In book one, the scene is set for the exile of the Duke of Arcadia and his family. He journeys to meet with the Oracle at Delphos but receives a prediction that troubles him. His daughters will both be taken by suitors who are unsuitable. His wife will have an affair, making him a cuckold, which carried shame and ridicule. His country would be threatened by an unfriendly invading force and he would ultimately be overthrown by the invading state. Hoping to prevent all of these things from happening, he entrusts the government of the country to a loyal friend, Philanx, and he essentially "retires" his family from office and takes them to a remote lodge in the country. He also takes a few essential staff members - his servant Dametas and his wife, and their two daughters. Meanwhile, in a city nearby, famous princes (who are also cousins) Pyrocles and Musidorus, are renowned for their heroism in battle.
Pyrocles catches sight of a portrait of Philoclea, one of Basilius' beautiful daughters, and falls in love at first sight. He becomes so driven to meet her that he disguises himself as an Amazonian woman, takes the name Cleophila, and journeys to the Duke's lodge. Musidorous accompanies him although he is really humoring him and thinks that his quest is rather nonsensical. Unfortunately the Amazonian disguise is so effective that Basilius falls in love with "Cleophilia" as soon as he sees her. He invites her to stay with the family, and whilst Musidorous is watching this comedy of errors unfold, he sees Basilius' oldest daughter, the equally beautiful Pamela, and, of course, falls in love on the spot. He decides to adopt a disguise as well. Dressed as a wandering shepherd, he follows the group into the arbor to hear the shepherd sing and during this time there is a bear and lion attack. This gives Cleophilia the chance to save the group by killing the lion; Dorus kills the bear and saves Pamela. Because she defeated the lion with such manly athleticism, Glynecia starts to suspect that she is actually a man. Pamela, meanwhile, starts to think of her as a second sister.
During the first book, we learn many things about the key characters. We learn that Basilius is actually rather arrogant, as he believes that with a little changing of his plans he can outwit destiny, and re-write what has been pre-written for him and his family. This does not just speak to his character, however; this time in history was one of great discovery, and a time during which science was starting to challenge as a belief system, so to find people who believed they made their own destiny, rather than their life being mapped out for them by a higher power, was not actually as unusual as it would have been generations previously. The fact that he is essentially "thinking outside the box" also shows why Basilius has been so successful in his role as Duke of Arcadia. He does not punish the oracle for the unfavorable prediction - this shows that he is a benevolent and reasonable ruler, and this is why he is popular. His popularity has ensured that he is not threatened by internal plotting, and his thought processes demonstrate the ability to think under pressure and change plans according to changing circumstances. At this stage we also see that his wife is beginning to become suspicious about Cleophilia, and this answers the question that many readers of tales from this period have asked, which is how are the characters so easily fooled by a man who is dressed up as a woman. Gynecia is not particularly easily fooled and is observant as well.
In terms of the novella as a product of its time, it preceded many of Shakespeare's works, and we see the Medieval prediliction for books and plays that were essentially farces in that they involved characters dressing as other characters in order to fool each other, and in doing so they are almost always motivated by love and the desire to effect a meeting with someone they have no reason to meet otherwise. The characteristics of gender disguise, confusing one person with another, and everyone falling in love with the wrong person are signature traits of the Elizabethan era's writings.
Book II sees everything becoming increasingly complex as pertaining to the romantic entanglements in the novella. The level of action rises also. Predictably, when he retired Basilius opened the door for unfriendly take-overs and invasion attempts from foreign states (ironically the opposite of what he was hoping to achieve). On the romance front, Cleophilia's attempts to woo Philoclea are not particularly successful, but he/she has succeeded in creating discord between Basilius who is jealous because he wants Cleophilia for himself, and Gynecia, who is jealous because her husband is attracted to another woman, but worse still, another woman whom she believes to be a man in disguise. Dorus is having slightly better luck; after saving the group from the bear attack he has ingratiated himself with Dametas and become part of his household as a shepherd-come-servant. From there he is trying to woo Pamela, but she is always accompanied by the wholly unattractive daughter of Dametas, Mopsa. Dorus plays a double blind and flirts with Mopsa, hoping to divert attention from the real object of his affections. Mopsa laps up the attention but does not read between the lines and see that he really loves Pamela and not her. Doras reveals his true identity to Pamela and begs her to elope with him, surprised and overjoyed at her willingness to do so. At the same time, and in error, Cleophilia reveals his identity to Philoclea, and they declare their mutual love. Unfortunately the romance is interrupted by a group of drunken Arcadians who have come to give Basilius a piece of their mind and are furious that he has abandoned his people and his responsibilities in Arcadia. Basilius, Cleophila, Dorus and some more of the shepherds kill most of the rabble and subdue the remainder. The end of book two establishes a love triangle with an unusual additional side; three members of the same family are all in love with the same woman/man dressed as a woman, and there is a separate love triangle involving Dorus, Pamela and Mopsa.
The purpose of Book II is still primarily love-motivated, establishing chains of infatuation that are complicated even by the standards of the time. Everyone loves someone other than the person they are supposed to be with, excepting Philoclea and Cleophilia, although their love is still clandestine as Cleophilia is still masquerading as a woman. The fact that Gynecia is now in love with Cleophilia further complicates matters as at this juncture it is not clear whether she is in love with him as a man or her as a woman. This segment of the novella also introduces a more political element into the plot, although not a major event in the story at this stage, a light is shone on the growing resentment felt by Basilius' subjects who have been very loyal to him, and do not feel that he is exhibiting the same loyalty in return. Their anger is still not harnessed and directed, as shown by the fact they had to get drunk in order to do anything about it, and there seemed to be no specific game plan other than getting drunk and creating a threatening nuisance. They were easily put down by a collection of shepherds and a man disguised as a woman. However, the scene is now set for a stronger and more thought-out assault on the Duke and his throne.
Musidorus (Dorus) tells Pyrocles (Cleophilia) that he and Pamela are intending to elope which makes Pyrocles lament about the fact he cannot do the same with Philoclea. He is watched constantly by Basilius and Gynecia. To facilitate his elopement, Dorus distracts Pamela's guardians and tricks Dametas into spending the day on a non-existent treasure hunt. He gets rid of Miso by telling her that if she goes now to the next village she will catch her husband in the act of having an affair with a woman there. He leaves Mopsa sitting in a tree, patiently awaiting a sign of their love. Finally able to escape, he and Pamela go quickly to the nearest sea port. His chivalry finally starts to wane and overcome by her beauty he decides to rape her, but is thankfully prevented by the arrival of a second angry mob. Meanwhile, back at the lodge, Gynecia cannot contain her passion any longer and threatens to reveal Cleophilia's identity as a woman if "he" refuses to return her love. To avoid this Cleophilia acts as if she is requiting the love, which just makes Basilius and Philoclea more jealous and resentful. Cleophilia comes up with a plan that on the face of it is extremely clever; she agrees to a tryst with both Gynecia and Basilius, saying that she will meet both of them in a cave with the intention that they will then both sleep together and not notice that the are sleeping with their own spouse and not with the object of their affections, Cleophilia. Meanwile, Cleophila/Pyrocles and Philoclea spend their first night together. Dorus also attempts to rape Pamela.
This book is becoming more serious and weighty in terms of the issues it is presenting although of course at the time of writing, rape was seen very differently to how it is seen today. The serious issues strengthen; despite a foiled first rape attempt, Dorus nonetheless fails to control his urges, and fails to listen to the object of his affections, as he rapes her. Initially the reader could draw from the story that it was seen as rape because the two were not married or because she was very young; however, her sister Pamela is not said to be raped, but an equal participant in the consumation of her relationship, showing that there is a difference between the two intentions even in Elizabethan times. There is also a heightened need for the reader to suspend disbelief when it comes to the farcical elements of the novella; it is supposed that Gynecia and Basilius will sleep together both believeing that they are having sex with Cleophilia. They are husband and wife, have produced two children, and were also seen to be a devoted and loving couple before the arrival of Cleophilia, so it is difficult to believe that they wouldn't recognize their own spouse in this context. At times, with the different tricks played on each of the characters, it is tempting to see the novella as a Medieval Benny Hill Show sketch, as it is far more farcical in this way than the Shakespeare plays in the same vein that followed it. The book also throws up other questions, specifically about Gynecia's sexuality. She is fully aware that Cleophilia is a man dressed as a woman, yet is attracted to her as a woman.
Book IV shows a remarkable switch in the fortunes of Dorus and Pyrocles (Cleophilia). Dametas, Miso and Mopsa return to the lodge and find that Pamela is missing. Dametas is justifiably concerned that he will be punished as he is supposed to safeguard the Duke's eldest daughter. He begins to search high and low for her, naturally assuming that she is with her sister. He barges into Philoclea's bed chamber and finds "Cleophilia" naked in bed with her. It is clear Cleophilia is not actually a woman. Dametas leaves the room again and locks them inside it. He then raises the alarm. Gynecia and Basilius have spent the night together, assuming the other is Cleophilia, but in the morning realizing their assumption erroneous. Basilius accidentally drinks a poisonous potion that Gynecia has prepared for Cleophila, and dies from it. Gynecia becomes hysterical with remorse and offers herself to the harshest justice for murdering not only her husband but the sovereign of Arcadia. Basilus' best friend and the in-absentia ruler of Arcadia arrives at the lodge to investigate both the murder of the Duke and the disapperance of his daughter, advocating execution for everyone involved in both offenses. Meanwhile, Musidorus and Pamela are captured by the vengeful mob, but before capture Musidorus manages to kill many and maim more. The mob are hopeful of a reward for finding the missing daughter and her fugitive kidnapper and take them back to the lodge where they believe Basilius to still be alive. They are intercepted by Philamax and his men who overpower and kill them, subsequently taking Pamela and Musidorus back to the lodge, where they are the prime suspects in the murder of the Duke. Dorus, is now named " Palladius" and Pyrocles, no longer Cleophilia, is named "Timopyrus". Pamela demands to be recognized as the new sovereign of Arcadia but Philamax will not agree to this until further investigation has been carried out. This creates a period of yet more political unrest as different political factions vye for position.
The novella changes in Book IV, losing the farcical and comedic element and becoming a genuine Greek tragedy. Like many of the trysts and romantic entanglements, the murder of the Duke is an accident caused by confusion over identity and again generated by the female disguise of Cleophilia. It is also the book in the novella that deals the most with the political unrest and machinations of the day and demonstrates that even in sovereign states that give the impression of stability, there is still a great deal of potential for invasion and unfriendly take-over. The events in this Book of the novella show that Basilius was wrong to think that he could re-write what was written for him already. He wanted to protect his daughters from unsuitable suitors - in this he failed. He was frightened that his wife would cuckold him and although she did not, it was not because she had not intended to, and instead of cuckolding him actually ended up murdering him. His kingdom is threatened far more than it would have been had he not fled into exile. All of these factors demonstrate that he was wrong to believe that he could outwit the Oracle's predictions, and also that the Oracle's powers are genuine and are stronger than the science that was starting to prevail in Medieval times.
Book V brings the story to a climax. Philanax is not able to maintain order in Arcadia - he has neither the experience or the loyalty of the people, although his intentions are good. Arcadia is now a kingdom without a king and a kindom that is horribly divided into factions, some who want the Duke's succession to continue and others who are in favor of elections and a democratically elected government. Some are in favor of the two princes taking over Arcadia, swept away by their handsome appearance and valour. Philanax needs to appoint a leader who will be unifying and restroe peace and stability to Arcadia, as well as bringing Basilius' murderers to justice. As luck would have it, King Euarchus of Thessalia, a man renowned for his just rule, has travelled to Arcadia to visit his close friend Basilius. By coicidence he is also Midorus' uncle and Pyrocles' father. He reluctantly assumes the role of Arcadia's "protector". The book ends with a lengthy murder trial. Gynecia's trial is quick because she is overcome by remorse gives a false confession, stating that she intentionally poisoned her husband, and Duke of Arcadia. She is sentenced to death by being entombed alive with her husband. The trials of "Palladius" and "Timopyrus" come next. Timopyrus is condemned for dressing as a woman, for raping Philoclea and for conspiring to murder Basilius. He is acquitted of the murder but sentenced to death for the rape. Palladius receives the same fate. As they are being taken to their execution, a friend of Midorus' comes forward with vital information, having heard word of their impending death. He has guessed their true identities and believes that Euaruchus should be informed that he has handed down his own son and nephew's death sentences. The old man is devastated but decides that justice should take precedence over his own family ties and upholds the sentences. Suddenly groans are heard from Basilius's corpse, and to the surprise and delight of everyone he wakes from what turns out to be a long and deep coma. Everyone is forgiven. The lovers marry, and the novella ends with the triumph of love and reconciliation over justice and death.
The novella has a fairy tale style ending, in that everyone appears to live happily ever after; however, what is interesting in this last book is the light that it sheds on the Greek's preoccupation with justice and the letter of the law. The reader is again required to suspend their disbelief when it comes to certain elements of the story, for example, the length of time that the Duke has been comatose rather than dead is of course questionable but it does serve to enable love and marriage to triumph in the end. It again also uses confusion to create different storylines and also employs the difficulty in recognizing someone's identity as a tool for creating climax and catastrophe. The book is typical of the time in that governmental change, the debate about succession over election, and uncertainty in the political world are at the forefront.