Set in Italy, thr plsy tells the story of a virtuous young woman of the upper middle class. The absolutist prince of Guastalla, Hettore Gonzaga, becomes obsessed with the idea of making Emilia his lover after their first meeting. He thus gives his conniving Chamberlain, Marinelli, the right to do anything in his power to delay the previously arranged marriage between Emilia and Count Appiani. Marinelli then hires criminals who shortly thereafter murder the count on his way to the wedding. Emilia is quickly brought to safety in the prince's nearby summer residence. Unlike her mother Claudia, Emilia does not yet recognise the true implications of the scheme. A few moments later, Countess Orsina, the prince's former mistress, comes to the residence as well. Out of frustration over her harsh rejection by the prince, she attempts to convince Odoardo, Emilia's father, to avenge Count Appiani by stabbing the prince to death. Odoardo, however, hesitates in agreeing to this proposal and decides to leave the revenge in the hands of God. Emilia, who must remain under the protection of the prince due to another intrigue on Marinelli's behalf, attempts to convince her father to kill her in order to maintain her dignity in light of the prince's exertions to seduce her. The father agrees and stabs her, but immediately feels appalled by his deed. In the end Odoardo leaves the matter to the prince. He subsequently decides that Marinelli is responsible for the catastrophe and has him banned from his court. Ultimately, Emilia's father recognises God as the absolute authority.