Two priests of the Temple of Isis, Serapion and Myris, observe that there have been several frightening omens in Egypt recently. The water of the Nile overflowed and then suddenly retreated, leaving behind “monstrous” seals and sea-horses. When Serapion was walking in the temple of the Ptolemys, the dynasty that ruled Egypt for thousands of years, a great wind suddenly rushed in, broke open the tombs, and released the bodies of the old pharaohs. The last pharaoh, the “boy-king,” cried out that “Egypt is no more!”
The play begins with omens that seem to presage a great change. Egypt was ruled by a powerful dynasty, the Ptolemys, for a thousand years. However, these omens suggest that their rule will soon come to an end. The rising waters of the Nile, for instance, symbolize the tide of fate, while the Ptolemy ancestors who rise from their graves foresee that their supremacy in Egypt will soon cease.
Suddenly Alexas, Queen Cleopatra’s eunuch, appears and accuses Serapion of making up stories and drinking too much at the feasts. He says that Egypt can’t bear for these stories to be true, given the current desperate state of affairs: Antony and Cleopatra have lost the Battle of Actium, and the palace is surrounded by a Roman army led by Octavius. Myris asks why Antony doesn’t take action, and Alexas explains that Antony thinks all is lost. However, he also points out that neither side has been doing anything, although Antony’s wife, Octavia, has come to take her revenge.
Alexas explains that Antony and Cleopatra are in dire straits. They’ve lost a decisive sea battle against Octavius, meaning that their only option now is to make peace with him. However, the fact that both Antony and Cleopatra have failed to take any action suggests that they are still allowing their passion for each other to rule them, rather than their reason. Making peace with Octavius requires giving each other up, and they don’t seem ready to do that yet.
Meanwhile, Antony has locked himself in the temple and refuses to see Cleopatra, hoping to cure himself of his love for her. Serapion and Myris fear for Egypt’s future as a Roman province if they are defeated and hope that Cleopatra might betray Antony to Octavius and thus save her country. However, they all know that Cleopatra still loves him.
Serapion and Myris know that Cleopatra faces a choice: she can betray Antony to Octavius and save her country, or she can remain loyal to Antony. Her impossible choice between her lover and her royal duty introduces the conflict between love and honor that will be central to the play.
Just then, Alexas, Serapion, and Myris witness the approach of Ventidius, one of Antony’s top lieutenants. Alexas assures them that Ventidius is an impeccably honorable man, although he has been an enemy of Egypt’s in the past. Ventidius demands that Antony’s gentleman (i.e. servant) let him in to see Antony, claiming that he has news that will raise his spirits. The gentleman protests that Antony is in a bad state and won’t see anyone. He swings wildly between cursing Octavius and seeming to contemplate suicide. Ventidius assures him that this is just Antony’s nature, which tends to move between extremes.
Antony’s extreme temperament provides another example of his lapse from reason into passion. Ventidius represents the rationality and discipline expected of a military commander, and he tries to see Antony in order to persuade him to take up arms as a soldier once again and fight for his honor. Antony, however, is emotionally extreme, swerving between depression and excessive passion for Cleopatra.
Alexas proclaims a birthday celebration for Antony, and the servants begin to prepare a feast. Ventidius protests at the Egyptians taking a holiday at this dire moment. Alexas protests that Cleopatra loves Antony and that Antony loves her in return. Ventidius agrees but compares Cleopatra to Antony’s executioner who has led him into his death with “golden bonds,” making his captivity seem pleasurable. He laments that Antony, a great general, has left his military post and become a “woman’s toy.” Ventidius thinks that Antony is now unrecognizable to his fellow Romans.
Ventidius has known Antony in his role as a military leader and commander of men. Thus, the version of Antony that he meets at Cleopatra’s court is unrecognizable to him. He blames Cleopatra for this disastrous change in Antony, implying that she has turned him into a “woman’s toy.” By this Ventidius means that Antony now cares only for “feminine” pursuits and has neglected his military and political duties.
Antony comes out of his room and demands that everyone leave him alone. Ventidius hides in a corner to listen to his master speak. Pacing with a “disturbed motion,” Antony speaks in despair about the decline of his fortunes since he came to Egypt, where he has become only “the shadow of an emperor.” He predicts a future in which he will be soon be dead and comforts himself wishing that he could live as a simple countryman in the forest. He imagines himself leaning against a tree while the water of a “murmuring” brook runs at his feet, leading a peaceful and uncomplicated life. At this, Ventidius appears from his hiding place and demands “art thou Antony?” Antony tells him to leave, but Ventidius weeps and says that he wishes to stay, as his friend.
Antony seems to share Ventidius’s fears about his transformation, remarking that he is now only a “shadow” of the emperor he once was and is unrecognizable even to himself. But whereas Ventidius plots to restore Antony to the emperor he was before, Antony begins imagining a different kind of metamorphosis. Having given up the role of emperor and commander, he imagines himself in another kind of life entirely: as a simple shepherd with no concerns except his flock. The softly murmuring waters in Antony’s dream suggest his desire for the peace that such a transformation would ideally bring.
Moved by Ventidius’s tears, Antony begins to share his grief at his loss at the Battle of Actium. Ventidius points out that Julius Caesar also lost battles, but Antony confesses that he is ashamed that he fled like a “coward” from the battlefield. Antony begins reproaching himself for losing his good name as a soldier and conqueror by spending his time instead in “inglorious ease.” Ventidius refuses to join in, saying that Antony has already punished himself enough.
Antony’s despair at the loss of a single battle suggests that honor is extremely important to his sense of self and his confidence in his place in the world. For Antony, a single action—retreat from the Battle of Actium—marks him as a “coward,” associating military defeat with the loss of his good name as an upright person.
Ventidius tries to rouse Antony’s spirits by telling him that there is still hope that they can win against Octavius, since Ventidius has an army in Lower Syria that is loyal to Antony’s cause. However, the army will only fight for Antony if he comes to them. They do not want to fight for Cleopatra in Egypt, since they think that Antony is her “slave.” Ventidius criticizes Antony for throwing away his kingdom on a “light, worthless woman.”
Antony’s army in Lower Syria presents a stark conflict between love and honor. If Antony goes to lead them, he has a chance to defeat Octavius and regain his honor on the battlefield. However, he would regain that honor at the cost of love, since the army won’t follow Cleopatra—in order to command the army, he has to leave her.
Antony angrily calls Ventidius a traitor and threatens to kill him, but quickly apologizes. Ventidius says he would not be bold with any other ruler, but that Antony is virtuous enough to be able to hear these hard truths. Ventidius repeats that Antony must leave Cleopatra, and Antony agrees—although he says he loves her above all else, “all but honour.” Although greatly pained at having to leave her, he agrees to leave with Ventidius to lead the army.
At this point in the play, although Antony professes his great love for Cleopatra, he claims that he still values his honor as a soldier and a leader above her. His seemingly counterintuitive statement that he would die for Cleopatra but would not dishonor himself for her suggests the high premium placed on honor in Roman culture, which Antony claims should outweigh even love.