A brash young man named Petruchio, newly arrived in Padua, goes with his servant Grumio to see Hortensio, whom he knows from Verona. Grumio and Petruchio become embroiled in a comic misunderstanding at the door, but eventually Hortensio comes down to greet Petruchio and ask why he is in Padua. Petruchio responds that, upon his father’s death, he set out to look for a wife, hoping to marry a rich man’s daughter and thereby augment his family fortune. Hortensio, determined to find a potential suitor for Katherine so that he himself may marry Bianca, recognizes his opportunity and decides to convince Petruchio to marry the shrew. Being a friend, he first tries to offer a warning about her, but Petruchio does not care about her behavior. He pays attention to one thing only—the fact that she has a rich father. Full of confidence, he tells Hortensio to lead him to the shrew. Hortensio, for his part, plans to disguise himself as a schoolmaster so that he can court Bianca secretly.
Gremio and Lucentio enter on their way to Baptista’s house, interrupting Hortensio and Petruchio. Lucentio has already disguised himself as a schoolmaster and has presented himself to Gremio, who gladly agrees to have him tutor Bianca. Gremio brags to Hortensio that he has found a schoolmaster for Bianca, unaware of the fact that Lucentio will be courting the girl himself. Hortensio then tells Gremio the good news—that Petruchio wishes to woo Katherine. Gremio can hardly believe it, but Petruchio confidently claims that he will be victorious.
At this point, Tranio enters, disguised as Lucentio, with Biondello as his servant. He very conspicuously asks the suitors to direct him to the house of Baptista Minola, vaguely implying that he might be interested in one of the women there. Hortensio and Gremio have a hard time restraining their anger, for now there will be three competing suitors for Bianca. Lucentio, of course, has arranged for Tranio to make this entrance in order to distract Hortensio and Gremio and give him more time for his own wooing. Tranio persuades the suitors that they can all be friends while they compete for Bianca, and he wins their good graces by offering to buy them a drink. The whole company considers this an excellent suggestion, and they all depart together.Read a translation of Act I, scene ii →
The reader is bombarded in the first half of the scene by Petruchio’s overbearing personality. Several character traits rapidly reveal themselves: he is quick to anger but also quick to laugh, as he displays in his frequent quarreling with his servant Grumio. He has a coarse personality, but he is educated well enough to spout classical references and has a quick wit. Also, he loves money above all else, which explains his enthusiasm for courting Katherine. As Grumio remarks, if given enough gold, Petruchio would happily marry a puppet, a clothing ornament, or a toothless hag with venereal diseases. These are superficial motives, to be sure, but Petruchio proclaims them proudly, and Shakespeare uses his proclamations to introduce another dimension to the play’s exploration of marriage: the idea that marriage is essentially an economic activity, intended to consolidate fortunes and facilitate the distribution of inheritances. Petruchio, having been left some money by his own father, knows that he can strike it rich if he allows himself to be “bought” as a husband.
Money is not Petruchio’s only driving force. As more characters warn him about Katherine’s harsh tongue, he begins to view wedding her as a challenge rather than simply a moneymaking opportunity. Living with the shrew, he says, could not possibly be worse than enduring the hardships of war or the sea. Gremio says that subduing Kate would be a heroic challenge, comparing the task to one of the labors of Hercules, even as he discourages Petruchio from undertaking it. In their minds, Katherine has apparently transformed from an insubordinate woman into either a monster in need of subjugation or a tempest that has to be withstood. In fact, they give her the title “Katherine the curst” (I.ii.122). The more the men talk about her, the worse the report of her behavior becomes.
In her absence, Katherine’s situation becomes a bit clearer. People talk about her more than they listen to her, and the more people gossip about her, the more they dislike her. She wields her tongue to defend herself in the only way she can, but this only earns her greater disrepute. After all, in the earlier scene between Katherine and the two suitors, Katherine becomes angry after Gremio insults her, although we do not know what transpired before their entrance onstage. At any rate, this scene clarifies the general bias of the men and elicits some sympathy for Katherine. In many ways, the men are more interested in competing in tests of machismo and going to the pub than they are in the thoughts or feelings of the women whom they wish to woo.