Having been led astray by the goddess Venus, Tannhäuser is desperate to return to his beloved Elisabeth. He begs Venus to let him go, and she abandons him on a hillside near the Wartburg castle, a place he used to think of as home. As he hears the chants of a group of pilgrims, Tannhäuser considers joining them to repent of the sins he has committed by giving in to Venus’ temptations, but his pious thoughts do not last long when he hears the call of the hunting horn. The local Landgrave and his men come across Tannhäuser on the hillside, and recognise him as their friend that went missing all those years ago. They recall that Elisabeth was beside herself when he did not return, and Tannhäuser rejoices at the name of his beloved.
A great tournament of song is held, like the ones in which Tannhäuser used to compete, and won Elisabeth’s heart. The men each sing of love, but Tannhäuser cannot listen to their insipid poetry: he has experienced love for real with Venus and their words pale in comparison. In his boasting, Tannhäuser goes too far. As soon as he reveals the truth about his where he has been, his fate is sealed. This is the greatest sin, and for this Tannhäuser must be executed. Summoning all her strength, Elisabeth stands up for him. She asks them instead to send him with the pilgrims to Rome where the Pope might decide if Tannhäuser’s sin can be forgiven.
Elisabeth waits patiently for the returning pilgrims, praying devoutly to a shrine on the path where they might return. But, when the pilgrims pass her and Tannhäuser is not among them, she prays only for death, walking up the mountain to meet her end. After she leaves, a broken and defeated Tannhäuser limps past, barely able to stand. He asked for forgiveness and did his penance, but the Pope himself told him that he was already destined for hell for his actions. As he searches for a way to return to Venus’s bower, a great light appears, and a funeral procession comes down from the mountain; Elisabeth has bought Tannhäuser’s pardon.