An Astrologer, tantalized by a vision of the fantastical Queen of Shemakhan, hatches a plan to capture her. He conjures up a magical Golden Cockerel and, with an elaborate scheme in mind, departs for the kingdom of Tsar Dodon.
Tsar Dodon and his sons, Guidon and Afron, meet with the boyars, their royal advisors, to discuss what action to take against the constant attacks from neighboring kingdoms. Prince Guidon is a fun and peace-loving sort, but Prince Afron urges the Tsar to declare war. The cowardly boyars waffle and waver, and General Polkan becomes frustrated and angered by the proceedings. In the midst of the chaos, the Astrologer appears and presents the Tsar with the Golden Cockerel, whose crow will warn the kingdom of any approaching enemy. The delighted Tsar accepts the gift and promises the Astrologer whatever he desires in return.
After a magnificent meal, the Tsar falls into a deep sleep. He is rudely awakened when the Golden Cockerel begins to crow, warning of impending danger. Concerned, the Tsar orders Afron and Guidon to lead the army into battle. The sons are sad to abandon their lovers, but Tsar Dodon orders them away. After they leave, he settles down to sleep once more, dreaming of the Queen of Shemakhan, but his visions of her are interrupted when the Cockerel begins to crow yet again. A messenger brings news that the Tsar’s army has been defeated, and he decides to follow his sons to war.
Tsar Dodon and his boyars reach the site of the battlefield. They are horrified to find that Princes Afron and Guidon have been slain, but they are quickly distracted by the appearance of the alluring Queen of Shemakhan, accompanied by her exotic entourage. The Queen’s captivating dancing makes the Tsar forget his murdered sons, and he falls madly in love with her. Before long, he offers her his scepter and crown. The Queen is triumphant as Tsar Dodon leads her back towards his kingdom.
Back at the palace, the Tsar’s subjects and loyal housekeeper, Amelpha, eagerly await the return of the Tsar and his new Queen. They arrive in a marvelous and grand procession. As it reaches its end, the Astrologer appears to collect his reward in return for the Golden Cockerel. He orders the Tsar to give him the Queen of Shemakhan. The Tsar is incensed by the outrageous demand and, in his fury, strikes and kills the Astrologer. The Queen disappears, laughing wildly, and the Golden Cockerel suddenly swoops down, pecking the Tsar to death.
The Astrologer slowly rises from the ground. He suggests that the story is a fable, and only he and the Queen are real – the others are mere illusions created to entertain. Seeing the Queen in the distance, the Astrologer takes off, continuing his perpetual quest to attain her.