Antony orders Dollabella to inform Cleopatra of his departure, since Ventidius would be too harsh with her. Dollabella begs Antony not to make him do this, protesting that he is too tender-hearted and won’t be able to bear it. Antony is clearly conflicted too, because every time Dollabella tries to leave, he calls him back. First, he says that he will negotiate a peace with Rome for Egypt to keep Cleopatra on her throne. Second, he asks Dollabella to tell Cleopatra that he still loves her. Third and finally, he asks Dollabella to tell her that it would break his heart if she ever took another lover.
Antony’s mixed messages to Cleopatra suggest that he is still deeply affected by his passion for her, even as he purports to leave her for the good of his reputation and country. But even though he is the one choosing to leave her, he is clearly very distressed by the idea of a change in Cleopatra’s affections. His statement that it would break his heart if she took another lover suggests that he expects Cleopatra to remain the same, even as he returns to his wife.
After Antony leaves, Dollabella observes that men like Antony have appetites that are as changeable as that of children. Worse, their private desires and failings are always made open to “the world’s open view.” Dollabella begins to contemplate trying to win Cleopatra from Antony, since he is still in love with her. Overhearing this, Ventidius gleefully hopes this will lead to her ruin, since he hates Cleopatra.
Dollabella explains that Antony’s choice of love over honor is particularly disastrous in his case because his private emotions have political consequences. Indeed, great rulers like Antony cannot afford to have a private life at all, since everything they do has public repercussions.
Meanwhile, Alexas urges Cleopatra to use Dollabella’s feelings for her to make Antony jealous. Cleopatra protests at the idea of this disloyalty. She laments that her natural inclination is to be a “wife, a silly, harmless, household dove,” but that instead she is forced to act the public and dishonorable role of the mistress. She reluctantly decides to try to make Antony love her again by flirting with Dollabella, who is talking to Iras and Charmion.
Although Cleopatra is depicted as a seductress and prostitute by her critics (most notably Octavia and Ventidius), she in fact seems to long for the social and legal protections of marriage. She laments that her love for Antony has caused her to “dishonor” herself by becoming the mistress of a married man, when she would prefer to be a wife.
Cleopatra asks Dollabella, Iras, and Charmion what they have been talking about. Dollabella claims that they have been discussing her beauty, assuring her that she is more beautiful than all the women in Rome. Cleopatra calls him a flatterer, like his master Antony. Dollabella delivers the heavy news: Antony is leaving, and she will soon lose her kingdom. Attempting to flirt with him, Cleopatra coyly tells him that “love may be expelled by other love.” Dollabella assures her that “some men are constant,” unlike Antony.
Although Cleopatra deeply loves Antony, she clearly has the capacity for more calculated behavior and less emotional, passionate motives. Her decision to flirt with Dollabella, for instance, is a ploy to try to recapture Antony’s affections. For his part, Dollabella portrays himself as more constant than Antony—paradoxically, since he is trying to persuade Cleopatra to be inconstant.
Cleopatra asks whether Antony sent this news regretfully. Dollabella lies and says that Antony spoke harshly of her, calling her the “blot of my renown” [i.e. reputation] and the “poison” of his fortune. At this, Cleopatra swoons. Horrified, Dollabella reveals that what he spoke was false and that in fact Antony sent her words of love. He explains that he lied because he hoped that Cleopatra would fall in love with him instead. Cleopatra admits that her flirtations were false and only intended to regain Antony’s love. Defeated, Dollabella admires Cleopatra’s constancy, which has made her heart inaccessible to any others. Cleopatra begs him to let her see Antony one last time.
Cleopatra begins her flirtation with Dollabella as a sort of game, exchanging compliments and witty remarks. However, her genuine horror at the idea that Antony no longer loves her suggests the truth: she still loves Antony. Indeed, her passion is so unshakeable that even Dollabella sees that Cleopatra is inaccessible to him or to any others. Cleopatra’s inability to keep up the deception suggests that she is a faultlessly (perhaps even fatefully) constant lover to Antony.
Ventidius and Octavia spy on Dollabella and Cleopatra. They misinterpret the gesture of Dollabella taking Cleopatra’s hand, assuming that Cleopatra has abandoned Antony. Dollabella and Cleopatra leave. When Antony enters, he asks how Cleopatra took the news of his departure. Ventidius tells him that Cleopatra took it well—as well, in fact, as she took Caesar’s departure, as if she were preparing to take another lover. Ventidius recounts how Dollabella kissed her hand, and how Cleopatra blushed and smiled on him. Octavia confirms the truth of everything Ventidius says. Antony defends Cleopatra’s honor and calls them both liars, saying that he sees through the plot between them. Ventidius swears that Cleopatra is false.
Ventidius and Octavia try to turn Antony against Cleopatra by bringing up an old insecurity: the fact that Cleopatra was the lover of Julius Caesar before Antony. They hope Antony will take this as an indication of her inconstancy and promiscuity and proof that she has abandoned him for Dollabella. However, the fact that Antony at first refuses to believe them suggests his trust in Cleopatra and faith in her constancy, even when the world condemns her as flighty and untrustworthy.
Ventidius asks Alexas to confirm the report of Cleopatra’s unchastity, calling him a pimp and accusing him of enabling the “nightly change” to a different lover in her bed. Alexas vigorously defends his queen, pointing out that she loves only Antony—and that she turned down the offers of “lawful love” [i.e. marriage] from many kings, just to be Antony’s mistress. However, he argues that Cleopatra ought to go with Dollabella, since Antony has rejected her. At this, Antony is enraged and orders him from his sight.
Alexas admires Cleopatra’s constancy in choosing love outside of marriage rather than marrying a man she doesn’t love. In this sense, Cleopatra has sacrificed her honor for love. But Alexas also takes a more pragmatic, less passionate view than Cleopatra, arguing that she has the right to take up with Dollabella now that Antony has abandoned her.
Octavia complains that Antony should show so much distress at the loss of an “abandoned, faithless prostitute,” suggesting that he still loves Cleopatra more. Ventidius begs her to retire, but the enraged Octavia tells Antony that she will leave him now and go back to Octavius’s camp, since her honor cannot bear to have only “half” of Antony.
Octavia’s statement that Antony has dishonored her by giving her only “half” of himself suggests that she is primarily motivated by the desire to preserve her good reputation. She leaves Antony not because she doesn’t love him, but because she values her honor more.
Antony laments aloud that his “plain, honest heart” forces him to share his feelings openly to the world rather than concealing them. He calls Dollabella to him and asks how Cleopatra took the news of his departure. Dollabella says that Cleopatra still loves Antony, even to “madness.” Antony wonders aloud how he could ever forsake such a woman, and Dollabella agrees that he could not, if she were his. He tells Antony that Cleopatra has come to claim one last word with him.
Throughout the play, Antony has been unable to conceal or suppress his passionate feelings. Despite the rational arguments for leaving Cleopatra, he still seems to find it an impossible task. He finds an unexpected ally in Dollabella, who concurs with his romantic sentiments. Whatever the cost, Dollabella agrees that he would not leave Cleopatra if she loved him.
When Cleopatra enters, Antony shouts at her and Dollabella, accusing them of betraying him. He demands that Dollabella tell him whether he loves Cleopatra, but Dollabella claims that he loves her “no more than friendship will allow.” Antony counters that Octavia, Alexas, and Ventidius all saw them together and have confirmed that they were flirting. Cleopatra admits that she attempted to entice Dollabella, but only to try to make Antony jealous—and that she was unable to go through with it, since she loves Antony too much. For his part, Dollabella admits that he loves Cleopatra but that he “repents” of that love, asking Antony to forgive him.
Cleopatra admits to Antony that her deception failed because of her continuing passion for him. When presented with another option, Dollabella, she was still unable to leave Antony, thus choosing passion over reason. Dollabella, on the other hand, puts aside his romantic feelings for Cleopatra for the sake of his friendship with Antony. He thus shows the ability to control his passions—perhaps as Antony and Cleopatra cannot.
Antony points out that Cleopatra and Dollabella’s only witnesses to prove that they’re telling the truth are each other—and the guilty can’t disprove guilt. He banishes both of them from his sight, saying that he can’t bear to hurt them but can’t bear to see them either. Cleopatra begs him not to send her away, since she has nowhere to go: she has lost her kingdom for him, and the Romans hate her. She protests that Alexas was lying and only hoped to help her regain Antony’s love by making him jealous.
Cleopatra’s desperate plea to Antony reveals the full extent of the cost of their love. She has sacrificed so much for Antony that she can now no longer govern effectively or live without him, since she has given up her kingdom for him. In this way, the choice of love over honor is a particularly isolating one, since it leaves Antony and Cleopatra dependent on each other.
Antony refuses to believe it. Cleopatra begs for one more look from him, protesting that he wouldn’t even send away a slave without one drop of pity. As she goes, Cleopatra professes that she will love Antony forever and loves him more now, even though he is cruel to her. Antony weeps as they part but orders that they should never meet each other again.
Antony and Cleopatra still both seem unable to repress their passions. Cleopatra protests that she will love Antony forever, and Antony weeps even as he professes that he doesn’t want to see her again. Clearly, then, their love persists despite the circumstances.