Antony and Cleopatra
Summary and Synopsis

Antony and Cleopatra Setting

The action of the play takes place in various locations across Africa, Europe, and Asia. Most of the first act and all of the final two acts are set in or around the coastal city Alexandria, the capital of Cleopatra’s Egypt. From the moment Antony leaves Cleopatra at the end of Act 1, Scene iii until their reunion in the middle of Act 3, the play jumps back and forth between Alexandria and several parts of Europe, including Rome, Mount Misena in southern Italy, Sicily, and Athens. Briefly in Act 3, the play takes the audience on a brief detour to Syria for a scene involving a battle fought and won by Antony’s officer Ventidius.

The events of Antony and Cleopatra are based, of course, on real events from world history. Overall, the play covers ten years of historical time, from the events surrounding Fulvia’s death and Antony’s return to Rome in Act 1, which occurred in 40 BCE, to Cleopatra’s suicide in Act 5, an act which her historical counterpart committed in 30 BCE. Most of these years are telescoped into the first three acts, leading up to the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE and its immediate aftermath. Thereafter the pace of the action slows considerably; the long final scene, comprising ten percent of the play’s length, stages the drama of Cleopatra’s suicide in real time.

Antony and Cleopatra Plot Timeline

Antony and Cleopatra Summary

Antony and Cleopatra Act 1 Summary

Act 1, Scene 1

In Egypt, two of Mark Antony’s soldiers are discussing the extent to which their general’s love affair with Cleopatra has degraded his character. Their conversation is interrupted by Antony and Cleopatra in the midst of what appears to be a lovers’ quarrel. 

Messengers from Rome have come with news for Antony, which prompts Cleopatra to taunt him about his political obligations to Octavius Caesar and his marital obligations to his wife Fulvia. Antony responds by reaffirming his devotion to Cleopatra, dismissing the messengers, and storming off with her, leaving the two soldiers in agreement that Antony has indeed fallen from greatness.

Act 1, Scene 2

In another part of Cleopatra’s palace, Cleopatra’s followers are drinking, making merry, and hearing their fortunes told by a soothsayer. Cleopatra joins the party without Antony, who has decided to hear the embassies from Rome after all. Antony first learns that Fulvia and his brother joined forces against Caesar, then that his army has sustained losses in Asia, and lastly that Fulvia has died. He feels ambivalent about his wife’s death, but decides he needs to return to Rome to handle the political fallout. He shares his intentions with his soldier Enobarbus, who teases him about how poorly Cleopatra will take his departure, but Antony is resolute.

Act 1, Scene 3

When he goes to Cleopatra, she senses that he wants to leave Egypt and once again tries to play their love off of his marriage to Fulvia. Antony lays out why he must return to Rome, saving for last the news of Fulvia’s death, which removes one obstacle to their relationship. They ultimately part on good terms.

Act 1, Scene 4

Back in Rome, Caesar and Lepidus are waiting for Antony to come and help them with the latest threat: Pompey, the son of Julius Caesar’s old rival, is mounting a naval challenge to the triumvirate’s power. While they wait, they discuss Antony’s behavior in Egypt. Whereas Lepidus argues that Antony is essentially good despite his vices, Caesar refuses to excuse Antony’s neglect of his political duties and laments that he is no longer the soldier he used to be. They leave to begin preparations for the coming war against Pompey.

Act 1, Scene 5

The scene shifts back to Egypt, where Cleopatra is struggling to keep her mind off of Antony. She receives a messenger from him, reveals that she has already sent to him more than twenty times, and promises to continue sending every day until he comes back. She compares Antony favorably to her former lover Julius Caesar, but her handmaiden Charmian points out that she used to rhapsodize about Caesar the same way. Cleopatra brushes it off, claiming that her ability to choose lovers has matured.

Antony and Cleopatra Act 2 Summary

Act 2, Scene 1

Pompey and his allies express confidence in their chances of victory, especially since all signs point to Antony’s still being distracted by Cleopatra. But then a messenger surprises Pompey with news that Antony is coming back to Italy. Despite realizing that his own war effort is bringing his enemies together at a time when Antony and Caesar might otherwise come to blows with each other, he moves forward with his preparations anyway.

Act 2, Scene 2

Antony arrives in Rome for a meeting of the triumvirate. The first order of business is to let Antony and Caesar clear the air between them. In the face of considerable tension, Antony disavows the actions of Fulvia and Lucius and asks Caesar’s pardon. Looking to strengthen their shaky alliance, Caesar’s officer Agrippa proposes a diplomatic marriage between Antony and Caesar’s sister Octavia, to which Antony agrees. 

While the triumvirate leaves to effect the marriage and arm for battle against Pompey, Enobarbus tells Caesar’s men the enchanting story of how Antony met and fell in love with Cleopatra. He predicts Antony will never leave her, his marriage to Octavia notwithstanding.

Act 2, Scene 3

Shortly after the wedding, Antony encounters a soothsayer who warns him that his fortunes will suffer the closer he is to Caesar. Seeing truth in the prophecy, he makes plans to return to Egypt as soon as the conflict with Pompey is resolved.

Act 2, Scene 4

Elsewhere, Lepidus instructs his generals to face Pompey at Mount Misenum with their armies.

Act 2, Scene 5

Back in Egypt, Cleopatra is trying out different diversions to pass the time. A messenger from Italy arrives, whom Cleopatra rewards for reporting Antony’s good health and his peace with Caesar. When he relates the marriage to Octavia, however, she beats him and draws a knife on him, chasing him out of the room. She eventually calls him back, but she grows angry and drives him out again when he refuses to lie about Antony’s marriage. As her frustration with Antony gives way to fixation on Octavia, she sends one of her followers after the messenger to demand a full report on her looks and demeanor.

Act 2, Scenes 6-7

The triumvirate meets with Pompey to seek a diplomatic solution to their differences. To the chagrin of his second-in-command Menas, Pompey accepts their offer for peace. While the triumvirs go to celebrate the truce on Pompey’s galley, Enobarbus and Menas stay back and muse on the fragility of Antony’s recent marriage and its consequences for the no less fragile bond between Antony and Caesar. 

By the time they join the others, Lepidus is already drunk and being mocked by all, Antony is in a festive spirit, and even the sober Caesar is unwinding a bit. Recognizing an advantage, Menas pulls Pompey aside and offers to assassinate the triumvirs. Pompey refuses as a matter of honor, and Menas, taking this as a sign of weakness, quietly vows to desert him. Enobarbus leads everyone in a drinking song, after which Caesar decides he has indulged for too long, and the hospitable Pompey escorts Caesar and Antony off the galley. 

Antony and Cleopatra Act 3 Summary

Act 3, Scenes 1-2

As Antony’s lieutenant on the Asian front secures a victory against the Parthians, the triumvirate amicably concludes their business in Italy, having achieved a new equilibrium of sorts: Lepidus is clearly the weakest of the three, and the balance of power between the other two rests on the success or failure of Antony’s marriage to Octavia. Caesar and Octavia share a tearful goodbye before Antony and Octavia depart together.

Act 3, Scene 3

Back at Cleopatra’s court, the same messenger from before has returned to answer questions about Octavia. This time he shapes his responses to Cleopatra’s desires, and she ends the interview feeling much better about her own position in the rivalry for Antony’s affections.

Act 3, Scene 4

With the triumvirs now apart, relations between Antony and Caesar have already started to deteriorate. Hearing that Caesar has disrespected him publicly, Antony grants a conflicted Octavia’s request to travel to Caesar and act as intermediary.

Act 3, Scenes 5-13

Before Octavia can get to Caesar, however, the alliance reaches its breaking point: Caesar wages and wins new wars against Pompey; Pompey is murdered in Antony’s custody; Caesar jails Lepidus and seizes his estate; and Antony declares war on Caesar and makes moves to empower Cleopatra’s faction in Asia. To make matters worse, when Octavia finally reaches her brother, Caesar is insulted because she arrives without much fanfare, and he breaks the news to her that Antony and Cleopatra have reunited.

Antony and Caesar continue on their collision course for war. Although Antony’s men balk at Cleopatra’s involvement and advise Antony that he is stronger at land than sea, Antony stubbornly accepts Caesar’s challenge to fight a naval battle at Actium and does nothing to prevent Cleopatra from taking part. Both decisions prove disastrous when, in the heat of battle, Cleopatra turns her ship around and Antony follows her, leading others to flee as well. 

The decisive defeat spells doom for Antony: his supporters start to defect, leaving him with no option but to beg Caesar for mercy. Caesar not only rejects Antony’s entreaty, but also offers Cleopatra whatever she wants if she agrees to abandon or assassinate Antony.

Angered by this response, Antony decides to challenge Caesar to a duel, a proposal which Enobarbus knows Caesar is too savvy a politician to accept. While Antony is off composing the challenge, Cleopatra admits Caesar’s messenger Thidias, who has come to persuade her to accept Caesar’s offer. 

Antony returns just in time to find Thidias kissing Cleopatra’s hand, which further enrages him. He orders Thidias whipped and calls Cleopatra a whore, but they soon reconcile again. While he goes off to rally what remains of his forces for one more campaign against Caesar, Enobarbus, distraught by Antony’s foolhardiness, resolves to desert him.

Antony and Cleopatra Act 4 Summary

Act 4, Scenes 1-3

Word gets back to Caesar of what Antony has done to Thidias. Scoffing at Antony’s duel challenge, Caesar readies his army and navy for another battle. Antony pushes ahead with plans for a lavish feast before the fight, gathering his household servants to thank them for their service in tones that sound ominously like a farewell. Later that night, a group of Antony’s watchmen hear mysterious music emanating from an unknown source. One of them suggests that the music signifies that Hercules, Antony’s mythic ancestor, is ceasing to grace him with divine protection.

Act 4, Scenes 4-12

Antony springs into action early the next morning, with Cleopatra helping to arm him for battle. He is briefly flustered to learn that Enobarbus has defected to Caesar’s side, but rather than blame Enobarbus, he magnanimously arranges to send him all of the valuables he has left behind. In Caesar’s camp, Enobarbus has already begun to regret his decision when news arrives that Antony is returning his treasure to him, which sharpens his sense of shame and makes him long for death. Refusing to fight against his old master, he deserts Caesar too. 

The battle begins on land, where Antony’s forces gain an early advantage. Antony’s soldier Scarus performs particularly valiant service against Caesar’s men, who are forced to retreat and regroup overnight. A reinvigorated Antony returns to Cleopatra and enlists her help to honor Scarus in a public ceremony, after which they begin another night of celebration. Before dawn the following morning, Enobarbus wanders out to the edge of Caesar’s camp, where he prays to the moon for death and calls out to Antony for forgiveness. Caesar’s guard carries off his unconscious body, uncertain whether he is alive or dead.

Act 4, Scenes 13-16

The second day of battle is contested at sea. From a distance Antony watches his navy succumb to another crushing defeat, and he becomes convinced that Cleopatra has somehow betrayed him. He threatens her to her face and works himself into another frenzy, unsure whether his best course is to kill her or himself.

Cleopatra takes refuge in the monument where she plans to be buried, sending word to Antony that she has committed suicide. When the false news reaches Antony, his anger softens into remorse and he resolves to follow Cleopatra to the afterlife. He asks his servant Eros to kill him, but Eros kills himself instead. Antony then botches his own suicide attempt, taking himself to the precipice of death just before another messenger arrives to tell him Cleopatra is still alive. 

His men whisk him to Cleopatra’s monument, where the two old lovers say goodbye and share one final kiss. Upon his death Cleopatra faints, leading her waiting women to wonder whether she is dead too. But she soon revives, revealing that she has plans for a far more glorious suicide. 

Antony and Cleopatra Act 5 Summary

Act 5, Scenes 1-2

Caesar learns of Antony’s death and makes a brief public display of mourning. He quickly turns his attention to Cleopatra, whom he hopes to keep alive so that he can make a public spectacle of her upon returning to Rome.

Caesar’s messenger Proculeius, whom Antony told Cleopatra she could trust, brings her flattering promises, but ultimately takes her prisoner. Proculeius places her in the custody of another of Caesar’s servants named Dolabella, who takes pity on Cleopatra after she, in her grief, describes the god-like version of Antony who lives in her memories and dreams. From Dolabella she learns that Caesar does indeed intend to parade her through the public streets of Rome, which she considers an unbearable disgrace.

At this point Caesar comes to speak with Cleopatra in person, offering his own equivocal assurances of merciful treatment. When her treasurer Seleucus reveals that she has not surrendered all of her possessions, she lashes out at him and makes her excuses to Caesar, who demonstrates his generosity by allowing her to keep and enjoy whatever she pleases.

As soon as he leaves, Cleopatra sends her servant Iras to fetch her royal garments, which she intends to die in. Unbeknownst to Caesar, Cleopatra has found a way to procure her suicide weapon of choice: poisonous yet painless asps, smuggled past Caesar’s guard by a man from the country carrying a basket of figs. Left with the basket, she gets dressed and shares a goodbye kiss with Charmian and Iras, the latter of whom dies on the spot. Cleopatra hastens to attach one asp to her breast, then adds a second before succumbing to the venom.

Caesar’s guardsmen re-enter the scene to find Charmian standing near a pair of dead bodies. Applying an asp to her own body, Charmian tells them that Cleopatra has performed a deed befitting her royal heritage, then dies herself. Caesar comes back, locates the cause of Cleopatra’s death, and stoically makes arrangements for Antony and Cleopatra to be buried together in Egypt, after which he and his army will return to Rome. 

Marc is a scholar, teacher, and lifelong Shakespeare enthusiast. He wrote his dissertation on the influence of late-Elizabethan satire on Shakespeare’s artistic development. He feels fortunate to have had opportunities to write for a variety of audiences about two of his greatest loves: Shakespeare and the San Francisco Giants.