Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1663
Katharina: the shrew who rejects suitors
Bianca: Katharina’s beautiful younger sister who cannot marry until a man weds Katharina
Lucentio: a young man who wants to marry Bianca
Baptista: the wealthy father of Katharina and Bianca
Gremio and Hortensio: suitors to Bianca
Tranio: Lucentio’s servant who disguises himself as his master
Biondello: young servant to Lucentio
Lucentio, a wealthy young man, arrives in Padua, a city famous in Shakespeare’s time for its university. He has come with his servant, Tranio, from Pisa, supposedly renowned for its “grave citizens.” Lucentio mentions that his father is a merchant, and that he himself has been raised in Florence, the urban jewel of Italian culture. His father has made his fortune in business, technically making him a member of the bourgeoisie the merchant middle class, not the aristocracy. Lucentio has come to Padua to study philosophy, but Tranio warns him that “No profit grows where is no pleasure ta’en,” meaning that he should enjoy himself while at the university. Tranio even reminds his master not to forget Ovid, the poet who wrote the Metamorphoses, to which Shakespeare alludes throughout this play.
The conversation between master and servant is interrupted by an exchange of noisy words. Baptista is the father of Katharina (the shrew) and Bianca. Gremio and Hortensio want to marry the fair, younger daughter Bianca, but are rebuffed by Baptista, who stipulates that the elder sister, Katharina, must be married before he will give away Bianca. Katharina protests to her father that he is unnecessarily submitting her to ridicule by not marrying off Bianca and by talking in public with suitors who curse her. Gremio and Hortenio do in fact heap insults upon Katharina, and she answers them in kind.
Hortensio reminds Baptista that it is unfair to Bianca to keep her locked away at home with Katharina while so many men seek her hand in marriage. Baptista responds that if he does not insist that Katharina be married first, he will never be able to give her away. In the meantime, Baptista suggests, he will take in “cunning men” to educate his daughters in the liberal arts (e.g., music and poetry).
Once Baptista and his daughters leave, Hortensio shares with Gremio a scheme he has just devised. Hortensio asks for Gremio’s help to find a man to marry Katharina so that they will then have access to Bianca. Gremio doubts that such a plan will work. No man would want to marry this sharp-tongued woman he likens to “hell.” Hortensio reminds Gremio that Baptista is very wealthy, and that some man will take Katharina solely for her dowry. Gremio accedes to the plan.
Tranio notices that Lucentio has been staring after Bianca as if he has fallen in love on first sight. Lucentio admits as much. He tries to compare himself to the Queen of Carthage, Dido, the most famous tragic victim of Virgil’s great epic, The Aeneid—another classical text to which Shakespeare often alludes. Lucentio blunders the comparison by relating himself instead to Dido’s sister, Anna.
Tranio ignores the tragic implications of the comparison (Dido committed suicide), and warns his master to ransom himself from the imprisonment of love. The servant points toward a stumbling block in Lucentio’s presumed courtship of Bianca, but Lucentio apparently has not been paying attention to what has transpired between the father and the suitors. Tranio must explain that the elder daughter must be married first, before Bianca, and that there is hardly any chance for that to happen.
Lucentio comes to his senses, and reminds Tranio that the father will accept “cunning schoolmasters.” Tranio sees his point. He suggests that Lucentio enter Baptista’s home, disguised as a schoolmaster, and woo Bianca. But Lucentio enjoins Tranio to cover for him while he tutors Bianca. Tranio accepts his mission to disguise himself as his master. The two switch clothes.
Biondello, another servant of Lucentio, enters and becomes confused by the new appearance of the two men. Lucentio deceives Biondello about his motivation for changing identities by claiming that he has killed a man and must now escape without being recognized. Biondello does not believe his master, but goes along with his instructions to treat Tranio as a gentleman in public and to call him Lucentio.
Above the stage, up in a loft, servants to Christopher Sly rouse Sly out of his sleep and tell him that he has not been paying attention to the play. Sly asks how much is left to be performed. When he finds out that it has only just begun, he exclaims that he wishes it were done.
In many of his plays, Shakespeare depicts a young man falling instantly in love with a girl he sees for the first time. The device usually allows the playwright to show some of the failings that occur in love due to naïveté. However in this comedy, Shakespeare does not engage the youth in ridiculous situations. Instead, he keeps the action light-hearted and amusing. For instance, once Lucentio sees Bianca, who appears to him as beautiful as her fair name—white—suggests, he seems to go into a trance, from which Tranio must awaken him.
The playwright also foreshadows the festive nature of this comedy by having Tranio remind Lucentio that his studies must not be too severe. Tranio even drops two important names to underscore his point:
Let’s be no stoics nor no stocks, I pray,
Or so devote to Aristotle’s checks
As Ovid be an outcast quite abjur’d. (I.i.31-33)
Aristotle was known throughout the Medieval period and into the Renaissance as the writer of mysterious philosophical treatises, such as The Metaphysics, in which he mandates strict social roles for men and women. Further, his Poetics dictated strict rules to keep tragedy separate from comedy, rules which were both championed and contested from the Renaissance to the eighteenth century.
Ovid, on the other hand, was brazenly comic,though sophisticated, Latin love poet who, more often than not, mixed tragedy with burlesque humor by subjecting the male lover to the slavery of a female beloved. This was especially true in his Amores and The Art of Love, both of which Shakespeare relies upon thematically to complicate the sexual relations in his plays. With the mentioning of Ovid, then, the playwright prepares the audience to expect to see men enslaving themselves to their mistresses. By having Tranio prefer Ovid to Aristotle, Shakespeare indicates that this play will not follow traditional rules of decorum, and that it is intended to give pleasure and educate.
Shakespeare also wishes to create the impression that Lucentio is far from home. We learn from his speech that he has come from Pisa, which is a considerable distance from Padua. Shakespeare could easily have set this play in Bologna, another famous university town much closer to Pisa. But the playwright wants the audience to think that the young man is far from home and free, as Lucentio hopes, from the control of his father—though this will later turn out to be an incorrect assumption.
The fighting between Katharina and her father, her suitors, and later her husband, Petruchio, has been vigorously contested by critics. With the rise of feminism in the twentieth century, many readers now see Katharina as a victim of a male-dominated culture. Others claim that Katharina deserves the insults hurled at her because she is unwilling to give a man his due and to submit herself to a husband’s demands. No doubt, a position exists which combines these two views.
An audience’s appraisal of this situation will be shaped by the performance, particularly the portrayal of Katharina. The reader, in contrast, has only the text to judge by, and from the text it is clear that Katharina appears in a defensive posture, responding to the nasty remarks which Gremio makes to her. Further inspection reveals that Katharina does have a reputation; judging from the cleverness with which she verbally outmatches Gremio and later Hortensio, she seems to have earned her reputation as a shrew.
The men in this scene are not saints, however. There is ample evidence to suggest that Gremio, Hortensio, and even Katharina’s father, Baptista, have purely selfish motives in this quarrel. Baptista obviously does not wish to live alone with his feisty daughter, and he is willing to use Bianca as leverage in order to get rid of Katharina. Gremio and Hortensio do not see Katharina as a person, but merely as a stumbling block to their own courtship of Bianca.
Lucentio, though removed from the verbal fight with Katharina, implicates himself as a scoundrel by referring to Bianca as the “daughter of Agenor...That made great Jove to humble him to her hand,/When with his knees he kiss’d the Cretan strand” (I.i.168-70). The allusion is again to Ovid’s Metamorphoses. At the end of Book Two, Jupiter changes himself into a bull to beguile the lovely Europa, whom he carries across the sea to Crete and then rapes. While Lucentio makes the image sound pretty, it carries monstrous overtones. His allusion also foreshadows his own scheme to change his appearance in order to gain access to Bianca’s quarters, where he intends to woo her.
Lucentio’s plan to switch roles with his servant should remind the reader of the Lord’s role-switching with Sly in the Induction. Indeed, the playwright signals our attention to Sly’s presence above the stage, for we may have forgotten about him in the same way that he has fallen asleep and does not “mind the play.” The fact that Lucentio and Tranio are interchangeable in the eyes of the citizens of Padua suggests that there is nothing innately superior about either of these men. This theme also parallels the question suggested by the cross-dressing motif introduced when Bartholomew successfully masquerades as a woman.
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