Scene One. Messina. Pompey's house. Pompey discusses strategy with his men, Menas and Menecrates, confidently assessing his fortunes. When Menas reports that Lepidus and Octavius Caesar are in the field against him, Pompey dismisses it: they wait in Rome, helpless without Antony. Pompey is counting on Antony to stay in Egypt with Cleopatra. Varrius enters with bad news: Antony has returned. Pompey is distressed, as Antony is by far the best soldier of the triumvirate. Menas hopes that Antony and Octavius will not be able to work together, due to the fact that Antony's brother and late wife warred against Octavius, but Pompey points out that natural enemies may band together against a common threat.
Scene Two. Rome. Lepidus' house. Enter Lepidus and Enobarbus. Lepidus tries to get Enobarbus to keep his master's temper calm, but Enobarbus refuses, acting a bit ornery himself. Antony and Ventidius enter from one side, Caesar with Agrippa and Maecenas from the other. Lepidus urges unity. Caesar and Antony butt heads, with Caesar asking if Antony incited his brother and late wife against him. When assured that it was not so, he accuses Antony of breaking his oath by dallying in Egypt while his fellow triumvirs were threatened in Rome. Antony makes as much apology as he can without compromising his honor. Maecenas urges them to remember the common threat, and Enobarbus tells them they'll have time to fight each other when Pompey is beaten. Antony tells Enobarbus to be quiet, several times, before the soldier falls silent. Octavius says there's truth in what Enobarbus says, and that they need a way to make a lasting peace between them. Agrippa suggests that Antony marry Octavius' sister, Octavia. Octavius and Antony agree to it. Antony expresses a preference for a diplomatic resolution with Pompey. The triumvirs decide that before they go off to deal with the threat, Antony's marriage to Octavia should be settled.
All exit except Enobarbus, Agrippa, and Maecenas. They are eager for stories of Egypt and Cleopatra. Enobarbus entertains them with the story of Cleopatra's seduction of Antony. To meet him, she came in a splendid royal barge, and invited him to be her guest. Incredibly opulent, magnificent as a hostess, she won his heart. Then he tells another story of Cleopatra, on an occasion when she was out of breath on a public street. At that moment she was no less splendid than when she was in her barge. She can "make defect perfection" (2.2.237), and Enobarbus cannot believe that Antony will ever leave her.
Scene Three. Rome. Caesar's house. Octavius presents his sister Octavia to Antony. Antony promises to be a better man than. Octavius and his sister exit. The soothsayer enters, and warns Antony that as long as he and Caesar stand side by side, Antony will lose. Alone, Antony muses that the Soothsayer is right: in every game of chance, in every trifling matter, Caesar seems to beat him against the odds. He will send Ventidius to Parthia, to deal with the threat there, and keep his marriage for the sake of peace. But for pleasure, he will eventually return to Egypt.
Scene Four. A street in Rome. Lepidus, Agrippa, and Maecenas part. Their different forces will meet again on the field.
Scene Five. Alexandria. Cleopatra's palace. Attended by Mardian the Eunuch, Alexas, Charmian, and Iras, Cleopatra reminisces about a fishing trip she took with Antony. A messenger arrives from Rome. Cleopatra toys with the poor man as a cat with a mouse, promising rich reward for good news and punishment for bad news. When the messenger tells him that Antony has married Octavia, Cleopatra beats him. The Queen grows more enraged, threatening the poor messenger with a knife. When she regains control of herself, she calls him back to confirm the news. She dismisses him. Devastated, faint, Cleopatra has her ladies lead her off. As she goes, she bids Alexas and Mardian ask the messenger about Octavia's appearance and charms.
Pompey's discussion with his men (2.1) gives interesting information about the triumvirate. Pompey does not fear Octavius and Lepidus. Antony is the only member of the triumvirate who worries him, Antony's skills as a military leader being "twice the other twain" (2.1.35). Pompey also understands the future. If not for Pompey, "T'were pregnant they [Antony and Octavius] should square between themselves" (2.1.45). If and when Pompey is defeated, Antony and Octavius will inevitably turn against one another. The theme of fate or historical necessity is touched on here. Necessity has already seemed to dictate what course events must take. Apparently a pious man, Pompey also invokes the gods constantly. But his belief that "If the great gods be just, they shall assist the deeds of justest men" (2.1.1) does not match the events that unfold in the play. The triumph of good men is not the story of Antony and Cleopatra. Historical necessity, or fate, operates by a set of rules different from those described by Pompey's pious statement.
Inevitability comes up again in the next scene (2.2), when Enobarbus inappropriately tells Antony and Octavius that they'll have time to fight each other after Pompey is beaten. Octavius needs Antony. Pompey assessed correctly in the last scene that without Antony, Octavius and Lepidus are afraid to face him. And yet Octavius baits Antony throughout this whole scene, aggressively criticizing Antony's recent behavior and actions. Even though the two men are forced to work together, differences in character and destiny divide them.
After the triumvirs have exited, Enobarbus regales Caesar's comrades with colorful tales of Egypt and the East. The first four scenes of Act Two take place in the Western parts of the Empire, but Shakespeare makes sure that in both of the poles of the play, the other pole is invoked. There are references to Egypt and Antony's colorful life there in 2.1, but Enobarbus' tales (beginning at 2.2.180) make a wonderful piece of writing that conjures up Cleopatra's world as well as any of the scenes actually set in Alexandria. Enobarbus is sensitive to the charms of the East, and to the charms of Cleopatra. He predicts, correctly (and indiscreetly, considering he is speaking with the right-hand men of Caesar) that Antony will never leave Cleopatra.
The soothsayer's warning (2.3) is taken from Plutarch. The good Protestants of Shakespeare's audience were not supposed to believe in soothsayers, but Shakespeare often uses elements good Protestants are supposed to disdain (the ghost in Hamlet, the oracle of A Winter's Tale) to great effect. Though part of a Christian civilization, Shakespeare adored the richness and vividness of the pagan world and pre-Protestant beliefs. Plutarch's soothsayer makes good theatre, and so Shakespeare retains him. The use of the soothsayer underscores the theme of destiny, which in a play based on historical events can be viewed in different ways. To us, the defeat of Antony is inevitable, fated, because it has already happened. The soothsayer's presence adds a sinister inevitability to a historical event playing out before us. Historical forces become conflated with less rational conceptions of destiny and fate. Because of the soothsayer's presence, history itself takes on a supernatural element, being beyond the control or explanation of men. Ironically, Antony plays into fate's (or history's) hands the moment he hears the soothsayer's warning. He resolves to return to Cleopatra, despite his vows to Octavia. He is fleeing Octavius Caesar, whose fortune always will overcome his in contest, but by returning to his decadent life in Egypt he will give Octavius pretext for war.
Scene Four is another scene in Rome before the 2.5 return to Egypt. It gives us Lepidus, Agrippa, and Maecenas in transit on a Roman street. The scene is short and may seem irrelevant to the plot, but many of Antony and Cleopatra's scenes seem extraneous to the plot while contributing to Shakespeare's portrait of the Roman world. The contrast between 2.4 and 2.5 makes the inclusion of 2.4 worth it: 2.4 depicts the energy of change and action, forcefully expressing the theme of dynamic Rome versus static Egypt. The scene is on a street, a place between places, which becomes a metaphor suggesting transition, movement from one place to another. The rushed Romans arrive briefly, only to say they'll meet again at the scheduled meeting place later. Short and without insight into character or plot, the scene nevertheless suggests the dynamic energy of Rome.
What a contrast to the languor of scene 2.5's opening. Cleopatra reminisces about a fishing trip, on a beautiful day when they laughed together, played in the sun, and she drank him under the table. Egyptian complacency is embodied in the land's queen: Cleopatra does not make decisions of state, or rush to implement policy or make war. She lies around, enjoying being Cleopatra.
Cleopatra's treatment of the messenger shows an important side of her character, as well as the difference in traditions between Rome and Egypt. In 1.2, Antony tells the fearful messenger not to shirk from delivering bad news: "Tis thus: / Who tells me truth, though in his tale lies death, / I hear him as he flattered" (1.2.98-100). Sharp contrast to Cleopatra, who gives gold to reward good news, but warns that if the news turns bad "The gold I give thee will I melt and pour / Down thy ill-uttering throat" (2.5.34-35).
More than a difference is character is evident. Antony comes from a world of duty, where power means responsibility. Cleopatra sees royalty as an entitlement to the fullest pleasures life and wealth can offer. She does not come from anything remotely approaching the traditions of the Roman Republic; her lineage, for centuries, has been royal. She can mistreat others as she sees fit, because she is dealing with subjects, while a Roman, even one in power, is dealing with citizens. Egypt is changeless compared to Rome, far older, and with a far more stable and static structure of power; by this time, pharaohs have ruled Egypt for three thousand years. Cleopatra does not need to do anything to earn her throne. Not once do we see Cleopatra making an important, effective decision of state. Rule means pleasure; the contrast is not only to Antony, but to Octavius, who would surely use power for different ends.