The scene opens with Cleopatra instructing her attendants, Charmian, Alexas, and Iras, to aid her in a plan. They are to find Antony and observe what sort of mood he is in. If he seems to be happy, they are to tell him that Cleopatra is ill. But if he seems sad or moody, on the other hand, they are to tell him that she is "dancing." Presumably, her purpose is to make Antony feel guilty about being away from her; she wants to make him think about her — anything to draw his attention to her. It is a transparent and childish device, more typical of an adolescent than of a woman deeply in love.
Antony enters and wants to tell Cleopatra the sad news of Fulvia's death. However, Cleopatra is so involved in the game that she is playing that she doesn't notice that Antony is trying to tell her something important. He keeps trying to interrupt her egotistical monologue, but he cannot manage to communicate his sorrow. First, Cleopatra feigns illness, but when she sees that Antony doesn't notice, she begins berating him for his faithlessness. After a good deal of melodramatic emoting from Cleopatra, Antony is finally able to tell her that he must leave immediately. She is caught off-guard and is so distraught that he plans to leave so quickly that she accuses him of playacting. She accuses him further of being as false to her as he is false to Fulvia. At this point, Antony is finally able to tell her that Fulvia is dead.
This announcement, however, does not have the expected effect on Cleopatra. She merely retorts, selfishly, "Now I see, I see / In Fulvia's death, how mine receiv'd shall be." But Antony is not moved by her childish histrionics, and he repeats that he must return to Rome.
Cleopatra continues to goad Antony, but to no effect. She repeats the charge that he is an excellent actor and that he plays well the role of an irritated, angry man. He answers Cleopatra that her own show of grief at his leaving might also be merely an act. She vows that her love for him is real and that her pain is as real as the pain of a woman in labor. Finally, it seems, she realizes that Antony's emotions may be genuine, and she also seems to realize that the quality of love is something that a person must take on faith. When the scene ends, Cleopatra is reconciled to the fact that Antony must leave, and thus they separate and swear vows of fidelity.
Several themes are developed here. Once again, we see Cleopatra in a rather unfavorable light. She still seems to be more of a scheming coquette than a woman who loves Antony sincerely. Yet Cleopatra's insecurity, her constant comparing of her own situation with that of Fulvia, could also be interpreted to mean that she does love Antony a great deal and fears to lose him.
If this scene could be said to have one basic focus, it probably centers on acting and the theater — illusion as opposed to the real world. The second half of the scene, in particular, with its many references to acting, echoes the actual "staged scene" that we saw in the first half — that is, when Cleopatra instructed her servants to encourage Antony to worry about her and thus attract his attention. It is ironic that it is Cleopatra who accuses Antony of only acting as if he loves her; significantly, it was she, not he, who planned the earlier scenario with her servants. She herself "acts" according to plan when Antony enters, but her scheme fails when Antony refuses to humor her. As a result, they argue about whether or not their love is genuine.
The familiar Shakespearean theme of reality vs. illusion is paramount here. Egypt is a dream world, a world of romance and sensual delight, compared to Rome, a world of harsh reality, a world of politics and war. As a parallel, the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra exhibits dreamlike features, as well as serious sparring. Their love vacillates between a tawdry, superficial romance, a sort of romp in the garden of earthly delights, and a love that is sadder, a deeper kind of love that is more than sensual and may possibly survive the burdens placed on it by time and the world.
At this point, Shakespeare is still developing his theme of love and intrigue according to the popular ideas of his time concerning Antony and Cleopatra. Traditionally, these lovers have been presented as being entirely devoted to sensuality and self-gratification. Now, however, we see that while the faults of Shakespeare's hero and heroine are not entirely dispelled, the characters gain considerably in depth and humanity as the play progresses.