The play opens in Alexandria, in one of the rooms of Cleopatra's palace. Two of Antony's friends, Demetrius and Philo, are discussing Antony's increasing fondness for Cleopatra. Philo, in particular, is worried about "this dotage" that his general has for the Egyptian queen; to him, Antony's passion "o'erflows the measure." He feels that a general's passion is best spent on the battlefield "in the scuffles of great fights." As they ponder their general's unreasonable behavior, there is a fanfare of trumpets, and Antony and Cleopatra enter, accompanied by the queen's ladies-in-waiting and her attendant eunuchs. Philo is fearful that all this pomp and beauty has turned his general from a fierce warrior into an addled lover. Significantly, he worries that Antony, "The triple pillar of the world," has been translated into "a strumpet's fool."
Cleopatra's first words to Antony are teasing. She wants to know how much Antony loves her, and he boasts that if any love can be measured, then it is poor love indeed ("There's beggary in the love that can be reckoned"). But Cleopatra tantalizes him for still more compliments — more verbal proof of his love. Foolishly, he tries to appease her.
They are interrupted by a messenger who has brought news from Rome, but Antony clearly is in no mood to hear or discuss military matters. All of his thoughts are on his beloved Cleopatra, who mocks the messenger's urgency; she sarcastically jests that Caesar is probably sending yet another order to "do this, or this; / Take in that kingdom . . . " Games of war bore her; she delights in equating the taking of whole kingdoms to being no more than a mere daily errand, ordered by the "scarce-bearded Caesar."
The Queen's strategy works; Antony is furious that anyone would interrupt his thoughts and his time with his beloved Cleopatra. "Let Rome in [the] Tiber melt," he roars. The only "messenger" he will see is Cleopatra; his devotion to the worthy Cleopatra comprises "The nobleness of life." They exit with the queen's attendants, and Demetrius and Philo are left alone to ponder their general's transformation. Rumor has already reached Rome of Antony's romantic waywardness. Demetrius hopes that tomorrow he will once again see proof that his general is still "that great property."
Shakespeare does not dally with theatrical conventions of lengthy exposition. Almost immediately we are introduced to the two lovers, who are clearly passionate lovers. There is only a modicum of introduction as the play opens. Briefly, two of Antony's friends discuss their general's infatuation with Cleopatra They describe Antony as if he had undergone some strange sort of metamorphosis; it seems to them that his eyes, which once looked upon battlefields, "now bend, now turn / The office and devotion of their view / Upon a tawny front." His soldier's heart is no longer courageous; instead, it "reneges all temper / And is become the bellows and the fan / To cool a gypsy's lust."
After Antony and Cleopatra have made their entrance, it is clear that Antony has indeed let himself be seduced — body and soul — by Cleopatra's sensuality and charm. It is also clear that the Romans in general dislike Cleopatra, in spite of her legendary ability to enchant males — or perhaps because of it. This prejudiced view toward Cleopatra is developed throughout the play, but as we will see, Shakespeare was not content to present her as only a one-dimensional character; she is more than merely a sensual woman who happens to rule an entire country.
As Antony and Cleopatra talk, both of them use exaggerated language to swear that their love is greater than any other love in the world; their love, they believe, is more than this world can hold. This is not idle overstatement, for their intense love for one another will be the cause of their deaths. Time and again in the play this key idea will be emphasized: love and the worlds of politics and war belong in separate spheres and can never coalesce or merge. The central theme of this play is exactly that — love vs. war — and Shakespeare will weave this theme in and out of the action as the play progresses. By the end of the tragedy, it will seem as if the concept of war has won, but we should not be too hasty to come to that decision. Upon reflection, we will see that the final act of this play is ambiguous. It is possible that love may finally be the victor after all.
In this act, however, Shakespeare's emphasis is clearly on Antony's current displeasure with political matters. The messenger who has come with a letter from Rome gives Cleopatra a chance to tease Antony that he is dominated by Octavius Caesar, a much younger man. Her motive is to goad Antony into declaring his independence of Rome — and she succeeds, for Antony retorts that "kingdoms are clay; our dungy earth alike / Feeds beast as man." Impetuously, he denies that Rome and the concerns of the political arena have any hold on him. Here, we should note his choice of words: Antony says that the earth is "dungy" and that kingdoms "melt" like mud into the rivers of the world. This comparison is ironically striking when we consider the "earthy" (sensual) interest for which he is forsaking Rome.
Antony thus reveals how malleable he really is, for Cleopatra clearly delights in toying with his vacillating passions. She teases him that since he has been unfaithful to his wife by becoming involved with her, it is quite likely that he will be unfaithful to her one day. Antony, of course, vehemently denies such a speculation. Here, he is willful and self-indulgent, and he is certainly fickle. We initially see him perhaps at his worst. Later, Shakespeare's dramatic portrait of him will be enlarged and will be developed in detail, stature, and complexity.
As for portraying Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen, Shakespeare remains faithful to the popular image of Cleopatra as the strumpet queen, so to speak, but he suggests that she, like Antony, is more complex than one might initially suppose. On one hand, she is a coquette who manipulates Antony so skillfully that he does what she wants. On the other, she emotionally needs to have Antony tell her how much he loves her; she needs to have him affirm for her that nothing else matters as much as their love. This clearly reveals a certain amount of insecurity on her part, and in that sense, it is quite possible that she has a genuine, if momentary, feeling of sympathy for Antony's wife; she can see herself in the same position — that is, Antony loves her now, but she can envision losing him later to another woman.