Cleopatra is in despair at the news that Antony is leaving her. Alexas counsels her to calm down, but Cleopatra says that only low-born people have “moderate sadness.” Cleopatra’s maid Iras tells her to stop loving Antony, but Cleopatra says she can never forget him. Cleopatra’s other maid, Charmion, comes in and reports her encounter with Antony. He had tears in his eyes when she said Cleopatra begged to see him one last time, but refused to see her, on the grounds that he can refuse her nothing and thus wouldn’t be able to leave. However, he says that he “respects” her—a word which Cleopatra despises and calls “cold,” fit for a wife. Alexas encourages Cleopatra to go to Antony one more time, in order to prevent him from leaving. He says that he will talk to Antony first, in order to make it easier for her to bend his will.
Antony doesn’t want to see Cleopatra because he knows that he will be unable to make the “rational” choice—leaving her to lead his army—if he is in her physical presence. This suggests that both passion and reason are warring in Antony, pulling him in different directions. At this point, Antony is trying to let his reason prevail. Cleopatra, however, takes a different approach. She boasts to her servants that she is so passionate because she is noble, and that only low-born, vulgar people have moderate emotions. In this way, she suggests that her passionate nature is a merit in her personality, not a fault.
Antony enters with Ventidius. He reports that he challenged Octavius to hand-to-hand contact, but Octavius refused. Antony complains that Octavius is a coward who betrayed him after all his help and mentorship. Alexas arrives and delivers a message (supposedly) from Cleopatra to Antony: she loves him and commends him to the care of his soldiers. She sends jewels to the commanders, including Ventidius, but Ventidius scoffs and says he will not take bribes and values his honor more than “diamonds from the East.”
Octavius’s refusal of the invitation to hand-to-hand combat with Antony suggests that the two men have very different notions of honor. Antony thinks of honor as a personal quality that can be proved by, say, defeating someone in battle. Octavius, by contrast, has a more pragmatic view: he knows not to risk his life by fighting Antony face to face when he has a superior military force.
Cleopatra also sends Antony a bracelet made of rubies in the shape of bleeding hearts. Ventidius warns him not to take it, but Antony says that he doesn’t think it can do him any harm. Alexas petitions Antony to go see Cleopatra one last time, so that she can fasten the bracelet on his wrist. Ventidius warns him that if he sees her all will be lost, but Antony protests that he is a “Roman, bred to the rules of soft humanity,” and that it would be rude for a Roman guest to leave without thanking the host.
Cleopatra’s parting gift to Antony is highly symbolic. The bleeding hearts symbolize her love for Antony, but her desire to fasten the bracelet on his wrist also conveys a less obvious message: it is a tie that binds him to her. Ventidius sees this tie as a form of bondage that imprisons Antony, making him a slave to his passion for Cleopatra.
Cleopatra enters with her maids. Antony tells her that they have “loved each other / Into our mutual ruin.” Antony blames her for his decline in fortunes and asks her to be silent while he tells his side of the story. He recounts how he loved from when he first saw her (although she was the lover of Julius Caesar first), how he pardoned her rebellion against Rome, and how he left his first wife, Fulvia, to be with her in Egypt. After Fulvia’s death, he married Octavius’s sister Octavia and left her as well for Cleopatra. As a result, Octavius raised an army and defeated him in the disastrous Battle of Actium, where Antony fled the scene to follow Cleopatra’s retreat.
The story of Antony and Cleopatra’s love before the events of the play is characterized by the continual choice of love over honor. For instance, Antony pardoned Cleopatra’s rebellion against Rome, thus choosing his feelings for her above his country. He also abandoned his first wife, Fulvia, just as he later abandons Octavia. Thus, Antony’s statement that his love for Cleopatra has “ruined” him is well-founded in their shared history.
Cleopatra acknowledges that he is right to reproach her, but sorrowfully says that Antony must no longer love her, if he would say these things. She admits that she was Caesar’s lover first, but claims that she always loved Antony. She also protests that she did not force Antony to leave Fulvia or Octavia, and that she fled from the battle out of fear, not because she was trying to betray him. Ventidius warns Antony not to believe her words. Cleopatra then shows them a piece of paper—an offer from Octavius to restore her kingdom, if only she will betray Antony. She says that she refused and desires only to die with Antony.
Cleopatra admits that her relationship with Antony has been detrimental to his honor, but she points out that she, too, has been loyal to him from the beginning. She has also consistently chosen love over honor—as she proves most recently by telling him that she has turned down a peace treaty with Octavius because she would never betray Antony. She therefore offers an emotional, passionate rebuttal to Antony’s accusations.
Cleopatra swoons and protests pathetically that she only wants to die. At this, Antony embraces her, although Ventidius warns him not to weight this “toy” against his “honour, fortune, and fame.” He asks once again whether Antony will go to lead his army. Antony refuses, saying that in fact honor forbids him from leaving the woman who loves him. He exclaims that he doesn’t care whether Octavius conquers them in battle, since he prefers the pleasure of life with Cleopatra to anything else.
Ventidius views Cleopatra as a distracting “toy” who has dishonored Antony. Antony, on the other hand, voices a new and different assessment of honor. He points out that it would be dishonorable for him to abandon the woman who loves him. In Antony’s framing, love and honor aren’t necessarily opposed, and choosing love can in fact be the honorable thing to do.