The Taming of the Shrew begins with a false start, as the play as we know it (or as we THINK we know it) is actually a play-within-a-play (kinda). In the two-scene “Induction,” a Christopher Sly is introduced, shown to be a drunk and one who doesn’t pay for his drinks to boot, and promptly passes out in the street. He’s found by an unnamed lord, who thinks it would be a great practical joke to take the unconscious Sly, set him up in the lord’s own manor, and see what happens when he wakes up not as Christopher Sly but a wealthy lord.
Some wackiness ensues as Sly does wake, does begin to think himself a rich man, and does begin to watch a play… our play.
In Act One, Scene One (proper), Young Lucentio and his man (servant) Tranio enter the streets of Padua. Lucentio has come to do his father Vincentio’s business, but more importantly (he seemingly decides here) to study. Tranio cautions him to make sure he doesn’t succumb to the whole “all work and no play” syndrome, as he tells the young man, “No profit grows where is not pleasure ta’en” (I.i.39). And these words are no sooner out of his mouth than Lucentio spies the beautiful young Bianca Minola. Pleasure, indeed.
The first problem is that there are other suitors for Bianca. The second and larger problem (for both Lucentio AND those other suitors) is Bianca’s elder sister, Katherina… “too rough” (I.i.55), “curst and shrewd” (I.i.178) Kate. The problem is that their father Baptista has declared that there will be no vying for Bianca’s hand until Kate is wed. And no one on the scene (yet) is willing to take on this “hell” (I.i.124). They are willing, however, to take on the only contact Baptista will allow Bianca: music and poetry study.
Lucentio has only eyes for Bianca and sees no problems, only “sweet beauty in her face” (I.i.165) and “coral lips” (I.i.172). And he has a plan. Lucentio wants to disguise himself as a schoolmaster and insert himself into the Minola household. But who will do Lucentio’s work if Lucentio is acting the schoolmaster? They decide that, since no one in Padua knows either of them, the servant Tranio will assume the role of “Lucentio,” and Lucentio’s page Biondello will take on the role of man-servant (Lucentio tells Biondello that since they have been in Padua, Lucentio has “killed a man” [I.i.229] and must now hide while Tranio takes on his role… why the convoluted story? Much Wackiness Ensues, we’re sure).
Huh? Then why is it there???
As this scene ends, we’re back to the Christopher Sly story, as he wakes up from “nod(ding” off (I.i.246). He wishes “’twere done” (I.i.252). And for Sly, it pretty much is… we never see or hear from him again in the play.
Act One, Scene Two begins with the entrance of Petruchio and his servant Grumio, fresh from Verona. By the way: “Petruchio” is NOT pronounced peh-TRU-key-OH, but rather peh-TRU-chee-OH… who knew… guess that’s what happens when you get your Shakespearean background from Moonlighting, eh?
It’s a fairly primitive philosophy, but more on that in the weeks to come.
Petruchio has come to Padua as part of his voyage to “see the world” (I.ii.57) following the death of his father. He’s also ready to marry, to — as he puts it — “wive it wealthily in Padua — // If wealthily, then happily in Padua” (I.ii.74-75).
Petruchio runs into an old friend, Hortensio, who just happened one of Bianca’s suitors from the first scene. He reluctantly tells Petruchio of Kate (reluctantly because they are friends after all, and friends don’t let friends marry shrews); he also tells our man from Verona about Baptista’s decree. As the Minolas are rich, Petruchio is ready for the wooing to begin.
You keeping up with this so far? Grumio is Petruchio’s servant. Gremio is the pantaloon and a suitor to Bianca. Hortensio is also a suitor to Bianca. Lucentio is also a suitor to Bianca, but is going by the name of Cambio, so he can slip into Bianca’s life as her tutor. And “Lucentio” is actually Tranio, the man-servant. Got it? Good… there’ll be a quiz later.
But before this can start, they spy Gremio (another Bianca suitor from the earlier scene, described as a “pantaloon” or foolish old man… a stock character from commedia dell’arte [and more on THAT later in the month]) with a schoolmaster Cambio, who just happens to be Lucentio in his disguise.
They (Petruchio, Hortensio, and Grumio) overhear Grumio’s instructions to Cambio: “All books of love… read no other lectures to her” (I.ii.144-145). Cambio/Lucentio has no problem with this as he foresees his use of “more successful words // Than (Gremio)” (I.ii.155-156). Hortensio advances on Grumio, and they discuss the upcoming wooing of Kate by Petruchio, and both men promise to help Petruchio in any way they can, including “bear(ing) his charge of wooing whatsoe’er” (I.ii.213)… in other words, they’re going to be paying Petruchio’s bills while he woos Kate. It’s a pretty sweet deal for Petruchio.
And into this scene comes Tranio/Lucentio and Biondello. Tranio announces that he, er Lucentio, is also in the race for Bianca’s hand… and he, too, is willing to back Petruchio’s “charge.” The scene ends with all following Tranio/Lucentio to “do as adversaries do in law, // Strive mightily but eat and drink as friends” (I.ii.275-276). One assumes that Petruchio’s tab will be taken care of…