On a street before Baptista Minola's household, Lucentio appears, accompanied by his faithful servant Tranio. Lucentio has just arrived in Padua, and he delivers an introductory monologue in which we learn that he is the son of Vincentio, a wealthy Pisan, and that he would like to add wisdom and virtue to his hereditary endowments. Thus he is ready to immerse himself in Padua's culture and learning. Tranio reminds his master to mix pleasure with learning.
At that moment, an arguing group emerges from Baptista's house. Baptista tells Hortensio and Gremio, two suitors of his youngest daughter, Bianca, that he is not prepared to give Bianca away to marriage until his elder daughter Katharina is wed. Both Hortensio and Gremio rail against Katherina and she, in turn, mocks her sister's suitors scathingly. Lucentio, who has stepped aside, is immediately captivated by the weeping Bianca. As he consoles his youngest daughter, Baptista tells the two suitors that he is looking for schoolmasters to instruct Bianca at home and would appreciate their help in finding some. Once alone, Gremio and Hortensio agree to put aside their rivalry until they have found someone to wed the "froward" Katharina.
Lucentio then tells Tranio that he is madly in love with Bianca and vows to win her hand. He hatches a plan to bypass Baptista's kibosh on wooing Bianca by dressing up as a schoolteacher and offering his services. Meanwhile, Tranio agrees to pretend to be Lucentio. They tell Lucentio's other servant, Biondello, that Lucentio must disguise himself in order to avoid persecution for having killed a man in a duel.
As scene two begins, Petruchio, a gentleman of Verona, appears with his servant Grumio. He has come to Padua to see his friends, "but of all/My best beloved and approved friend,/Hortensio." (1.2: 2-4) A comic beating of Grumio leads to Hortensio's enterance, whereupon Petruchio explains that he is looking for a rich wife. Hortensio mentions Katharina, telling Petruchio that she is rich but a shrew; Petruchio however, isn't bothered by Hortensio's description - he is willing to wed anyone with enough money. Grumio interjects that, no matter how sharp-tongued Katharina may be, she could not match the rhetorical weaponry Petruchio has at his disposal.
Hortensio then asks Petruchio to present to Baptista, "disguised in sober robes" (1.2: 130), as a schoolmaster. At the same time, Lucentio appears disguised as the schoolmaster Cambio. Lucentio has convinced the old suitor, Gremio, that he will plead his case to Bianca. Hortensio states to Gremio that he too has found someone who will teach Bianca music, and adds that Petruchio is willing to wed Katharina.
Meanwhile, Tranio appears, dressed as Lucentio and accompanied by Biondello. He announces that he is going to woo the fair Bianca - whom, he claims, he has never even seen. Gremio and Hortensio are worried at the sight of a rival, especially one with the suavity Tranio manages to convey. "What," Gremio exclaims, "this gentleman will out-talk us all!" (1.2: 245) Petruchio, meanwhile, because his wooing of Katharina is primary, is able to wrest payment from all three of Bianca's suitors to cover his expenses.
Shakespeare opens his play-within-a-play in a manner that underlines the nature of the illusion. Rather than write a realistic opening, Shakespeare has his romantic lead deliver a lengthy, even ponderous monologue. We learn all there is to know of Lucentio: his family, his whereabouts, his wealth, his reason for being in Padua. He seems on the surface a serious-minded lad, intent on adding virtue to his attributes, on pleasing his father, and on enriching his mind.
And yet, just over one hundred lines later Lucentio's goals have changed drastically. Invoking antiquity, and therefore his cultured upbringing and education, he proclaims to Tranio: "And now in plainness do [I] confess to thee,/That art to me as secret and as dear/As Anna to the Queen of Carthage was,/Tranio, I burn, I pine, I perish, Tranio,/If I achieve not this young modest girl." (1.1: 153-157) In other words, learning and virtue are out the window; sex is all that counts from now on.
This is the comic strategy that Shakespeare employs throughout The Taming of the Shrew: fanciful language and highfalutin hopes are undercut by lustful desires; allusions to antiquity are coupled with bawdy innuendo. Carnality and genteel poetry intertwine, each tempering or "taming" the other, neither prevailing completely.
Even in the first speech of the play, which seems at first glance to be a clumsy attempt at exposition, desire and sexuality seethe below the surface. For instance, consider the following passage: "Tranio, since for the great desire I had/To see fair Padua, nursery of arts,/I am arrived fore fruitful Lombardy,/The pleasant garden of great Italy." (1.1: 1-4) The first normal noun of the play is "desire," which already suggests the sexual desire that will drive the action of the ensuing courtship. Furthermore, Padua is described as "fair," a word used particularly throughout the play to describe the object of Lucentio's affection, Bianca. Padua is also described as a "nursery," evoking procreation. Several other words in the opening passage - "fruitful," "garden" - also suggest sexual maturity and procreation. Altogether, Shakespeare suggests that though Lucentio claims to be filled with desire to be educated, his subconscious mind is in fact preoccupied with sex. No wonder he is so quick to switch pursuits upon seeing Bianca for only a moment!
Thus Lucentio's lofty language masks his desire while desire still manages to peep through. And it's not just Lucentio who displays this negotiation of lust and nobility; the play's central theme of counterfeit identity captures this balance as well. Indeed, the play itself is a counterfeit of sorts. It presents itself as adhering to the rules of exposition, helpfully introducing characters and locales, while in fact, under the surface, displaying a preoccupation with prurience. Dramatic convention itself, then, is a kind of rouse in Shrew, disguising the chaotic powers of desire behind a careful veneer of order and form.