Baptista is a wealthy landowner in Padua. He has two daughters, Bianca and Katherina/Kate. The younger daughter, Bianca, is much sought after, but Baptista has resolved that she should not marry until her older sister, Kate, is married. He is firm with Bianca's suitors, Hortensio and Gremio, on this point and insists that Bianca devote her time to study until he finds a suitable husband for Kate. Kate accuses Baptista of favoring Bianca over her, but actually Baptista demonstrates that he wants the best for both his daughters. He spends much of his time in the play haggling over his daughters' dowries, trying to insure that both Bianca and Kate are provided with material comforts. He even conducts a kind of bidding war between Gremio and Tranio (who is pretending to be Lucentio) for Bianca's hand in marriage. He also insists that his daughters' husbands have appropriate pedigrees. He is extremely upset when Petruchio shows up for the wedding dressed in wild attire, but since he knows Kate to be a terrible shrew and one for whom it will be difficult to find a match, his desire to see Kate married overrides his fear of public ridicule. His opinion of Kate does not change after she is married; at the end of the play, he even bets that Kate will lose the contest to see which wife is the most dutiful to her husband. It is true that Baptista does not consider his daughters' affections for the men with whom he arranges their marriages, but he has determined that the best marriages are those with a secure financial future, reflecting the beliefs of the time period during which the play was written.
Bianca is Baptista's daughter and the younger sister of Kate. Apparently she is quite attractive. Both Hortensio and Gremio are actively courting her, and Lucentio falls in love with her at first sight. Lucentio calls Bianca a "young modest girl" (I.i.156) and tells Tranio, "Sacred and sweet was all I saw in her" (I.i.176). Part of Bianca's attractiveness must be that she is a gem of modesty set against the foil of Kate's outspoken and grating disposition. Bianca takes full advantage of the contrast which her suitors perceive between herself and Kate. When Baptista pronounces that she must avoid the company of men and devote her time to academic pursuits, Bianca is the model of feminine modesty and duty. She tells her father, "Sir, to your pleasure humbly I subscribe" (I.i.81). But Bianca also has a selfish streak. Just before her submissive response to her father, she has told Kate, "Sister, content you in my discontent" (I.i.80). Bianca resents that Kate's willful behavior prevents her from enjoying the attention her suitors wish to shower upon her. That resentment comes fully into the open when Kate strikes Bianca for suggesting that Kate is envious of her.
We get a somewhat different picture of Bianca at the end of the play. Petruchio proposes that Bianca, Kate, and the widow be called by their husbands to see which of the three responds most readily. Biondello is sent to fetch Bianca for Lucentio and reports back that Bianca has claimed to be too busy to respond to her husband's desire. Only Kate responds promptly, and Lucentio loses his wager. When he tells Bianca that she has cost him the wager, she says, "The more fool you for laying on my duty" (V.ii.129). Apparently, different sets of rules exist in marriage and courtship. Once Bianca has landed Lucentio, she no longer needs to make him the center of her attention as she did in the secret confines of her cloistered cell. As a married woman, she is free to indulge her own desires.
Biondello is Lucentio's servant. Since the stage directions refer to him as a boy, it can be assumed that he is younger than Tranio. When Lucentio takes on the disguise of Cambio and pretends to be a schoolmaster so that he can get close to Bianca, Lucentio tells Biondello that he has killed a man in a quarrel and Tranio has disguised himself as Lucentio to save Lucentio's life. Biondello must now treat Tranio as Lucentio and serve him. Biondello never really believes the story Lucentio has made up, and he quickly learns the plan that is actually afoot. When the need arises, he is given the task of finding a person who might convincingly impersonate Vincentio, Lucentio's father; and he selects the pedant, "In gait and countenance surely like a father" (IV.ii.65). He serves as a messenger for Tranio and is so involved in the intrigue set in motion by Lucentio and Tranio that he even denies knowing Vincentio when the latter recognizes him outside of Tranio's lodging. At the end of the play, Biondello is sent to fetch Kate, Bianca, and the widow for their husbands.
Curtis is a servant at Petruchio's country house. He tries to get information from Grumio, another of Petruchio's servants, when the latter arrives in advance of the newly wedded Kate and Petruchio with the order to make the house ready. When Grumio finally gets around to telling Curtis how Petruchio and Kate have been acting on their journey from Baptista's home, Curtis summarizes Petruchio's behavior. He says, "By this reckoning he is more shrew than she" (IV.i.85). Curtis calls Petruchio's other servants—Nathaniel, Philip, Gregory, Nicholas, and Joshua—together and sees that they are ready for the arrival of their master and new mistress. Later, Curtis informs Grumio that Petruchio is in Kate's chamber, lecturing her about the need to abstain from sexual activity, while poor Kate does not quite know what to make of the lecture.
Gremio is a wealthy suitor to Bianca, competing with Hortensio for her hand in marriage. When Baptista refuses to allow either of them to court Bianca until Kate is married, the two are quite amicable about the competition, both realizing that neither can succeed with Bianca until Kate is married; and they openly agree to work together toward that end, if possible. Secretly, both plot a way to stay close to Bianca in the interim. Gremio, following Baptista's suggestion, recommends Cambio as a schoolmaster to Bianca, unaware that Cambio is Lucentio in disguise. In return for the recommendation, Gremio expects that Lucentio will act as a go-between and advance Gremio's suit for Bianca, which, of course, Lucentio does not do since he is advancing his own suit. After Kate and Petruchio are married and the competition for Bianca opens once again, Gremio feels he should be allowed to marry Bianca because, as he tells Baptista, "I am your neighbor, and was suitor first" (II.i.334). Baptista does, in fact, tend to favor Gremio because of his greater material wealth; but to be fair, Baptista opens the bidding, Bianca going to whomever offers the largest dowry. Tranio, disguised as Lucentio and presumably acting on his behalf, accuses Gremio of being too old for Bianca, while Gremio counters with the charge that Bianca could never be attracted to one so young and immature as Tranio. Tranio exaggerates Lucentio's wealth and outbids Gremio, who resigns himself to the fact that he will never have Bianca. At the end of the play, Gremio, with no hope of finding a mate in the group assembled at Lucentio's house, joins the party only to enjoy his share of the feast.
Grumio is Petruchio's main servant, accompanying Petruchio on his trips back and forth between his country house and the town of Padua. Grumio is a clown and a jokester who seems to enjoy being obstinate and acting thickheaded. Language is always a problem with Grumio because he always plays on vagaries and claims not to understand what is being said unless it is spoken in the clearest and most direct terms. For example, when Petruchio first arrives in Padua to visit his old friend Hortensio, he asks Grumio to knock on Hortensio's door. Grumio pretends to understand that Petruchio wants him to knock either Petruchio or someone who has offended him. It is only when Petruchio refers specifically to knocking on the gate (I.ii.37) that Grumio understands fully what Petruchio has requested. Again, when Grumio answers the question posed to him by Curtis concerning the attitudes of Petruchio and his new bride on their trip home from Padua, Grumio is purposefully evasive. He grows annoyed with Curtis and strikes him, claiming that had not Curtis annoyed him he would have heard the details in full. Grumio then goes on to relate the details in full, contradicting what he has just said. Grumio mimics his master, dressing outlandishly for Petruchio's wedding and going along with Petruchio's scheme to delude and humiliate Kate.
The haberdasher shows Kate a hat he has been commissioned by Petruchio to make for her. In front of Kate, however, Petruchio pretends that he is very displeased with the hat, calling it too small and too unfashionable for Kate. Even though Kate likes the hat and insists that she will have that one or none at all, Petruchio has refused it for her, and the haberdasher exits.
Hortensio is a friend to Petruchio and is engaged in a somewhat good-natured rivalry with Gremio to win Bianca for a bride. When Baptista cuts Bianca off from her suitors until Kate is married, Hortensio guardedly mentions to Petruchio that he knows an eligible woman with money; the only problem is that she is an intolerable shrew. To Hortensio's surprise and in answer to his prayers, Petruchio is interested and wants to go propose to Kate immediately. Hortensio, then, goes along with Petruchio and disguises himself as Litio, a music teacher, so that he might get a head start on Gremio in wooing Bianca. But Hortensio soon becomes engaged in a contest with another suitor. Cambio, who is really Lucentio, vies with Hortensio for Bianca's time. It soon becomes clear to Hortensio that Bianca prefers Cambio to himself. He wants to share his new misery with other company. He brings Tranio, whom he believes to be Lucentio, to observe that Bianca is enamored of her tutor Cambio. Hortensio is upset that Bianca favors one whom he believes is of a lower class than himself, so he swears to quit pursuing the love of Bianca. He accepts the consolation prize and vows to wed the widow he has known for only a brief time. During the gathering at Lucentio's house at the end of the play, Hortensio, along with Lucentio and Baptista, loses money when he wagers that Kate will be the least dutiful of all three wives, the widow included.
The hostess appears briefly at the beginning of the Induction. She scolds Christopher Sly and asks whether or not he intends to pay for the glasses he has broken while getting drunk. When he informs her that he, indeed, does not intend to pay, she leaves to get the sheriff, intending to have Sly arrested.
The huntsmen appear in the Induction. They return from hunting with the lord, discussing the attributes of several of the hunting dogs. When that lord discovers Sly asleep outside the tavern, the huntsmen carry Sly up to the lord's chambers and agree to join in the trick the lord intends to play on Sly.
This lord appears in the Induction. He stumbles over Sly's prostrate body and is at first upset that such a drunkard has passed out near his estate. He then decides, for his own amusement, to delude Sly into thinking that he is a proper lord when he awakes.
The page appears in the Induction. His name is Bartholomew, and he is a page to the lord who is setting Sly up as an unwitting actor in some amusing entertainment. The page is directed to clothe himself in the fashion he has seen his mistress and other ladies of noble station adopt. He is to pretend that he is Sly's wife. When Sly informs the page that the servants have told him he has been in and out of consciousness for fifteen years, the page says, ''Ay, and the time seems thirty unto me, / Being all this time abandon'd from your bed" (Induction.ii.114-15). This is precisely the wrong thing to say to Sly, who wants to be intimate with his wife right away. The page has to think quickly. He asks that he might abstain from Sly's bed yet awhile because the doctors have cautioned that sex might return Sly to his former illness.
The pedant is chosen by Biondello to impersonate Vincentio, Lucentio's father, because, according to Biondello who has been sent to find a likely candidate for the role, he bears himself like a father would. When Tranio asks Biondello about his choice, Biondello says he is either "a mercatante or a pedant, / I know not what" (IV.ii.63-64). Tranio tells the pedant, who is from the town of Mantua, that the Duke of Padua has determined that any merchant from Mantua apprehended in Padua should be put to death, a proclamation stemming from a recent quarrel between the two towns. Tranio suggests that, to insure his safety, the pedant disguise himself as Vincentio. Pedants were often the objects of ridicule in Elizabethan drama because of their narrow mindedness and lack of creativity. True to that Elizabethan stereotype, the pedant in this play throws himself into the role of Vincentio and does it "by the numbers." Although he conducts the negotiations with Baptista convincingly enough, when confronted with the real Vincentio, he does not have the presence of mind to abandon his persona in precarious circumstances. He proclaims that he is, indeed, Vincentio and forces Tranio and Biondello to deny Lucentio's real father to his face.
The players appear in the Induction. They arrive at the lord's house as he is planning the elaborate hoax on Christopher Sly. The players are enlisted in that hoax and are instructed by the lord to perform for Sly, providing a fit entertainment for the sophisticate Sly is supposed to be. The lord cautions the players to restrain themselves in front of Sly because he has never seen a play before. What he really means is that they are not to make fun of Sly when they see what a rustic clown he is. The players comprise the cast of characters in the inset play.
There are several groups of servants in The Taming of the Shrew. In the Induction, the servants to the lord participate in the ruse foisted on Sly. They call him by exaggerated titles when he wakes and lead him to believe that he is a nobleman suffering from a delusional malady that makes him lose consciousness for long periods of time. In addition to Grumio, Petruchio has several servants at his country house. (See Curtis.) They bring food and drink to Kate, all of which is dashed from their hands and proclaimed unfit for Kate by Petruchio. Apparently they, with the exception of Grumio, are not aware of Petruchio's tactics for taming Kate. They marvel at their master's odd behavior. Baptista also has servants at his home. One of those servants is directed to escort Hortensio and Lucentio, in their disguises of schoolmasters, into the presence of their pupil Bianca.
The tailor has been commissioned, like the haberdasher, to make a dress for Kate. When he shows that dress to her, a displeased Petruchio mocks both the style of the dress and the tailor himself. The tailor protests that he has made the dress according to Petruchio's exact specifications. Petruchio has the tailor read the list of those specifications, but when he reads "'The sleeves curiously cut'" (IV.iii.143), Petruchio says, "Ay, there's the villainy" (IV.iii.144). The direction for cutting the sleeves of the dress is just ambiguous enough for Petruchio to object that he will not purchase it for Kate. Petruchio is only trying to teach Kate a lesson, not punish the tailor; he has Hortensio take the tailor aside and promise to pay him for his goods.
Tranio is Lucentie's servant. He and Lucentio witness the scene of Baptista cloistering Bianca, cutting her off from her suitors. Tranio and Lucentio also overhear Baptista's remark that Bianca will only be allowed the male company of her schoolmasters, and they simultaneously conceive the same plan: Lucentio will disguise himself as one of those schoolmasters in order to court the woman with whom he has instantaneously fallen in love. Tranio will wear Lucentio's clothes, which bear the distinction of a higher class than those usually worn by Tranio, and will maintain Lucentio's presence in Padua. Tranio adjusts to his new role quite readily. It is hard to determine which of the subsequent intrigues are suggested by Lucentio and which are orchestrated by Tranio on his own initiative. He introduces himself to Baptista and the company of Bianca's suitors as Lucentio and proclaims his desire to court Baptista's younger daughter. He engages in an outrageous bidding contest for Bianca, pledging a dowry of greater wealth than that promised by Gremio. He enlists the pedant to impersonate Vincentio and guarantee the preposterous material possessions Tranio has claimed to have. He conducts the marriage negotiations with Baptista and even directs Lucentio to stop at the church and marry Bianca before bringing her to those negotiations. Tranio is so good at playing his role that it almost seems as if Tranio has become Lucentio and Lucentio has become the servant. Tranio's fall from that higher social position, though, is sudden. Vincentio exposes him as Lucentio's servant, a reality of class distinction Vincentio knows well, having raised Tranio since he was three years old.
We learn from Lucentio at the beginning of the play that his father, Vincentio, is "A merchant of great traffic through the world" (I.i.12). He has taken up residence in Pisa and has encouraged Lucentio to travel and pursue his education away from that town. On their way to Padua to visit Kate's father, Petruchio and Kate encounter Vincentio, who tells them, "And bound I am to Padua, there to visit / A son of mine, which long I have not seen" (IV.v.56-57). The play is vague about how much time has elapsed since Lucentio and Tranio arrived in Padua, but apparently Lucentio has been away from home long enough for Vincentio to miss him. Vincentio thinks the behavior of Petruchio and Kate is odd. Petruchio describes Vincentio to Kate as a young maid, and Kate agrees with that assessment; then, Petruchio asserts that Vincentio is a grisled old man, and Kate agrees again. Despite this bizarre episode, Vincentio accepts their offer to lead him to Lucentio's house in Padua. Once there, Vincentio is confronted by the pedant who claims to be Lucentio's father. At first, Vincentio is only confused; but when he recognizes Tranio and Biondello and they deny knowing him, he becomes outraged, especially when Tranio calls out to have Vincentio arrested. He is used to being treated with respect and deference by Lucentio's servants. When they do not do so, he wants desperately to exercise his power and punish them. He says, "I'll slit the villain's nose that would have sent me to the gaol" (V.i.131-32). He is still upset, even after Lucentio has arrived to explain the whole affair and has asked Vincentio to pardon Tranio. In the end, Vincentio displays his generous and gracious nature, assuring Baptista that he will be fully compensated for Lucentio's deception in secretly marrying Bianca.
After Hortensio realizes that Bianca is lost to him, he resolves that, within three days, he will marry the widow who has loved him as long as he has loved Bianca. In the final scene, Petruchio suggests to the widow that Hortensio is afraid of her. She tells Kate, "Your husband, being troubled with a shrew, / Measures my husband's sorrow by his woe" (V.ii.28-29). She means that Petruchio assumes all wives are shrews because his own wife is one. But ultimately the widow proves to be a less manageable wife than Kate is. The widow fails the test; she does not come when she is called.