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A young man named Lucentio arrives in Padua with his manservant, Tranio. Lucentio was educated in Pisa and Florence and has come to Padua to further his studies at its famous university. As he announces to Tranio, he is young and eager to learn new things. Tranio pleads that they should not forget the pleasures of life in their academic pursuits. The noisy entrance of a crowd interrupts their discussion.
The crowd is composed of Baptista Minola; his daughters, Katherine and Bianca; and Bianca’s two suitors, older men named Hortensio and Gremio. Most of the noise comes from Katherine, who seems to be caught up in a rage, screaming and cursing at everyone present. When Baptista informs the suitors that they are free to court Katherine, but that he will not allow Bianca to marry before Katherine does, they respond that no one would ever marry a devil like her. Katherine threatens them with violence in return. Amid all the noise, though, Lucentio takes particular notice of Bianca, who behaves much more mildly than her sister. After Baptista leaves with his daughters, Hortensio and Gremio agree that they have but one option: to look for someone to wed Katherine. However, they are not optimistic about their chances of finding a willing man. In the meantime, they say, they will also look for a schoolmaster for Bianca—Baptista had mentioned that he was looking for one, and they hope to earn favor with Bianca’s father by helping him.
The old men walk away, and Lucentio gushes to Tranio that he has fallen in love with Bianca and is determined to court her. Knowing that he cannot do so publicly, given Baptista’s forbiddance, he resolves to woo her in secret. He suddenly recalls that Hortensio and Gremio mentioned procuring a schoolmaster, and he decides to disguise himself as a teacher in the hope that by tutoring Bianca he will be able to declare his love for her and win her heart. Tranio, for his part, will pretend to be Lucentio and study at the university. Biondello, Lucentio’s other servant, arrives in a timely fashion and agrees to help with the deception.
At this point, the main story—which is being presented as a play for Christopher Sly—fades for a moment, and Sly reemerges. He declares briefly that he is enjoying this entertainment, but he implies that he would prefer to be left alone with his wife.
Read a translation of Act 1: Scene 1.
Shakespeare wastes no time in establishing who is the “shrew” of the play’s title. Within a few lines, the first scene introduces the public perception of Katherine as hateful and sharp-tongued, characteristics considered hallmarks of the shrew in Shakespeare’s time. In their disparaging rejections of Katherine, Hortensio and Gremio specify what they dislike about her: she is “too rough” (1.1.55), and they want mates “of gentler, milder mould” (1.1.60). After watching Katherine for only a few seconds, Tranio remarks, “That wench is stark mad,” indicating just how far Katherine’s behavior diverges from the norm (1.1.69). Throughout the play, the characters contrast their ideas of the “shrew” with their differing ideas of the “ideal wife.” Here, we see that the two suitors value a mild disposition in a wife, and thus they greatly prefer Bianca to Katherine, despite the ladies’ comparable dowries.
Read an in-depth analysis of Katherine.
The indignant denunciation of Katherine by Hortensio and Gremio illustrates the social biases and assumptions that Shakespeare intends to humorously explore throughout the play, specifically, society’s expectations concerning a woman’s role in a marriage. Hortensio and Gremio represent the then-conventional view that a woman should sacrifice her individuality in submission to her husband. Certainly, this expectation plays a part in their decision to prefer the mild, submissive Bianca to the fiery Katherine. Katherine’s temperament threatens to upset the accepted order, in which the wife bows to the authority of the husband. Shakespeare poses the basic thematic question of the play in the very first scene: does a happy and stable marriage depend upon a woman’s sacrifice of her own will? Such a sacrifice seems to be unacceptable to Katherine, who vociferously defends her independence: “What, shall I be appointed hours, as though belike I knew not what to take and what to leave? Ha!” (1.1.102–104).
Read more about the theme of marriage as an economic institution.
Most people in Shakespeare’s society believed that the woman should submit to her husband, and yet they did not necessarily expect the wife to sacrifice all of her independence and sense of self. Likewise, we should not be too hasty to accuse Hortensio and Gremio of outright misogyny at this point in the play. Judging from the dialogue thus far, their dislike of Katherine may seem a natural reaction to Katherine’s behavior. The qualities she first presents are a violent temper, jealousy in the face of Bianca’s preferential treatment, and disrespect for her father. On the other hand, like the other male characters in the play, Hortensio and Gremio do adopt a very patronizing attitude toward Katherine. They speak about her in the third person rather than addressing her directly—perhaps because they are simply terrified of what she would say back to them if they addressed their words to her. If we compare Katherine to the heroines of Shakespeare’s later comedies, such as Rosalind in As You Like It, Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Viola in Twelfth Night, or Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, Katherine’s situation appears extremely anomalous. All of those later heroines are outspoken and independent, and the happy resolution of those plays depends upon whether or not the male characters listen to what the heroines say. Katherine’s rage reflects her struggle to be recognized as a person rather than treated as a pet or an object.
Read more about Shakespeare and the background of the play.
The subplot between Lucentio and Bianca also shows subtle signs of objectifying women. While the romance between these two young lovers will seem a sweet and beautiful thing compared to the violent struggle between Petruchio and Katherine, Lucentio does not necessarily view Bianca as his equal. On the contrary, he sees her mostly as a prize to be won: “I burn, I pine, I perish, Tranio / If I achieve not this young modest girl” (I.i.149–150). If Bianca merely represents something for Lucentio to “achieve,” then his view of her lacks depth. Lucentio has fallen in love with her appearance, and Tranio remarks that Lucentio has looked so persistently at the pretty Bianca that he has missed the main point of the situation.
Read an in-depth analysis of Lucentio.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Taming of the Shrew!