Shakespeare's play proper opens with Lucentio, a Florentine traveler who has come to study in Padua, and his servant Tranio. Upon their arrival, they see Baptista Minola, a rich gentleman of Padua, approaching with his two daughters, Katherine and her younger sister Bianca, as well as Gremio and Hortensio, both suitors to Bianca. Baptista is in the process of rejecting both suitors for Bianca because Katherine must wed before he will allow her younger sister to do so. Kate is a sharp-tongued young woman, and, based on the remarks of Hortensio and Gremio, it does not seem likely she will easily acquire a husband, thereby lessening their chances of ever being with Bianca. Both men agree to do their best to find Katherine a husband so that they may have a chance at winning the younger, more beautiful and desirable daughter, Bianca.
Lucentio himself has fallen hopelessly in love with Bianca. Lucentio devises a plan to bring him closer to Bianca while appearing to honor her father's wishes: He proposes to disguise himself as a schoolmaster and thereby work his way into the Minola household. Tranio reminds his master that he is expected in Padua and, if he doesn't arrive, trouble will arise. As a remedy to this potential problem, Lucentio quickly dictates Tranio impersonate him while he is disguised as a tutor — a ruse that is sure to work since no one in Padua has ever met either of them. Another of Lucentio's servants, Biondello, arrives and is confused at seeing Tranio dressed in his master's clothes. Lucentio tells Biondello Tranio has agreed to impersonate him because he has killed a man in Padua and his life is on the line.
As Act I opens, Shakespeare wastes no time in addressing themes that he has used to entice us in the Induction. Disguise, deception, love, marriage, and power all come to the forefront in this short but forceful scene. Baptista finds himself surrounded by an assortment of suitors for his younger daughter, Bianca, and forms the crux of the play's action by insisting on the time-honored tradition of the eldest child marrying first. Bianca quickly comes off as desirable, perfectly embodying everything men (and the society they dominate) deem as profitable in a woman: modesty, beauty, passivity. The obstacle standing in the way of the would-be suitors gaining the woman who would, quite literally, be their prize is her older and more boisterous sister: Katherine.
When we meet Kate, she seems fairly innocuous. Upon hearing her father's decree that she marry before Bianca, Kate offers a witty reply, questioning whether her father will "make a stale of [her] amongst these mates?" (58). Her reply is telling in two regards. First, it shows her facility with language, a customarily male trait, setting her up outside the womanly norm. We know from her clever punning on the notion of a stalemate that she is not going to be a stereotypically "good" woman (meaning: passive and controlled). Second, her remark reveals a bit about her judgment. Although we know from what Gremio and Hortensio say that Kate is perceived as devilish, headstrong, and wild, Kate's remarks reveal that she may not be as bad as they suggest. Her outright contempt for Bianca's would-be suitors is bold, to be sure, but not entirely unwarranted. In fact, in one light, it speaks well of her judgment.
Although the male characters, especially Gremio and Hortensio, call Kate disparaging names such as "fiend of hell" (88), Shakespeare allows for the possibility that Kate is not as terrible as they would have us believe — rather, she is independent and headstrong, but with some justifiable cause. Neither would make a good match for Kate: Gremio himself is termed "a pantaloon" (s.d. 48), a foolish old man who is a stock character type in commedia dell'arte dramas. Hortensio, too, does not come off as a prize catch, although he is somewhat better than Gremio; Hortensio's personality, though, is weak and effeminate.
In stark contrast to Kate stands her sister, Bianca. Her name alone evokes whiteness, purity, and other such ethereal connotations. The opening scene does much to stress Bianca's angelic whiteness, her purity, and her virginal nature. She is clearly Baptista's favored daughter and is able to inspire instant love and longing from the men who see her. She draws suitors young and old, and, were it not for her sister (whom society deems undesirable because of her lack of demurity), she would have her pick of suitors. A woman who so readily inspires admiration through her beauty and her passivity, though, bears watching as the play unfolds.
Act I, Scene 1 also introduces us to Baptista, the family patriarch. As the leader of the Minola family, he is in a precarious position. On one hand, he has a lovely daughter who inspires the admiration of men. With the right marriage, he could easily increase the family fortune and status. There is one impediment, however — Katherine. As patriarch, Baptista knows the elder daughter is to marry first. As patriarch, he also has the option of disregarding convention. The risk? Potential public disgrace and ruin. However, the prospects for Kate do not look good, increasing the complexity of Baptista's position. While he waits for Kate to meet and marry her match, Baptista has the (seemingly) good sense to provide for his daughters. His willingness to have them tutored in music, poetry, and other academic subjects speaks well of his role as a father.
Lucentio, overhearing the whole exchange between Baptista, his daughters, and Bianca's would-be suitors, has fallen immediately in love with Bianca. Of course to us this seems entirely incredulous, but love at first sight is a common element to romantic farces such as The Taming of the Shrew. Lucentio, in fact, takes on elements of a stock character type himself: the courtly lover. In words reminiscent of Chaucer's "Knight's Tale" or the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, Lucentio recounts how the sudden sight of Bianca "hath thralled [his] wounded eye" (221). In keeping with the tradition of courtly love, Lucentio's wound is not initially in his heart, but in his eye, that organ through which he first espied his love. Lucentio borders on becoming a parody of courtly love as he provides a fairly full cataloguing of Bianca's beauty and its effect on him. He praises her modesty, as well as the "sweet beauty in her face" (168), "her coral lips" (175), her breath which did "perfume the air" (176), and her all around "sacred and sweet" nature (177). To his credit, he also feels the proper Petrarchan responses to Bianca's beauty. He laments that he burns, pines, and perishes (156), consumed by his aching love for Baptista's younger daughter. Lucentio becomes, in effect, the quintessential courtly lover and will later be starkly contrasted with not only Petruchio's motivation for marriage but also the primitive and powerful taming techniques Petruchio later uses.
Finally, the important theme of disguise is also advanced in this scene. By the end of the scene, we have a total of four people assuming disguise (Sly and Bartholomew in the Induction; Lucentio and Tranio in Act I, Scene 1). The disguises so far have been overt and sartorial in nature; people assume physical disguises in attempt to pass themselves off as someone else. Seeing so many people assuming identities reminds us that The Taming of the Shrew is a comedy of mistaken and disguised identity — a theme that will become increasingly more complex (yet increasingly subtle) as the play unfolds.
"Mi perdonate" (25) "Pardon me."
Aristotle's checks (32) constraining philosophic study of Aristotle.
balk logic (34) argue.
affect (40) find pleasant.
iwis (62) certainly; assuredly.
"comb your noddle" (64) "rake your head."
Minerva (84) the [Roman] goddess of wisdom, technical skill, and invention: identified with the Greek Athena.
mew (87) confine in or as in a cage; shut up or conceal: often with up.
"had as lief" (132) "would as willingly."
"bar in law" (136) "legal impediment."
Anna (155) confidante of her sister Dido, Queen of Carthage, beloved of Aeneas.
"Redime te captum quam queas minimo" (163) "Buy yourself out of bondage for as little as you can."
Daughter of Agenor (169) Europa, beloved of Jove.
"Basta!" (199) "Enough!"
port (204) the manner in which one carries oneself; carriage.
"uncase thee" (208) get undressed.