The play Antony and Cleopatra opens in Alexandria, where one of the three Roman Triumvirs, Mark Antony, is ostensibly ruing over the Egyptian portion of the Roman Empire.
His soldiers and friends are not fooled by what they see as his “dotage” (I.i.1) over Cleopatra. Philo is disappointed by his leader, and when our title couple enters with their train, it appears that the Egyptian queen does wield control over the Roman general.
Antony tells her that she will need to find “new heaven, new earth” (I.i.16) to find the limits of his love when she demands to know if he loves her. When a messenger comes from Rome with news for Antony, Cleopatra mocks him and the possible news from his wife Fulvia (who “perchance is angry” [I.i.20]) or a “powerful mandate” (I.i.22) from another Triumvir, Octavian Caesar. Her mockery works and he puts off the messenger until later. When the couple exits, another of Antony’s soldier-friends says that these actions confirm the rumors, “the common liar…at Rome” (I.i.60-61).
Act One, Scene Two takes us Cleopatra’s compound, where some of her attendants (Charmian, Alexas, Iras) and Antony’s trusted soldier-friend Enobarbus, are consulting a soothsayer. While the soldier has no patience for the proceedings, wanting only “the banquet quickly” (I.ii.13), the women all want to know their fortunes. These predictions are all alike: they will “outlive the lady [they] serve” (I.ii.32). After a little bawdy girl-talk of dying and cuckolds, Cleopatra enters, complaining of a sudden change in Antony, and within lines we understand why. We do, but Cleopatra and her attendants (and Enobarbus) don’t, as they exit in a game of hard-to-get. The messenger brings news that Antony’s wife Fulvia has led an army against his brother Lucius; that they then joined forces to attack Octavian’s forces, who defeated them and drove them from Italy. There is worse news: Octavian has grown his army with a “Parthian force” (I.ii.99). And there is the worst: Antony’s wife Fulvia is dead after an illness.
Antony eulogizes her, and decides to return to Rome, lamenting his idleness while others have fought and died. Enobarbus re-enters, and when he balks at Antony’s decision to return home, the Triumvir tells him of Fulvia’s death. This, Enobarbus says, is “a thankful sacrifice” (I.ii.161) that instead allows Antony to stay here with his Egyptian queen. There’s a bit of bawdiness to his speech–Antony cuts him off with “No more light answers” (I.ii.175). In a speech, one that finally reminds us of the politically savvy leader from the second half of Julius Caesar, Antony announces their return, as well as fence-mending with Octavian so that they may fight the forces of Pompey (the Great’s son), whose navy has attacked Octavian’s.
Act One, Scene Three takes us into Cleopatra’s chamber, where she demands information about Antony’s whereabouts and actions, as well as ponders how to respond to him. Antony enters, and when he tries to speak, she cuts him off repeatedly, interrupting him, with statements of illness, then mocking jealousy, then feelings of betrayal, and finally spitefulness. When he can speak at last, it’s of the need for his return to fight against Pompey, saving the news of Fulvia’s death until the very end. She questions his lack of emotion, and states, “Now I see, I see, // In Fulvia’s death how mine received shall be” (I.iii.64-65). When Antony reiterates his quick return, she attempts to seduce his for one last “scene // Of excellent dissembling” (I.iii.78-9). And if it doesn’t work, she certainly acts and flirtatiously speaks as if it has:
You’ll heat my blood. No more!
You can do better yet, but this is meetly.
Now by my sword—
And target. Still he mends.
But this is not the best.
But he says that he must leave. And then she sends him on his way. There’s no pleasing (or predicting) this woman.
Act One, Scene Four takes us to Rome, where the other two Triumvirs, Octavian Caesar, and Lepidus, discuss Antony’s absence and his becoming “the abstract of all faults // That all men follow” (I.iv.9-10). When Lepidus attempts to play peacemaker (as he did in Julius Caesar), Octavian goes on to deride the sexual nature of Antony’s conquest, one of “the bed of Ptolemy” (I.iv.17) instead of a nation. Lepidus is forced to concede the argument. Still, Octavian hopes that Antony will return to Rome to help fight Pompey who “thrives in our idleness” (I.iv.76).
The fifth and final scene of Act One returns us to Alexandria with Cleopatra and her attendants. The queen “think[s] of [Antony] too much” (I.v.6) in the words of Charmian. And she’s right. Cleopatra spends most of the scene trying to devise diversions for herself, dipping into bawdiness, and trying to remember if she ever loved Caesar as much back in her “salad days, // When [she] was green in judgment” (I.v.73-4). Regardless, she acts as though she is lost without Antony.
And thus, the first act of Antony and Cleopatra ends.