Antony and Cleopatra

Antony and Cleopatra Summary

Act One. Attended by Egyptian and Romans at Cleopatra's palace in Alexandria, Antony and Cleopatra are the celebrity couple of the known world. Antony's men watch disapprovingly as, from their perspective, a mighty Roman general is reduced to a whore's fool. But Antony and Cleopatra themselves seem above this crude appraisal, and their love affair is full of drama, extravagant gestures, and decadence. Absorbed in the luxuriant life of the East and his passion for Cleopatra, Antony ignores his duties as triumvir [see character list] until affairs reach a boiling point. Their idyllic life is interrupted when Antony receives bad news from different parts of the empire. His wife Fulvia and his brother have made war on Octavius, his fellow triumvir. Parthia, an Eastern superpower and Rome's most powerful adversary, has overrun much of the Near and Middle East. His wife has died. These developments force Antony back to Rome. Accompanying him, among others, is the cynical Roman soldier Enobarbus, whose cutting insights make him one of the play's most memorable characters. Antony parts from Cleopatra, who puts on a great show of anger and distrust; he does his best to assure her that his heart will remain with her.

Back in Rome, Octavius Caesar and Lepidus, the other two triumvirs, are in sore need of Antony. Octavius, nephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar, fumes about Antony's negligence. Pompey, a dangerous adversary, controls the seas around Italy, threatening the authority of the triumvirate.

Act Two. When Antony finally returns, tension between himself and Octavius remains high. To seal the men's alliance, a marriage is brokered between Antony and Octavia, Octavius' sister.

A soothsayer warns Antony that he must stay away from Caesar, for in any contest between them, Caesar will prevail.

Back in Alexandria, Cleopatra takes the news of Antony's marriage rather poorly, beating the messenger and threatening him with a knife.

The triumvirate meets with Pompey, and forces a rather disadvantageous peace on him. Antony's presence is enough to frighten Pompey into submission. That night, when Pompey feasts the triumvirs, his subordinate Menas offers to murder the three men and make Pompey unchallenged ruler of the Roman world. Pompey declines the offer because of his sense of honor, but he does so with some regret.

Act Three. Octavia and Octavius have an emotional parting, and Antony takes her with him to Athens. Cleopatra, back in Egypt, has trained her messenger to give only good news. She has not given up, even though Antony is married, and plans to win him back. Some time elapses between 3.3 and 3.4, and in the interim the balance of power changes radically. Antony frets in Athens: Octavius has moved, unapproved, against Pompey. He has slandered Antony's character, and seems to be preparing for war against Antony. Antony sends his wife to act as emissary to her brother. By 3.5, the situation has deteriorated further. Pompey is dead, and Octavius has imprisoned Lepidus, taking his power and possessions unto himself. By 3.6, Antony has apparently returned to Egypt, where he has bequeathed kingdoms unto Cleopatra and their bastard children. Caesar receives his sister in Rome, and prepares for war. The war is rapid, and Antony makes a series of strategic blunders. He confronts Octavius by sea, even though victory seems more likely by land. Octavius defeats Antony and Cleopatra decisively at the sea battle of Actium. The turning point in the battle comes when Cleopatra panics and flees, taking sixty ships with her, and Antony follows, abandoning his men. Many of Antony's men, disgusted by this total lapse in duty, desert him. Enobarbus, however, remains loyal.

Back in Alexandria, Antony is overcome with grief and humiliation by what he has done. Now, he has no chance of defeating Octavius. But anger with himself and Cleopatra turns quickly to resignation, as he decides to feast and drink despite their impending doom.

Act Four. Antony grows increasingly irrational as the end approaches, swinging between extreme emotions, challenging Caesar to single combat, abusing a messenger, giving parting gifts to friends, and indulging in great feasts. Enobarbus finally defects to Caesar's camp. Antony sends his treasure after him, and Enobarbus feels such remorse that he dies of grief. The fleet deserts Antony, and he is convinced that Cleopatra has betrayed him. Afraid of his wrath, Cleopatra closes herself in her monument and sends false word that she is dead. Ever quick to forgive, Antony resolves to kill himself to join her. He tries to get his servant Eros to slay him, but Eros kills himself to avoid the duty. Antony falls on his own sword, and too late word comes from Cleopatra that she is still alive.

Soldiers bring him to her, and she and her maids hoist him up into the monument. He gives her final advice about whom to trust in Caesar's camp, and dies. Cleopatra is grief-stricken.

Act Five. Caesar is moved to tears when Antony's blood sword is brought to him. He sends men to Cleopatra, determined to keep her alive so that he may parade her through the streets of Rome in his triumphal procession. Emissaries go to Cleopatra, but one of them, Dolabella, warns her that Caesar plans to parade her through Rome. This makes up her mind.

She meets with Caesar, and seems obedient to his wishes. But after he leaves, she has servants smuggle an asp into her monument. The poison of the asp's bite is deadly and swift. She and her ladies-in-waiting use the poisonous snake to commit suicide. Caesar arrives, and cannot help but respect her final act of defiance. He orders his men to bury Antony and Cleopatra together. They will respectfully attend the funeral before returning to Rome. All opposition has been crushed, and Octavius can now begin his reign as Rome's first Emperor.