In a Sicilian village on Easter Sunday, Turiddu serenades his mistress, Lola. Lola is married to Alfio, a teamster; Turridu is avoiding Santuzza, whom he previously seduced and abandoned. Santuzza explains the situation to Turridu’s mother, Mamma Lucia, and begs her to pray for her; because of her affair with Turridu, the unmarried Santuzza has been excommunicated.
Turiddu himself comes in, and Santuzza appeals to him directly. He offers unconvincing excuses, and is growing angry when Lola enters on her way to church. When she has gone, the quarrel between Santuzza and Turiddu breaks out again. Finally, Turiddu will stand no more of it. He storms into the church, and Santuzza curses him.
The last one to come to church is Alfio. Santuzza stops him, too, and in her anger tells him his wife is betraying him with Turiddu. Alfio swears a terrible vengeance.
After Mass, the villagers fill the square. Turiddu invites everyone to join him in a drink. But Alfio, in a menacing mood, challenges Turridu. Filled with remorse, Turridu begs his mother to take care of Santuzza, says farewell, and runs off to fight with Alfio. A moment later, one of the villagers reports the outcome of the duel.
A clown tells the audience that although they are witnessing a fiction, the actors are real people who suffer and live lives of agony as well as joy.
In an Italian village, a group of traveling players arrive: Canio, his wife Nedda, and two other clowns, Tonio and Beppe. Canio invites everyone to the evening’s performance, and the villagers invite him to have a drink. One man jokes about Tonio having a chance to seduce Nedda; Canio tells him his wife’s loyalty is no laughing matter.
Nedda worries that Canio knows she has betrayed him; longing for freedom, she considers the birds flying overhead. Tonio, consumed by desire, begs her to love him. She becomes angry and strikes him. He leaves just as her lover, a villager named Silvio, rushes in. Silvio begs Nedda to leave her husband and run off with him.
Smarting from rejection, Tonio returns and sees the lovers. He fetches Canio, and the two men arrive in time to hear Nedda promise that she will meet her lover at midnight. Canio chases the younger man away; he and Nedda are arguing when Beppe tells Canio that he must prepare for the performance. As he puts on his makeup, Canio laments that he must make people laugh even though his own heart is breaking.
The villagers gather for a familiar comedy in which Columbine (Nedda) betrays her husband Pagliaccio (Canio) with Harlequin (Beppe). As Harlequin escapes out the window, Canio hears Nedda, in character as Columbine, again promise to meet her lover. Forgetting he is onstage, Canio demands to know the name of Nedda’s lover. She desperately tries to keep the show going, but eventually Canio explodes, telling Nedda that he isn’t play-acting any more.
The audience applauds the realism of the performance. Nedda continues to defy Canio, finally crying that she will never tell him her lover’s name. Pushed beyond the breaking point, Canio brings the performance to an end.