Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1060
After his humiliating defeat at Actium, Mark Antony retires to Alexandria, Egypt, where he remains in seclusion for some time in the temple of Isis. He avoids meeting his mistress, Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt, whose cowardice largely caused the defeat. Meanwhile the Romans, under Octavius, Maecenas, and Agrippa, have invaded Egypt, where, having laid siege to Alexandria, they calmly await Antony’s next move. Serapion, a patriot and a priest of Isis, becomes alarmed at a sudden rising of the Nile and by prodigious disturbances among the royal tombs; these events seem to presage disaster for Egypt.
Ventidius, Antony’s trusted and highly successful general in the Middle East, comes at this time to Alexandria to aid his commander. Alexas, Cleopatra’s loyal, scheming eunuch, and Serapion try to encourage citizens and troops with a splendid birthday festival in Antony’s honor. Ventidius, in Roman fashion, scorns the celebration. He tells Antony’s Roman soldiers not to rejoice, but to prepare to defend Antony in his peril. Antony, clearly a ruined man, at last comes out of his seclusion. While he curses his fate and laments the day that he was born, Ventidius, in concealment, overhears the pitiful words of his emperor. Revealing his presence, he attempts to console Antony. Both men weep; Antony marvels that Ventidius can remain faithful to a leader who brought a large part of the Roman Empire to ruin through his love for Cleopatra.
Ventidius offers to Antony his twelve legions, which are stationed in Lower Syria, but his stipulation that these legions will not fight for Cleopatra plunges doting Antony into renewed gloom. When Ventidius mentions the name of Cleopatra lightly, Antony takes offense and curses the general as a traitor. After this insult Antony, his mind filled with misgivings, guilt, and indecision, hastens to assure Ventidius of his love for him. He promises to leave Cleopatra to join the legions in Syria.
The word that Antony is preparing to desert her leaves Cleopatra in a mood of anger and despair. Meanwhile Charmion, her maid, goes to Antony and begs the Roman to say farewell to her mistress. Antony refuses, saying that he does not trust himself in Cleopatra’s presence. Not daunted by this refusal, Alexas later intercepts Antony as he marches out of Alexandria. The eunuch flatters the Romans and presents them with rich jewels from Cleopatra. As Antony is with difficulty clasping a bracelet around his arm, Cleopatra makes her prepared appearance. Antony bitterly accuses her of falseness and of being the cause of his downfall. The two argue. In desperation, Cleopatra tells Antony that as her friend he must go to Syria, but that as her lover he must stay in Alexandria to share her fate. Antony wavers in his determination to leave when Cleopatra tells him that she spurned Octavius’s offer of all Egypt and Syria if she would join his forces, and he elects to stay when she represents herself as a weak woman left to the mercy of the cruel invaders. Antony declares, in surrendering again to Cleopatra’s charms, that Octavius could have the world as long as he had Cleopatra’s love. Ventidius is overcome with shame and pity at Antony’s submission.
Cleopatra is triumphant in her renewed power over Antony, and Antony seems to have recovered some of his former magnificence when he is successful in minor engagements against the troops of Octavius. While Octavius, biding his time, holds his main forces in check, Ventidius, still hopeful of saving Antony, suggests that a compromise might be arranged with Maecenas or with Agrippa.
Dolabella, the friend whom Antony banishes because he fears that Cleopatra might grow to love the young Roman, comes from Octavius’s camp to remind Antony that he has obligations toward his wife and two daughters. Then Octavia and her two young daughters are brought before Antony, Octavia, in spite of Antony’s desertion, still hopes for reconciliation with her husband. When Antony accuses her of bargaining with her brother Octavius, Octavia, undismayed, admits that Octavius is prepared to withdraw from Egypt at the news that a reconciliation has been effected between his sister and Antony. Octavia’s calm dignity affects Antony greatly, and when his two small daughters embrace him, he declares himself ready to submit to the will of Octavia. Cleopatra, entering upon this family reunion, exchanges insults with the momentarily triumphant Octavia.
Still afraid to face Cleopatra for the last time, Antony prevails upon Dolabella to speak his farewell to Cleopatra. Dolabella, aspiring to Cleopatra’s favors, accepts the mission with pleasure. Alexas, knowing of Dolabella’s weakness and ever solicitous of the welfare of Egypt, advises Cleopatra to excite Antony’s jealousy by pretending to be interested in Dolabella. After Ventidius and Octavia secretly overhear the conversation between Dolabella and Cleopatra, Ventidius, now unwittingly a tool of Alexas, reports to Antony Cleopatra’s apparent interest in the young Dolabella. Octavia confirms his report, and Alexas suggests to the raging Antony that Cleopatra is capable of perfidy. Antony’s passionate reaction to this information convinces Octavia that her mission is a failure and she returns to the Roman camp. Antony, meanwhile, accuses Cleopatra and Dolabella of treachery. Ignoring their earnest denials, he banishes them from his presence.
Cleopatra, cursing the eunuch’s ill advice, attempts unsuccessfully to take her own life with a dagger. Antony ascends a tower in Alexandria harbor to watch an impending naval engagement between the Egyptian and Roman fleets. To his horror he sees the two fleets join and the entire force advance to attack the city. Antony realizes now that his end is near; furthermore, his heart is broken by the belief that Cleopatra is responsible for the treachery of the Egyptian fleet. When Alexas brings false word that Cleopatra retired to her tomb and took her life, Antony, no longer desiring to live, falls on his own sword. The faithful Ventidius kills himself. Cleopatra comes to the dying Antony and convinces him, before he dies, that she remained steadfast in her love for him. Then, to cheat Octavius of a final triumph, she dresses in her royal robes and permits herself to be bitten by a poisonous asp. Her maids, Iras and Charmion, kill themselves in the same manner. Serapion enters to find Cleopatra joined with her Antony in death.
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