Returning from military service, Turiddu found his fiancée Lola married to a prosperous wagon owner and driver, Alfio. As revenge, he seduced Santuzza. Lola, in her jealousy, took up with him again in an adulterous affair.
As the curtain rises, Turiddu’s voice is heard praising Lola and, from afar, one hears men and women singing the joys of spring and love: as if in a nightmare, Santuzza envisions the love between Turiddu and Lola. Instead of going for wine, Turiddu has spent the night with Lola while Alfio was away. Alfio suddenly arrives and is suspicious at having seen Turiddu lurking about his house. As a warning to Turiddu, he boasts publicly of his love for Lola and of her fidelity. The Easter Sunday procession emerges from the church, with religious fervor mounting to the fevered pitch of hysteria. Santuzza cannot enter the church, for everyone knows that she has sinned with Turiddu, and she considers herself excommunicated and damned. She nevertheless joins her voice to the others, provoking general disapproval. Once the crowd leaves, Santuzza accosts Turiddu who tries in vain to deny his affair with Lola. Just then Lola passes on her way to church, which leads to an ironic exchange between the two women. Santuzza and Turiddu engage in a storm of recriminations, before Turiddu breaks away and goes into church. When Alfio arrives to join his wife at church, Santuzza cries out in her grief and jealousy that Lola has been unfaithful to him. Too late, Santuzza realizes that the bloodthirsty desire for vengeance she has set off in Alfio will doom Turiddu.
Both Lola and Turiddu emerge from mass and realize by Santuzza’s vengeful smile that she has betrayed their secret to Alfio. As a final provocation, Turiddu publicly offers a toast to Lola, then drinks heartily to bolster his courage. Alfio enters, and the ritual challenge to a duel occurs. In keeping with custom, Turiddu draws Alfio’s blood by biting his ear, which signifies a fight to the death. In a moment of weakness toward Santuzza that earns the audience’s scorn, Turiddu asks Alfio and, later, Mamma Lucia to care for Santuzza if he should not return; he had promised, he says, to marry her. The cries of the village women announce Turiddu’s death.
Tonio, a clown in a small theatrical road company, announces that the author has written a true story about actors, who share the same joys and sorrows as other human beings.
A company of touring actors arrive, accompanied by excited villagers. Canio, head of the troupe, announces that the performance will begin at 11 o'clock that evening. When a person in the crowd suggests that Tonio, a fellow actor, is courting Canio’s wife Nedda behind his back, the jealous Canio warns the crowd that he does not tolerate men flirting with his wife. Canio joins a group of villagers and goes off to the nearby inn. The zampognari (bagpipers) enter the square and entertain the gathered villagers before they all go to the church, leaving Nedda alone in her thoughts.
Disturbed by her husband’s suspicious glances, Nedda envies the freedom of the birds that soar overhead. Tonio, who has listened to Nedda’s reverie, tries to make love to her, but she strikes him, sending him away in a rage. The villager Silvio appears, who is Nedda’s lover. He persuades Nedda to run away with him at midnight. Tonio spies on them and leaves to report the tryst to Canio. Tonio and Canio return from the inn and discovers the couple. A chase ensues, but Silvio manages to escape. Though threatened with a knife, Nedda refuses to divulge her lover’s name, and Beppe, another actor, has to prevent Canio’s hand from harming Nedda. Tonio advises the enraged husband to wait until evening for vengeance. Alone, Canio laments his lot as an actor, laughing through his tears for the audience’s amusement.
The villagers assemble to see the play, and Nedda, collecting money for the performance, exchanges some words with Silvio, assuring him of their rendezvous. The commedia begins, which is based on the familiar tale of Pagliaccio and Columbina. In the absence of her husband Pagliaccio (played by Canio), Colombina (Nedda) is serenaded by her lover Arlecchino (Beppe). Together they drive away her servant, the buffoon Taddeo (Tonio). Colombina and Arlecchino dine together and plot to poison Pagliaccio, whose approach interrupts their love-making. After Arlecchino has escaped, Taddeo, with pointed malice, assures Pagliaccio of his wife’s innocence. Obsessed with jealousy, Canio forgets he is onstage and demands that Nedda name her lover. She tries to continue the play, as the audience gradually realizes the reality of the situation. Beppe tries to intercede, but Tonio holds him back. Maddened by her continued defiance, Canio stabs Nedda, and then Silvio who has rushed forward to help her. Canio cries out that the show is over.