Paris, at the end of the 15th century.
Scene 1: The Cour des Miracles. A Small Square.
Sunset. Tradesmen, members of the bourgeoisie and the common folk make haste to leave the market square which, as darkness falls, turns into the Cour des Miracles – a kingdom of tramps, gypsies and beggars. Gringoire, who has ended up here by force of circumstance, falls into the hands of thieves. Not finding any money on the impoverished poet, the tramps sentence him to death. However, according to their law, a victim’s life will be saved if a woman agrees to marry him. No one though wants to, and Gringoire is to be hanged. At this moment, the charming Esmeralda arrives. Learning what is up, she immediately consents to save the unhappy man, by becoming his wife. Gringoire is in his seventh heaven. They are wedded for four years, the number of shards from the jug Gringoire has broken in accordance with the custom of the tramps, and general merrymaking starts.
The cunning archdeacon Claude Frollo, who burns with desire for Esmeralda, incites Clopin to abduct her and orders the hunchback Quasimodo to take part in the operation. The villains are stopped by a patrol. Captain Phoebus orders the arrest of Quasimodo and that assistance be given to the beautiful Gypsy-girl. Esmeralda is charmed by his nobility and good-looks and profoundly grateful to him. Phoebus gives her his scarf as a memento. He frees Quasimodo at the request of the kind-hearted girl and tries to flirt with her, but Esmeralda slips away.
Scene 2: The Newlyweds. Esmeralda’s chamber
A pensive Esmeralda admires the scarf Phoebus has given her. Picking out the letters of the alphabet which form his name, she dances before this word which is dear to her heart. Enter Gringoire; he tries to embrace her, asserting his rights as husband, but Esmeralda tells him that she only wished to save him from death, and that she will never be his wife. The unhappy ‘husband’ accepts his fate and agrees to partner her in the dances which she starts teaching him. Esmeralda shows Gringoire to his chamber and remains alone.
She dreams of Phoeoebus. Upstage a door slowly opens, and the sinister figure of Claude Frollo appears. A horrified Esmeralda orders Frollo to leave but, throwing himself on his knees, he begs her to accept his passionate love. Esmeralda scornfully rejects him and, pointing to the name of Phoeoebus, says: “Here is the man whom I love!”. Undeterred, Frollo continues to make advances and Esmeralda pulls out a dagger. Quasimodo stays the Gypsy-girl’s hand but, mindful of the kindness she has shown him, he helps her to escape. “Woe to you and a curse on him!”, Frollo threatens and he picks up the dagger dropped by Esmeralda.
Scene 3: Fleur-de-Lys. A splendid mansion, brightly illuminated for the celebration.
Preparations are underway for the betrothal of Phoeoebus and Fleur-de-Lys. Fleur-de-Lys’s companions gather flowers into garlands and do their embroidery. Enter Phoebus. He is oblivious to everything, the memory of his meeting with Esmeralda gives him no peace. Noticing he is not wearing the scarf she gave him, Fleur-de-Lys is about to reproach Phoebus when he presents her with a ring, and her suspicions vanish. She shows her ring to her mother. Aloise de Gondelaurier announces that she too has prepared a present to mark the happy occasion and gives a sign that the allegorical ballet, Diane and Acteon, should start.
Enter Esmeralda, accompanied by Gringoire and her friends. She tells Fleur-de-Lys’s fortune, and then dances for the guests who admire her gracefulness. At the height of the festivities, when all the Gypsy-girls start dancing, Esmeralda catches sight of Phoebus and realizes he must be Fleur-de-Lys’ betrothed. Devasted, she decides to leave and puts on the scarf. Seeing her present on the Gypsy-girl, Fleur-de-Lys is unable to restrain her tears and flings Phoebus’s ring on the ground. General confusion. Esmeralda leaves and Phoebus hurries after her – the person to whom his heart belongs.
Scene 4: Love and Jealousy. A chamber in an inn.
Clopin leads in Claude Frollo and shows him a hiding place, from which he will be able to observe the meeting between Esmeralda and Phoebus. Unable to stand the lovers’ sweet nothings and kisses, Frollo throws himself at his rival, Esmeralda’s dagger in his hand. Phoebus falls lifeless to the ground.
A crowd gathers and Frollo, not showing any agitation, mixes with it. He informs the judge that the dagger belongs to Esmeralda and the judge accuses her of murder. Esmeralda protests, swearing her innocence. “I will save you, if you will be mine”, Claude Frollo whispers to the desperate girl, but the latter indignantly pushes him aside. The judge breaks his staff over Esmeralda’s head and throws a veil over her, which signifies the death sentence. Frollo is triumphant.
Scene 5: The Festival of Fools. Square. To the right is the prison. Upstage is the Cathedral of Notre-Dame.
A procession appears headed by Claude Frollo – they are taking Esmeralda to prison. A curious crowd follows them, they are all eager to know what will happen next. A panic-stricken Gringoire runs in. Falling over by the prison window, he sees with horror that the unhappy girl is being tortured.
The square is invaded by a crowd of beggars and tramps who are celebrating the Festival of Fools. Having been elected their king for one day Quasimodo, dressed in royal robes, holds court on a stretcher. An indignant Frollo, tears off Quasimodo’s blasphemous attire.
Esmeralda is brought out of prison and led to execution. She bids farewell to everyone and asks Gringoire to bury her with Phoebus’ scarf. Claude Frollo again offers to save her in exchange for her love. “May God be your judge”, is Esmeralda’s answer to him. She is ready to die and prays zealously. At this moment, Phoebus appears, who has recovered from his wounds. He reveals the real culprit to an astonished crowd – it was Claude Frollo who had tried to kill him, and the condemned Esmeralda is innocent. Esmeralda throws herself into the arms of her lover. The enraged archdeacon whips out the dagger – but Quasimodo, forcing it from his hand, makes short work of him by throwing him off the bridge.