Immediately after Theseus and Hippolyta are married, three widowed queens arrive from Thebes, begging Theseus to go to war with the tyrant Creon so that their husbands’ bodies can receive proper burial. Hippolyta and her sister Emilia also plead for them, and he agrees to go off to fight. His friend Pirithous later leaves to join his campaign.
Two Theban friends, Palamon and Arcite, decry the evil in their city, but out of loyalty stay to help defend it. Following Theseus’ victory, they are recognized for their prowess in battle. Almost dead, they are brought to Athens and given care, though imprisoned. Their jailer has a daughter who falls in love with Palamon when she sees him, disregarding her own wooer.
Palamon and Arcite regain their strength, and vow eternal friendship. Then Palamon sees Emilia through the prison bars, and falls in love with her. Arcite notices, sees Emilia, and also falls in love with her. They argue over her fiercely. Pirithous persuades Theseus to give Arcite his liberty, and he is banished. When Arcite encounters country people preparing for a dance to be performed before the nobles, he joins them in disguise so that he can enter the Athenian sports. He impresses everyone, and Theseus makes him a servant to Emilia.
The Jailer’s Daughter sets Palamon free, in the hope of obtaining his love. She follows him into the countryside, but loses track of him, and then gradually loses her wits. The schoolmaster, rehearsing the country people for the dance, finds he is a woman short, but the Jailer’s Daughter supplies the place. They perform the dance in front of Theseus and Hippolyta.
Palamon, in hiding, sees Arcite in Theseus’ hunting-party, and reveals himself. Arcite fetches him clothes, food and armour. They expressd their affection for each other, but nonetheless duel, and are disturbed by Theseus and his court. They explain who they are, and admit their love for Emilia. Theseus sentences them to death, but Hippolyta, Emilia, and Pirithous successfully beg mercy for them. Emilia cannot choose between them, so Theseus commands them to return in a month with knights, and engage in single combat. The winner will gain Emilia; the loser will be sentenced to death.
The Jailer and his friends despair over his daughter’s madness. They consult a doctor, who advises that the daughter’s wooer should pretend to be Palamon. She accepts the substitution, and they go off to be married.
Palamon and Arcite return to fight for Emilia, and all three make prayers to their gods, asking for help. Emilia refuses to watch the combat. Arcite wins, and Palamon and his knights are sent for execution. The sentence is about to be carried out when Pirithous rushes in with the news that Arcite has been thrown by his horse, and badly injured. Arcite is brought in, and yields Emilia to Palamon before he dies, affirming Palamon’s original claim to her. Theseus recognizes Palamon’s right to marry Emilia, and announces a period of mourning for Arcite to be followed by their wedding.