Plot Synopsis, the Cliffs Notes Version

The players file into the property room and don their costumes, transforming themselves into their characters. Cleopatra enters, and as Iras and Charmian help her into costume and makeup, painting her into physical reality, the players surrounding her describe her, writing her into the ambivalence, the fundamental contradictions that surround her. Antony enters, and the play begins.

Antony luxuriates in Alexandria with his mistress, Cleopatra, while his fellow Romans complain that their once great military leader has been ruined by his unnatural obsession with a foreign queen. Messages arrive from Rome, and Antony continues to ignore them. The news of his wife Fulvia's death, and the civil strife brewing in Rome in his absence, finally force Antony to return to Rome.

Antony and Octavius, his fellow Triumvir and the most dangerous of his political rivals, quarrel upon his return to Italy. The argument is resolved by Agrippa's suggestion of a marriage between Antony and Octavius' recently widowed sister, Octavia, a marriage that would serve to cement the alliance between the Triumvirs.

Philo delivers the news of Antony's marriage to a furious Cleopatra, and is thrashed for it. Cleopatra grieves in Alexandria, gathering all the news of her rival she can, and Antony's passionless marriage to Octavia steadily deteriorates. When Antony finally abandons Octavia and returns to Cleopatra, ceding vast swaths of Roman territory to Egypt, war between Octavius and Antony, Rome and Egypt, is the inevitable result.

Antony rashly decides to fight by sea at Actium rather than land, against the counsel of his best officers, and the promptings of common sense, for no better reason than that Octavius has dared him to do so. Cleopatra flees the battle, and Antony flees after her, leaving his forces to be decimated by Octavius and Agrippa. Philo defects to Octavius' camp. Octavius tells Antony's ambassador, Canidius, that Cleopatra will be permitted to keep Egypt if she kills Antony or drives him out. In growing desperation, Antony challenges Octavius to single combat, seeing it as his only chance to win the war.

Octavia decides to fight for Antony's love, and is spirited into Alexandria by Agrippa. Antony is initially won over, and agrees to return to her and to their children. Octavia then confronts Cleopatra, while the players take sides and cheer them both on. Antony and Octavia finally quarrel, and Octavia abandons Antony to Cleopatra and his inevitable fate.

Octavius declines single combat with Antony, and another battle is joined, following another night of revelry between Antony and Cleopatra. The once-loyal Enobarbus abandons Antony for Octavius, and Octavius puts the defecting soldiers on the front lines. Antony's forces win this battle, and Enobarbus suicides.

The final battle turns against Antony, with Cleopatra's forces surrendering easily to those of Octavius, leaving Antony convinced that she has finally decided to sell him out. They quarrel violently, and Cleopatra, in desperation, sends her maid Iras to tell Antony she is dead. The hastily conceived plan backfires miserably, and instead of coming to mourn over his fallen love, Antony decides to end his own life, the actor tiring of the play and leaving it.

Failing in that as in so much else, he manages to fatally wound himself, but does not die immediately.

Octavius publicly mourns Antony's death with a great deal of show, but as character and actor, he sees and uses the opportunity to take over the writing of the play and reshape reality to suit his purposes. He rewrites himself as Cleopatra's liberator, protector and friend, and sets in motion the playing of a grand scene in Rome, a triumph in which Cleopatra will be a featured player.

The imprisoned queen wins the friendship of the kindly and honorable Agrippa, who tells her of the plot, and solidifies her resolve to die before that scene can be played.

From there, the fraying fabric of the play begins to dissolve completely, torn between the competing paradigms of Octavius and Cleopatra. Cleopatra writes herself and Antony into greatness with her suicide, denying Octavius his final scene.

The end dissolves into utter chaos as Octavius fails to write the players a satisfactory ending, and they turn on him and each other, all of them competing to be heard as the lights fade to black.