Dr. Watson recounts an adventure that started on 20 March 1888. While the currently married Watson is paying Holmes a visit, a visitor arrives, introducing himself as Count Von Kramm, an agent for a wealthy client. Holmes quickly deduces that he is in fact Wilhelm Gottsreich Sigismond von Ormstein, Grand Duke of Cassel-Felstein and the hereditary King of Bohemia. Realizing Holmes has seen through his guise, the King admits this and tears off his mask.
It transpires that the King is to become engaged to Clotilde Lothman von Saxe-Meiningen, a young Scandinavian princess. However, five years previous to the events of the story he had a liaison with an American opera singer, Irene Adler, while she was serving a term as prima donna of the Imperial Opera of Warsaw, who has since then retired to London. Fearful that should the strictly principled family of his fiancée learn of this impropriety, the marriage would be called off, he had sought to regain letters and a photograph of Adler and himself together, which he had sent to her during their relationship as a token. The King's agents have tried to recover the photograph through sometimes forceful means, burglary, stealing her luggage, and waylaying her. An offer to pay for the photograph and letters was also refused. With Adler threatening to send them to his future in-laws, which Von Ormstein presumes is to prevent him marrying any other woman, he makes the incognito visit to Holmes to request his help in locating and obtaining the photograph.
The photograph is described to Holmes as a cabinet (5½ by 4 inches) and therefore too bulky for a lady to carry upon her person. The King gives Holmes £1,000 (£100,500 today) to cover any expenses, while saying that he "would give one of [his] provinces" to have the photograph back. Holmes asks Dr. Watson to join him at 221B Baker Street at 3 o'clock the following afternoon.
The next morning, Holmes goes out to Adler's house, disguised as a drunken out-of-work groom. He discovers from the local stable workers that Adler has a gentleman friend, the lawyer Godfrey Norton of the Inner Temple, who calls at least once a day. On this particular day, Norton comes to visit Adler, and soon afterwards, takes a cab to the Church of St. Monica in Edgware Road. Minutes later, the lady herself gets in her landau, bound for the same place. Holmes follows in a cab and, upon arriving, finds himself dragged into the church to be a witness to Norton and Adler's wedding. Curiously, they go their separate ways after the ceremony.
Meanwhile, Watson has been waiting for Sherlock to arrive, and when Sherlock Holmes finally does deliver himself back to Baker Street, he starts laughing. Watson is confused and asks what is so funny, Sherlock then recounts his tale and comments he thought the situation and position he was in at the wedding was amusing. He also asks whether or not Watson is willing to participate in a scheme to figure out where the picture is hidden in Adler's house. Watson agrees, and Holmes changes into another disguise as a clergyman. The duo depart Baker Street for Adler's house.
When Holmes and Watson arrive, a group of jobless men meander throughout the street. When Adler's coach pulls up, Holmes enacts his plan. A fight breaks out between the men on the street over who gets to help Adler. Holmes rushes into the fight to protect Adler, and is seemingly struck and injured. Adler takes him into her sitting room, where Holmes motions for her to have the window opened. As Holmes lifts his hand, Watson recognizes a pre-arranged signal and tosses in a plumber's smoke rocket. While smoke billows out of the building, Watson shouts "FIRE!" and the cry is echoed up and down the street.
Holmes slips out of Adler's house and tells Watson what he saw. As Holmes expected, Adler rushed to get her most precious possession at the cry of "fire"—the photograph of herself and the King. Holmes was able to see that the picture was kept in a recess behind a sliding panel just above the right bell pull. He was unable to steal it at that moment, however, because the coachman was watching him. He explains all this to Watson before being bid good-night by a familiar-sounding youth, who promptly manages to get lost in the crowd.
The following morning, Holmes explains his findings to the King. When Holmes, Watson, and the King arrive at Adler's house, her elderly maidservant informs them that she has hastily departed for the Charing Cross railway station. Holmes quickly goes to the photograph's hiding spot, finding a photo of Irene Adler in an evening dress and a letter dated midnight and addressed to him. In the letter, Adler tells Holmes that he did very well in finding the photograph and fooling her with his disguises. She also reveals that she posed as the youth who bid Holmes good-night. Adler has fled England with Norton, an honourable man, adding that she will not compromise the King and has kept the photo only to protect herself against any further action the King might take.
The King gushes over how amazing Adler is, saying "Would she not have made an admirable queen? Is it not a pity she was not on my level?" Holmes replies scathingly that Miss Adler is indeed on a much different level from the King (by which he means higher—an implication lost on the King). When he asks Holmes how he wants to be paid, Holmes asks for the photograph of Adler. Holmes keeps it as a souvenir of the cleverness of Irene Adler, and how he was beaten by a woman's wit.
Watson has already called her "the late Irene Adler", confirming her death sometime in the intervening three years (between the story's setting and the publication of "A Scandal in Bohemia"). Watson also tells that, since their meeting, Holmes always refers to her by the honorable title of "the woman".
William Gillette's 1899 stage play Sherlock Holmes is based on several stories, among them "A Scandal in Bohemia". Films released in 1916 (starring Gillette as Holmes) and 1922 (starring John Barrymore), both titled Sherlock Holmes, were based on the play, as was a 1938 Mercury Theatre on the Air radio adaptation titled The Immortal Sherlock Holmes, starring Orson Welles as Holmes.
The 1946 film Dressed to Kill features several references to "A Scandal in Bohemia", with Holmes and Watson discussing the recent publication of the story in The Strand Magazine, and the villain of the film using the same trick on Watson that Holmes uses on Irene Adler in the story. In addition, Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, who played Holmes and Watson in the film, did the story for their radio series, The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. The episode was followed by a sequel, "Second Generation", featuring Irene's daughter hiring Holmes in retirement.
The story was adapted for a 1951 TV episode of Sherlock Holmes starring Alan Wheatley as Holmes.
The 1965 Broadway musical Baker Street was loosely based on the story, making Irene Adler into the heroine and adding Professor Moriarty as the villain.
"A Scandal in Bohemia" was adapted as one of episode of the Soviet film series "Priklyucheniya Sherloka Kholmsa i doktora Vatsona: Sokrovishcha Agry" (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson: The Treasures of Agra), (1983, USSR). It starred Vasily Livanov as Sherlock Holmes, Vitaly Solomin as Dr. Watson, Georgiy Martirosyan as the King of Bohemia and Larisa Solovyova as Irene Adler.
"A Scandal in Bohemia" was adapted as the first episode of the 1984–1985 television series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. The episode featured Jeremy Brett as Holmes, David Burke as Watson, and Gayle Hunnicutt as Irene Adler.
Bert Coules dramatised "A Scandal in Bohemia" for BBC Radio 4 in 1990, starring Clive Merrison as Holmes and Michael Williams as Watson. It also featured Andrew Sachs as the King (Sachs would then go on to play Watson in Coules' "Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" for radio in 2002–2010.
"A Scandal in Bohemia" was featured in a season 1 episode of the PBS series Wishbone, entitled "A Dogged Exposé". In the episode, the supporting human characters search for an incognito photographer at their school who has been publishing embarrassing photographs of students. Intermingled with the plot, the title character Wishbone portrays Sherlock Holmes in a slightly modified adaptation of the original story to compare with the events of the "real-life" plot.
A series of four TV movies produced in the early 2000s starred Matt Frewer as Sherlock Holmes and Kenneth Welsh as Dr. Watson. One of these films, The Royal Scandal, adapted "A Scandal in Bohemia" and combined its story with "The Bruce-Partington Plans".
The 2006 play Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure merges the storylines of "A Scandal in Bohemia" and The Final Problem. In this adaptation, Godfrey Norton is under the employ of Professor Moriarty and whose original plan was to rob Adler. However, they ended up falling in love, complicating the plan and forcing Moriarty to intervene when Holmes begins investigating on behalf of the King.
"A Scandal in Belgravia", episode one of the second series of the TV series Sherlock, was loosely adapted from the short story and aired on 1 January 2012, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes, Martin Freeman as Watson and Lara Pulver as Irene Adler. The plot of the short story – Holmes and Watson attempting to recover incriminating photos from Adler – is covered briefly in the first half of the episode updated for the contemporary period (Adler's photos are stored digitally on her mobile phone) and adjusted (the royal they incriminate is British and female); the episode then moves on to a storyline based on other Sherlock Holmes stories and films while including Adler, Mycroft Holmes (Mark Gatiss) and Jim Moriarty.
"A Scandal in Bohemia" was adapted to the second episode "The Adventure of the Headmaster with Trouble" of NHK puppetry Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is a pupil of an imaginary boarding school Beeton School. One day he pretends to be ill and goes to the nurse's office to search the photo that Headmaster Ormstein and school nurse Irene Adler are in. But Adler sees through his feigned illness. Then Holmes and his roommate John H. Watson make a false fire to find the photo but she penetrates their wiles and tells Holmes that she returned the photo to Ormstein.
Rather than creating a fictional country for the King in his story, Conan Doyle chose to place a fictional dynasty in a real country. The Kingdom of Bohemia was at the time of writing a possession of the House of Habsburg and the Austrian Emperors held the title "King of Bohemia". On the other hand, there had never been a "Kingdom of Scandinavia", though the surname of the King's fiancée was that of the actual ruling house of the Duchy of Saxe-Meiningen.