Cleopatra is in despair at Antony’s abandonment. She tries to kill herself with a dagger, but Iras and Charmion prevent her. They call out against heaven for punishing such a virtuous woman, suggesting that her suffering shows that only “chance” rules above. Alexas enters and Cleopatra rails against him for persuading her to take the path of trying to make Antony jealous, forcing her “plain, direct, and open love” into the “crooked paths of jealousy.” Alexas counters that ordinary subjects cannot be responsible for the flaws of monarchs.
Cleopatra blames Alexas for the failure of her strategy to recapture Antony’s love. However, Alexas responds with a clever gambit: he claims that he doesn’t have the authority to be blamed for anything, since he is only a slave and Cleopatra is a queen. One of the costs of absolute power is absolute responsibility, since Cleopatra is (in theory) accountable to no one else for her actions.
Alexas argues that there is still hope: Octavia is gone, Dollabella is banished, and thus the way is open for Cleopatra to make her way back into Antony’s heart. Meanwhile, the Egyptian ships are in the middle of a battle against Octavius’s fleet, which Antony is watching from the top of the Pharos. They hear a cry, and Serapion bursts in, shouting that everything is lost and Egypt is vanquished. Cleopatra assumes they have been defeated in battle, but Serapion explains that it’s even worse. The Egyptian fleet surrendered without a fight, joined the Roman forces, and were “received like friends.”
Even now, with Octavius’s army attacking, Cleopatra seems more concerned about recapturing Antony’s love than the fate of her kingdom. The point is proven further by the abandonment of the Egyptian fleet, which seems to no longer feel any personal loyalty to Antony and Cleopatra. Their absorption in their private romantic life seems to have made them less than effective at leading a force against Octavius.
Antony is in a rage at the Egyptian fleet’s betrayal and is apparently raving at Cleopatra. Alexas advises Cleopatra to go hide in her monument for the time being, since Antony will suspect that she betrayed him to the Romans. In the meantime, he promises to go plead her case with Octavius. Now justifiably suspicious of his advice, Cleopatra refuses and asks Serapion for help. Serapion also advises that she hide in the monument but suggests that they send Alexas to speak to Antony on her behalf. Alexas is afraid of Antony and begs them not to send him, but Cleopatra threatens him with death if he disobeys. She declares that she is not afraid to die, and in fact would be honored to die with Antony.
Alexas continues to try to strategize and help Cleopatra find some way of salvaging her life and freedom. By suing for peace with Octavius, Cleopatra might be able to save her own life. Cleopatra, on the other hand, professes that she only wants to die with Antony. Her life in the world seems increasingly of less meaning and importance to her. In fact, she seems to welcome death because it offers one more chance to prove her loyalty and demonstrate her passion for Antony by dying by his side.
Left on his own, Alexas plots to find some way to save his life. Meanwhile, Antony enters with Ventidius. They rant against Cleopatra and the Egyptians who betrayed them, and Antony asks if there is any way to make a final stand against Octavius. Ventidius tells him that there are three legions left to fight for him. Antony professes the intention of taking these last few men to war against Octavius, taking as many Romans down with him as possible. Ventidius pledges to die with him.
After the betrayal of the Egyptian fleet, Antony plans a suicide mission with his remaining soldiers, preferring to die in battle rather than be captured. This suggests his inability to tolerate change from the ruler he once was. He would rather die than live as Octavius’s captive because his notions of honor would make that life seem unbearable.
Alexas enters, and Ventidius draws his sword and threatens to kill him. Antony once again accuses Cleopatra of betraying him to Octavius. Alexas tells him that Cleopatra is gone, and Antony at first is enraged, thinking she has escaped with Dollabella. Alexas protests her innocence. Antony asks why Cleopatra has not come to defend herself, if she is indeed innocent, but Alexas says that Cleopatra “could not bear to be accused by you.” Instead, he tells Antony that she locked herself in her monument, where she stabbed herself with a knife and cried out “Antony” with her last breath.
Alexas is lying about Cleopatra’s fate—she is in fact alive in her monument—but his story is plausible given Cleopatra’s tempestuous and passionate nature. It is calculated to please Antony, who will be gratified that Cleopatra died still loyal to him, choosing love over her honor, freedom, and life. Alexas, on the other hand, is making a very different choice, since he is lying in an attempt to protect his own life from Antony’s rage.
Ventidius rejoices at Cleopatra’s death, only expressing regret that she hadn’t died earlier (since then Antony might have been able to make peace with Octavius.) Antony, by contrast, is devastated at the revelation that Cleopatra is dead and is now convinced that she is innocent. Seeing this, Alexas is pleased, since he plans that Antony will reconcile with Cleopatra when he finds that she is still alive. Antony orders Alexas away.
Ventidius is pleased at the news of Cleopatra’s “death” because he is convinced that she is the cause of the decline of Antony’s fortunes. He seems to think that, with Cleopatra gone, Antony will reverse the changes he has undergone and become his old self again. However, this shows how little Ventidius understands the love Antony has for Cleopatra.
Ventidius tries to raise Antony’s spirits, reminding him that they had promised to die in battle together. However, Antony says that he has no more spirit to fight anymore. Ventidius asks how he can say this when Octavius is at the gates of the palace, but Antony says “he’s welcome now.” He explains that all he wants now is to die, since Cleopatra was the “jewel” that made his life worth living. All his conquests, glory, and honors were merely the ransom he used to buy her love.
Antony’s desire to die rather than make a heroic final stand suggests that Ventidius was wrong about Cleopatra changing Antony. Cleopatra wasn’t the disastrous change in Antony’s life. Rather, she was the continuity, the constant source of love and inspiration that provided the impetus for all his conquests and glory. Without her, Antony has no more desire to live.
Now, Antony says, is the time to give up his power struggle with Octavius and let the world “know whom to obey.” Ventidius accepts Antony’s desire to die and expresses his wish to go with him, since his own life is not worth living without Antony. However, Antony begs Ventidius to stay alive in order to defend his legacy against those who will slander his reputation.
Ventidius refuses again to outlive Antony. As a final request, Antony then asks that Ventidius at least kill him first, since he would rather die by the hands of his friend. Ventidius agrees but asks Antony to turn away his face. When Antony looks away, Ventidius stabs himself instead. He asks the gods to forgive him, since he’d rather die a liar than murder his friend. Antony observes how easily Ventidius died, as if death was an old friend who welcomed him anytime.
Ventidius prefers to commit suicide rather than murder his friend because to kill Antony is too painful. Arguably, the “honorable” thing to do would be to obey his master’s orders. The fact that he doesn’t—choosing, in a sense, love over honor—is an unexpected reversal for a character who has consistently preached the virtues of honor over love.
Antony then falls on his sword, hoping to join Ventidius and Cleopatra. However, he misses his heart and begins bleeding out on the floor. He hears the sound of someone entering and tries to kill himself again—but it is Cleopatra, Iras, and Charmion. He asks Cleopatra if she is real or is the first ghost to meet him in the afterlife. Cleopatra asks him tenderly how he is, and Antony compares himself to a traveler who realizes he has left a precious jewel behind and comes back for it.
Although Antony is leaving everything else behind by committing suicide—his power, wealth, and armies—he calls Cleopatra the precious jewel that he cannot bear to leave behind. In this sense, Cleopatra is the only constant that Antony will take with him to the afterlife when he has otherwise been transformed from the person he used to be.
Cleopatra begs the gods to keep Antony alive, but he tells her gently that this cannot be. Instead, he asks her one last time to pledge her innocence. Cleopatra swears that she had no knowledge of Alexas’s plot to fake her death, that she never betrayed him to Octavius, and that she never cared for Dollabella. As he dies, Antony makes her promise to come soon after him, promising that they will have troops of the ghosts of lovers to wait on them in heaven. He gives her one last kiss and dies.
As he dies, Antony imagines that he and Cleopatra will have troops of the ghosts of lovers to wait on them in heaven. This suggests that although they may have failed as rulers and politicians, their love will be legendary and their passion for each other will provide a model and example for lovers for many years to come.
Cleopatra proclaims that she will die with Antony as his wife, in a bond that no “Roman laws” will be able to break. Iras and Charmion remind her that Octavius is merciful and may spare her life, but Cleopatra balks at the idea that Octavius would keep her alive as his captive, to parade through the streets of Rome. Charmion and Iras pledge to follow her wherever she goes, even to death. Cleopatra bids them to quickly bring her royal robes and something called “the cure of all ills.”
Throughout the play, Cleopatra has frequently expressed the wish that she could be Antony’s legal wife rather than occupying the socially degrading status of mistress. Now, however, in their death, she claims that their joint suicide is a form of marriage—a marriage that transcends the authority of Roman laws.
Alone with Antony’s corpse, Cleopatra kisses his lips, observing that they are now alone again, like lovers. Iras and Charmion reenter, and Cleopatra dresses herself in her finest clothes. She places a laurel on Antony’s head, reminding her maids that Antony died honorably, fighting for his life. She then seats herself beside Antony on the throne of Egypt, in remembrance of their former greatness.
Although Antony and Cleopatra have lost everything, their death has a sense of continuity with their previous lives. They sit on their thrones again as rulers of Rome and Egypt, and they are alone together as they were when they first fell in love—reminding themselves of the past just when everything around them is crumbling.
“The cure of all ills” turns out to be a snake that carries venomous poison, carried in a basket brought in by Iras and Charmion. However, when the snake bites, it brings no pain and makes the victim seem to fall gently into sleep. Serapion shouts from outside that Octavius is at the palace gates. Cleopatra quickly bares her arm and lets the snake bite her. As the guards begin to break down the doors, Iras and Charmion do the same. As she dies, Cleopatra professes her desire to meet Antony again, daring Octavius: “Now part us if thou canst.”
Cleopatra plays a final trump card against Octavius by killing herself. In part, she does this because she is too proud and passionate to be paraded through the streets as his captive. But she also commits suicide in a final act of defiance against the authority of Rome, taunting Octavius that he has no power now to separate her and Antony in death.
Serapion, two priests, and Alexas (who is in chains) enter the room. Horrified by the spectacle of Cleopatra and Iras’s bodies (as Iras has also killed herself with Cleopatra), Serapion asks Charmion “is this well done?” Charmion proclaims proudly that Cleopatra died honorably, as the last of a great line of monarchs, before sinking down and dying herself. Alexas admits that it is better to die in Egypt than holiday in Rome. Serapion tells the priests to use “this villain” (Alexas) as their security to buy their freedom from Octavius.
Many characters in the play proclaim that Cleopatra’s love for Antony (and vice versa) has cost her the honor of her position as queen. However, Charmion points out that there is honor in dying for love. In a sense, Cleopatra lived up to the example of her powerful ancestors by refusing to submit to the power of Rome and remaining true to herself.
Serapion observes how noble Antony and Cleopatra look, as if they ruled half the world. He is glad that the lovers are now safe from their unhappy fate and proclaims that future generations will always remember their love story.
The onlookers see a tragedy in Antony and Cleopatra’s suicide, but they also acknowledge that their passion is inspirational and poetic—more lasting and powerful, perhaps, than even Rome’s triumph.