The play takes place in three “forest cantons” – Schwyz, Uri and Unterwalden, which, united in 1291, formed the basis of the Swiss Union in the struggle against the Austrian domination of the Habsburgs.
It is hard for ordinary people who suffer from arbitrariness of the governors of the Austrian emperor – fohts. In the village of Unterwalden, Baumgarten, the commandant of the fortress nearly disgraced his wife. Baumgarten killed him, and he had to flee from the soldiers of Landsfoht. In a storm with a risk to life, he helps to cross the lake daredevil Wilhelm Tell. Thus, he avoids persecution.
In the canton of Schwyz, the peasant Werner Stauffacher grieves. He is threatened by the governor of the province. He promises to deprive him of housing and economy only for the fact that he did not like the wealth he lives in. Werner’s wife advises him to go to Uri, there will also be people who are dissatisfied with the power of Focht-strangers. Although she is a woman, she understands that in the fight against a common enemy one must unite.
In the house of a respected person in Uri Werner Furst, Arnold Melchtal of Unterwalden hides from the Landenberg fahnd. At the order of the governor, they wanted to take a couple of oxen, resisting, he interrupted the finger of an autocrat soldier and was forced to flee from his home as a criminal. Then his father was punished with a son’s fault for his fault, they took everything away, gave him a staff and let him wander under the windows of people.
But the patience of the people was over. In the house of Werner Furst, Melchtal, Stauffacher and the master himself agree on the beginning of joint actions. Each of them will go to his villagers and discuss with them the state of affairs, and then ten reliable husbands from each canton will come together to work out a joint solution in the mountains, in the Rutli glade, where the borders of the three cantons meet.
It does not support the power of the Landsfahts and the powerful Baron of the local places of Attinghausen. He discourages his nephew Rudents from entering the Austrian service. The old baron guesses what is the true reason for prompting the nephew to take such a shameful decision – this is love for the rich Austrian heiress Berthe von Bruneck, but this is not a serious reason for a man to change his homeland. Confused by his uncle’s insight, Rudenz finds no answer, but still leaves the castle.
Schwitz, Unterwalden and Uri are gathering in the Glade Ryutli. They make an alliance. Everyone understands that they can not reach an agreement with Austrian governors by peaceful means, so it is necessary to develop an exact plan of military operations. First you need to capture the castles of Rosberg and Sarnen. In Sarnen it will be easy to penetrate Christmas, when, traditionally, fohtu is taken from the villagers to give gifts. In the fortress Rosberg will indicate the road Melchtal. There he has a familiar servant. When the two castles are captured, the lights will appear on the tops of the mountains – this will serve as a signal for the performance of the people’s militia. Seeing that the people are armed, fohty will be forced to leave Switzerland. Peasants swear allegiance in the struggle for freedom and diverge.
Wilhelm Tell, whose house is in the mountains, is still on the sidelines of the main events taking place in the villages. He does household chores. Fixing the gate, he is going along with one of his sons to the father-in-law, Walter Fuerst, to Altorf. I do not like his wife Gedvig. There Gesler, governor of the emperor, but he does not like them. In addition, Tell recently met Gesler accidentally one on the hunt and witnessed how he was frightened, “he will never forget that shame.”
The Tell’s road leads him to the square in Altorf, where there is a hat on the pole, which, according to the order of Landsfocht Gesler, all passing must bow. Not noticing her, the Alpine shooter and her son pass by, but the soldiers standing guard detain him and because he did not honor the hat, they want to take him to prison. The settlers are joining Tell, but then Gesler and his retinue appear. Learning what’s the matter, he offers an alpine shooter to knock an apple from his son’s head with an arrow or he and his son face death. The settlers and the approached Walter Furst persuade Gesler to change his decision – Landsfaht is adamant. Then Tell’s son – Walter – himself becomes, puts an apple on his head. William Tell shoots and knocks an apple. Everyone is touched, but Gesler asks the shooter why he took out two arrows before aiming. Wilhelm frankly admits, that if the first shot killed his son, then the second arrow would pierce Gesler. Landfoft orders the arrest of Tell.
On the boat, Landfocht, along with the soldiers, travels across the lake to take William Tell to the canton of Kyusnacht. The storm begins, the soldiers of Focht throw the oars, then Gesler suggests the arrow to steer the boat. He untying, he also brings the boat closer to the shore and jumps on the rocks. Now through the mountains Tell is going to go to Kyusnacht.
In his castle, Baron Attinghausen dies, around him there are settlers from three mountain cantons. They love their master, he has always been a reliable support for them. The old man says that he leaves this world with sadness in his heart, because his peasants remain “orphans” without him, no one will protect them from foreigners. Then ordinary people reveal to him the secret that they have concluded an alliance of the three cantons on Rutli and will together fight against imperial tyranny. The Baron rejoices that his homeland will be free, only the indifference of the nobles to what is happening overshadows him, but he dies with the hope that the knights will swear an oath of allegiance to Switzerland. The baron’s nephew, Rudenz, runs in, he is late for the bed of the dying man, but over the body of the deceased he swears in loyalty to his people. Rudenz says that he knows about the decision made at Ryutli, but the hour of the speech should be accelerated. Tell became the first victim of procrastination, and his bride, Bertha von Bruneck, was abducted from him. He appeals to the peasants to help him find her and release him.
Tell in ambush on the mountain path leading to Kysnacht, waiting for Gesler. In addition to it, there are also peasants who hope to get a reply from Fohta for their petitions. Gesler appears, the woman rushes to him, praying for the release of her husband from prison, but then Tell’s arrow hits him, the landfeht dies with the words: “This is a shot of Tell”. Everyone rejoices at the death of the tyrant.
At the tops of the mountains, the signal lights are lit, the people of Uri are arming and rushing to destroy the fort of Igo Uri in Altdorf – a symbol of the power of the Austrian landfehts. Walter Furst and Melchtal appear on the street, who tells that at night Ulrich Rudenz captured Sargen Castle with a sudden attack. He and his detachment, as it was planned, made their way to Rosberg, seized it and set it on fire. It turned out that in one of the rooms of the castle is Berta von Bruneck. Rudenz came rushing to the fire, and only he brought his bride from the castle, as the rafters collapsed. Melchtal himself overtook his offender Landenberg, whose people blinded his father, he wanted to kill her, but the father begged to release the criminal. Now he is far away from here.
The people celebrate the victory, the hat on the pole becomes a symbol of freedom. A messenger appears with a letter from the widow of Emperor Albrecht, Elizabeth. The emperor was killed, his killers managed to escape. Elizabeth appeals for the extradition of criminals, the main one being the Emperor’s nephew, the Swabian Duke John. But no one knows where he is.
In the house of Tell, a wandering monk asks for shelter. Having learned in Telle the arrow that killed the imperial landfeht, the monk throws off his cassock. He is the nephew of the emperor, this he killed the emperor Albrecht. But contrary to John’s expectations, Wilhelm is ready to drive him out of his house, because “self-serving murder” for the throne can not be compared with “father’s self-defense.” However, the good Tell is not able to alienate the inconsolable person, and therefore, in response to all the requests of John for help, he points his way through the mountains to Italy, to the Pope, who alone can help the criminal find a way to consolation.
The play ends with a national holiday. The settlers of the three cantons are pleased with freedom and thank Tell for the relief from the Landfehta. Berta announces Rudents about his consent to marry him, the same on the occasion of the general holiday gives freedom to all his serfs.