. Octavius has ruthlessly disposed of Lepidus in order to take his wealth and territories. His ambition is far greater than any personal bond he might feel for Lepidus.
Antony has made several tactical miscalculations. Though not stated explicitly, Eros implies that before Lepidus' removal, Antony ordered the assassination of Pompey (3.5.18-19). Antony hoped to do his allies a good turn, but now that he sees that Octavius is most certainly preparing to come after him next, he realizes that Pompey would have made a useful ally. Antony severely underestimated Octavius' ambition, and overestimated Lepidus' value as a balance to Octavius' power. He also overestimated Octavius' sense of loyalty.
Octavius' description of Antony's inappropriate proclamations is yet another wonderful Roman description of Egyptian decadence. Note that in the play, the best descriptions of Eastern luxury are made by Romans; without traveling widely himself, Shakespeare realized that natives of a place take its wonders for granted, while outsiders are endlessly amazed by what is foreign and exotic to them.
Again, we are being hit over the head with the thematic issues represented by Rome versus Egypt. The Roman world is one of duty, dominated by men. Cleopatra's court is a place of pleasure, play, and decadence. She is the central figure of the court, even when Antony is there, and the most important attendants are women. She has a few male attendants, but they are nothing like Roman men, and one of them is a eunuch. When Octavius describes Antony's scandalous actions, the luxury is one of the shocking parts: "I'th' marketplace on a tribunal silvered / Cleopatra and himself in chairs of gold / Were publicly enthroned" (3.6.3-5). The expense shocks them, but there's no mistaking the fascination. Octavius description of the scandal begins with that material detail.
Octavius' distaste for the pleasures of normal men becomes a condemning prudery, when he says that around them sat "all the unlawful issue that their lust / Since then hath made between them" (3.6.7-8). The idea of Octavius having illegitimate children is laughable, at least from the way Shakespeare depicts him; Shakespeare's Octavius would only procreate according to plan. He can only speak of the children of Antony's love with words that drip with contempt.
Octavia is greeted with pity by Octavius and his men. She is depicted sympathetically, but Shakespeare does not develop her character. He is far more interested in the rivalry between her husband and brother, and too much Octavia might hamper his purposes. She works better as a tool, a somewhat naïve woman who cannot understand her husband's longing for the East or her brother's political machinations. Octavius' comfort returns to the theme of fate: ". . . Be you not troubled with the time, which drives / O'er your content these strong necessities; / But let determined things to destiny / Hold unbewailed their sway" (3.6.82-5). He sees her unhappiness partly as the fault of Antony, but partly the product of destiny. She is a casualty of fate. Is Octavius strategically cleansing himself of any responsibility for the marriage? Does Octavius see the destiny of one unified empire as the only thing that matters, with the needs of all, including himself, being subordinate to that goal? Or is he merely avoiding blame for using Octavia as a political tool? We know now that Octavius values loyalty less than other virtues, but is his dream of a unified empire motivated by ambition, a sense of duty, or both? Octavius is fascinating because one feels certain that his motivations must be crystal clear to himself; only from the outside, where the audience sits, is there the appearance of ambiguity.