Cleopatra’s court performs an elaborate dance. Cleopatra crowns Antony and Antony reaffirms his love for her, saying that he doesn’t care if the gods see them and envy their happiness. Ventidius stands aside, watching, and Antony admits that his presence makes him feel ashamed. Antony boasts to Ventidius that he has won a military victory against Octavius. Ventidius suggests that Antony try to make peace with Octavius, but Antony refuses, saying that Octavius hates him and that in any case he would prefer to defeat Octavius on the battlefield.
It is a testament to Antony and Cleopatra’s extraordinary confidence in their love that they hold feasts and dances at this dire moment for Egypt, with a foreign army on their doorstep. Their triumphant rhetoric—suggesting that the gods envy their happiness— seems out of place, but it also indicates that they think their passion transcends earthly, rational considerations like war and politics.
Ventidius asks whether Antony has a friend on Octavius’s side who might be able to advocate for him. Antony admits that he used to have a friend: Dollabella, a loyal soldier who was also in love with Cleopatra. Antony sent him away as a result, and now Dollabella fights for Octavius. Ventidius encourages Antony to speak to his friend, since it just so happens that Dollabella has come to the Egyptian court at this very moment.
Antony’s sadness at remembering the friend that he lost suggests that his love for Cleopatra has often been isolating to him. He lost an old friend, Dollabella, because Dollabella also loved Cleopatra. This is one of the ways that Antony’s relationship with Cleopatra has changed him and perhaps made him lose touch with the person he used to be.
Dollabella and Antony have an emotional reunion. Antony laments him that he is now “other than I am,” having lost all his fortunes since Dollabella last saw him. Dollabella indignantly asks him what he has done to himself. Antony bristles at this, but Dollabella says that it is the duty of a friend to speak the truth. Antony retaliates by telling some truths of his own. He asks Dollabella to recall the first time he saw Cleopatra, sailing on an elaborately-decorated barge down the river. Although Cleopatra had collaborated in the murder of Dollabella’s brother, Dollabella was so taken by her beauty that he instantly forgave her. Dollabella defends himself by saying that his fault for falling in love with Cleopatra was merely a “private” one, whereas Antony has lost the “world.” Nevertheless, he tells them that he has negotiated talks with Octavius on Antony’s behalf.
Because Dollabella is an old friend of Antony’s, he provides an indicator of just how changed Antony is from the man he used to be. Dollabella blames this change in Antony on Cleopatra’s influence. However, Antony points out his hypocrisy given that Dollabella, too, was in love with Cleopatra—but Dollabella defends himself on the grounds that he has not dishonored himself as Antony has. Dollabella argues that because he is not a commander or leader of Rome, his loss of honor was “private” rather than a matter of public interest. This suggests that Antony’s notion of honor is different from others, given his class position.
Octavia, Antony’s abandoned wife and Octavius’s sister, enters with Antony’s two small daughters. (Ventidius has smuggled them in past the Egyptian guards.) With a dignified air, she tells Antony that she is still loyal to him as a wife despite his abandonment of her. Ventidius praises her moderation and temperance. Antony accuses Octavia of having “begged” his case with Octavius, but Octavia denies that, saying that she would never demean his and her own honor in that way.
Octavia’s loyalty to Antony seems hard to understand, since he abandoned her and their two young daughters. However, her willingness to take him back illustrates one of the fundamental traits of Octavia’s character: her subordination of her personal passions to her dignity and reputation. This is in marked contrast to Antony and Cleopatra, who almost always let their passions rule them.
Octavia tells Antony to take Octavius’s terms and drop her off in Athens. He is moved by her sacrifice but refuses, saying that he can never love her but also doesn’t want to treat her dishonorably. Ventidius and Dollabella urge Antony to abandon Cleopatra and take back Octavia, pointing out that “you have ruined [her], / And yet she would preserve you.” Octavia tells her daughters Aggripina and Antonia to go to their father. At their embrace, Antony is so moved that he tells Octavia he will leave Cleopatra and follow her back to Octavius’s camp.
Octavia appeals to Antony’s sense of honor by bringing his two daughters, with whom he has a moving reunion. This suggests that Antony is torn not only between different loves (for Cleopatra and for his children) but also between different notions of honor. It is dishonorable to leave the woman he loves, but he recognizes that it is also dishonorable to abandon his wife and children.
Seeing this, Alexas laments the fate of his mistress and his own castration—which has barred him from ever experiencing the joys of love and sex himself. Cleopatra enters and weeps at the news that Octavia has stolen Antony back. Alexas assures her that she is more beautiful than Octavia. She gives him a ring, although she accuses him of just flattering her.
Alexas’s desire for a love affair of his own suggests the powerful appeal of Antony and Cleopatra’s passion. Their relationship is politically disastrous but inspires admiration—at least in romantic, sentimental characters.
Octavia enters and meets with Cleopatra. Octavia brings up Cleopatra’s sexual past with Caesar in order to insult her, and haughtily tells her that she has taken Antony back and restored him to his true nature as a Roman. Cleopatra retorts that Antony is hers by “love” rather than by “law.” Octavia comes closer, saying that she wants to view the face that has stolen Antony from her. Cleopatra says that Octavia doesn’t have half her charms, and Octavia agrees, saying that a “modest” Roman woman would be ashamed to act like a seductress.
The conversation between Octavia and Cleopatra represents the conflict between authority and freedom in the play. Octavia has the legal “right” to Antony as his wife, but Cleopatra argues that her claim on him is stronger because it is based on love rather than law. In this sense, she values a freely-chosen commitment more than the legal, official sanctions of marriage.
The two women begin competing to see who has suffered the most in their relationships with Antony. Octavia accuses Cleopatra of stealing Antony’s wife, children, reputation, power, and political standing. Cleopatra says that she has suffered more because Octavia has the name of wife to protect her, whereas Cleopatra has lost her crown and reputation for Antony. She says that now all she wants to do is die. As a parting shot, Octavia sweeps off and tells her “be it so then.” After Octavia leaves, Cleopatra collapses from the strain and is led away by Iras and Charmion.
Cleopatra and Octavia have both suffered a loss of honor as a result of their relationships with Antony. However, while Octavia has been dishonored by Antony’s abandonment, Cleopatra points out that she has lost not only the legal protection of marriage but also her crown and political power. Unlike Octavia, Cleopatra’s loss of honor is a result of a free choice: the decision to live with Antony outside of marriage, thus choosing love over honor.