Summary: Act 2: Scene 1

Pompey discusses the military situation with his lieutenants, Menecrates and Menas. He feels confident of victory against the triumvirs, not only because he controls the sea and is popular with the Roman people, but also because he believes that Antony, the greatest threat to his power, is still in Egypt. Menas reports that Octavius and Lepidus have raised an army, and another soldier, Varrius, arrives to tell them that Antony has come to Rome. Menas expresses his hope that Octavius and Antony’s mutual enmity will give rise to a battle between the two triumvirs, but Pompey predicts that the two will come together to fend off their common enemy.

Read a translation of Act 2: Scene 1.

Summary: Act 2: Scene 2

Lepidus tells Enobarbus that Antony should use “soft and gentle speech” when speaking to Octavius (2.2.3). Enobarbus answers that Antony will speak as plainly and honestly as any great man should.

Antony and Octavius enter with their attendants and sit down to talk. Octavius complains of the rebellion that Fulvia and Antony’s brother raised against him. He asks why Antony dismissed his messengers in Alexandria and accuses Antony of failing in his obligation to provide military aid to the other triumvirs. Antony defends himself, and Maecenas, one of Octavius’s companions, suggests that they put aside their bickering in order to face Pompey.

Agrippa, another of Octavius’s men, suggests that Antony marry Octavius’s sister, Octavia. This bond, he claims, would cement the men’s affection for and alliance with one another. Antony consents. Octavius and Antony shake hands, promising brotherly love, and they agree to march together toward Pompey’s stronghold on Mount Misenum.

When the triumvirs disperse, Enobarbus tells Agrippa of the good life they lived in Egypt. He describes how Antony first met Cleopatra, whom he describes as surpassing the beauty of Venus, the goddess of love. Antony, he maintains, will never be able to leave her, despite his marriage to Octavia.

Read a translation of Act 2: Scene 2.

Summary: Act 2: Scene 3

Antony promises Octavia that although his duties will often force him to be away from her, he will avoid the sexual indiscretions of his past. Octavia and Octavius depart, and Antony is joined by the Egyptian Soothsayer, who predicts Antony’s return to Egypt. Antony asks whether he or Octavius has the brighter future, and the Soothsayer answers that Octavius’s fortune will rise higher. As long as Antony remains in Rome, the Soothsayer predicts, he will be overshadowed by Octavius. He advises Antony to leave plenty of space between himself and the triumvir of Rome. Antony dismisses the fortune-teller but agrees with his assessment, and he resigns himself to returning to Egypt, where his “pleasure lies” (2.3.46). Antony summons Ventidius, a soldier and friend, and commissions him to go east to make war against the kingdom of Parthia.

Read a translation of Act 2: Scene 3.

Summary: Act 2: Scene 4

Meanwhile, Lepidus orders Maecenas and Agrippa to gather their soldiers and meet at Mount Misenum, where they shall confront Pompey’s army.

Read a translation of Act 2: Scene 4.

Summary: Act 2: Scene 5

In Egypt, Cleopatra amuses herself with her servants Charmian and Mardian, a eunuch. As she reminisces about Antony, likening him to a fish that she has caught, a messenger arrives from Italy. Noting his unhappy expression, Cleopatra fears that Antony is dead and threatens the messenger should he deliver such unwelcome news. The messenger assures the queen that her lover is alive and well, but he admits that Antony has married Octavia. Cleopatra strikes the messenger furiously, but he insists that he must tell her the truth. Cleopatra admits that it is beneath her station to treat a menial servant so viciously, but she cannot help upbraiding the man as she forces him to repeat that Antony belongs to another. She finally dismisses the messenger, then sends him orders to go and see Octavia so that he may report her features—how old she is, how she acts, even the color of her hair.

Read a translation of Act 2: Scene 5.

Analysis: Act 2: Scenes 1–5

With act 2, Antony and Cleopatra shifts into a new gear as the action begins to toggle between multiple places, shifting across wide geographical expanses, often in rapid succession. In the first five scenes of the act, Shakespeare moves around the Mediterranean Sea, making stops in Sicily, Rome, and Alexandria. Each of these places represents a major hub in the tensions brewing throughout the Roman Empire. Pompey the insurrectionist presides over Sicily, the large island near the “toe” of the “boot” of Italy, which he has established as an independent state. Meanwhile, Octavius Caesar rules from the Italian city of Rome, and Cleopatra remains at her court in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, which lies on the far southeastern shore of the Mediterranean. As the play proceeds, Shakespeare will continue to shift the action from one place to another, often also making significant leaps through time. These leaps are not typical for Shakespeare, but they contribute to the unique structure of Antony and Cleopatra, giving it an epic scope that adequately reflects the historical significance of its subject matter.

Scene 1 of the play’s second act introduces us to Sextus Pompeius, known here simply as Pompey. Pompey is a Roman general who stands in opposition to the triumvirate comprised of Octavius, Lepidus, and Antony. Pompey inherits his opposition to the triumvirate from his father, Pompey the Great, who had fought in the civil war against Julius Caesar, the uncle and adoptive father of Octavius. After his father’s treacherous murder in the midst of that conflict, Pompey and his brothers continued the fight against Julius Caesar. However, ongoing defeat forced them to retreat to Sicily. Back in Rome, however, Julius Caesar’s enemies organized and executed a plot to murder him, which instigated a new civil war. This new war gave Pompey the reprieve needed to establish the navy which, by the time when Antony and Cleopatra is set, has grown into a formidable force. His pirates roam the sea, terrorizing Rome’s official fleet in ongoing resistance to the triumvirate.

Shakespeare depicts Pompey as a somewhat pompous man who believes wholeheartedly in his future success against the triumvirate. Believing that all three triumvirs of the Roman Empire have grown complacent and therefore weak, Pompey asserts to Menas: “I shall do well. / The people love me, and the sea is mine; / My powers are crescent, and my auguring hope / Says it will come to th’ full” (2.1.11–14). Yet for all his apparent self-confidence, Pompey also recognizes the potential danger signaled by Antony’s present journey to Rome. As long as Antony remains in Egypt, he isn’t a threat. But the moment he returns to Rome and reconciles the brewing tension between him and Octavius, the triumvirate will be newly strengthened and thus pose a significant challenge for Pompey’s opposition. For the present, his only line of defense is to pray that Antony will make a quick return to Alexandria, where Cleopatra will continue to bewitch him: “Let witchcraft join with beauty, lust with both; / Tie up the libertine in a field of feasts; / Keep his brain fuming” (2.1.27–29).

Shakespeare’s depiction of Pompey as both self-confident and vulnerable relates to his similarly conflicting depictions of other key characters in the play. Perhaps most conflicting of all is the portrayal of Antony, whom we have seen—and will continue to see—from a variety of different perspectives. For example, in the opening scenes of the play, Demetrius and Philo complained that their general has sacrificed his better self for the sake of Cleopatra’s lust. Three scenes later, Octavius described Antony’s incomparable prowess in battle, confirming the audience’s impression of the general’s military might. When Antony appears in act 2, scene 3, however, he seems less interested in maintaining this heroic reputation than in pursuing his own pleasure. We may find it difficult to decide whether the Antony we see is the celebrated war hero or a man corrupted by his desires for fame and romance. The play doesn’t offer an easy answer. Instead, we must weigh the various impressions of Antony from Pompey, Octavius, Enobarbus, and Cleopatra against Antony’s understanding of himself. Antony, like each character in the play, is thus the product of three distinct elements: what other characters think of him, what he thinks of himself, and what he does.

Read more about the struggle between reason and emotion as a theme.

Similarly, Cleopatra is both the regal, incomparably beautiful seductress of Enobarbus’s speech and the spoiled, petty tyrant who beats her servant for delivering unwelcome news. More than any other character in the play—and perhaps in all of Shakespeare—Cleopatra assumes each of these contradictory roles with unmatched passion and flair. She is, above all else, a consummate actress, a woman whose grief over Antony’s marriage to Octavia can be soothed only by the theatrics of drawing a knife on her innocent messenger. Cleopatra’s over-the-top behavior may cause us to doubt the authenticity of her emotions and question whether her grief is more performance than actual feeling. But to entertain such doubts about her may be to look at the play too much from the Roman point of view. We should remember that Cleopatra is more than the harlot the Romans see when they look at her. As Enobarbus says in act 2, scene 2, Cleopatra is a woman of “infinite variety”: there is room in her for both theatrical emotions and genuine love, for both stately grandeur and for girlish insecurity (2.2.241).