A barge carries Cleopatra down the Nile River, impelled by fifty oarsmen. She is returning from the celebration of a religious rite at a shrine at Hermonthis, a city above Thebes, and she is suffering from desperately acute boredom. She describes her state of mind in great detail to her slave Charmion, explaining how the deserts, temples, and religion of Egypt combine to produce it. She laments, too, that a queen can never know if she is loved for herself, rather than for her crown.
Meïamoun, an extraordinarily handsome youth, has been following the queen’s barge for some time. Like the queen, who is a descendant of the Ptolemys, he is of Greek descent. His love for the queen is every bit as desperate as her ennui.
Cleopatra later catches a glimpse of the swimming Meïamoun from her palace but has no inkling of his purpose, which is to fire an arrow into her room, around which is wrapped a scroll bearing an unsigned declaration of his love. He hides in the palace grounds in the hope of catching a glimpse of her as she bathes. He succeeds, but she catches sight of him and has him seized by her attending eunuchs. When he identifies himself as the person who shot the scroll-bearing arrow into her palace, Cleopatra tells him that she will make his dreams of love come true for a single night, after which he must die. He readily consents.
Cleopatra and Meïamoun share a munificent banquet and watch voluptuous dances, which reach their climax when Cleopatra herself takes to the floor. When daybreak eventually arrives, Meïamoun moves to take the cup of poison that he has agreed to swallow. For a moment, the queen reaches out to prevent his drinking it, but then the sound of trumpets announces the approach of Mark Antony, and she allows him to complete the act.
Cleopatra condescends to shed a single tear on the body of her dead lover—the only one she has ever let fall—but is ready immediately thereafter to meet her Roman consort with a smile and a casual explanation of the presence of the corpse.