Shakespeare’s comedy “The Taming of the Shrew” starts off with two major conflicts. The first dealing with class relations and a cruel joke being played on Christopher Sly and the second dealing with gender relations within the play being presented to Sly where Baptista is the overbearing father to Katerina and Bianca. It can be argued that both of these present a character that have no control in Elizabethan society to decide their fates.
For Christopher Sly, a poor beggar, he is ridiculed by society and often treated as less than a human, this is shown in the first few lines of Induction One, where the hostess threatens to have him thrown in the stocks during an argument and then goes off to fetch the “headborough” because a beggar doesn’t have the money to pay off for a glass he broke (1.1.2-9). Granted, this is a drunken argument but then Sly is then asleep and the Lord speaks very badly of him simply because he doesn’t have the same opportunities or lifestyle the Lord does, “O monstrous beast! How like a swine he lies. / Grim death how foul and loathsome is thine image,” (1.1.30-31). While Christopher Sly may come from a lower class and be a drunk, he is compared to death by how he looks because of this. If this Lord were drunk it would most likely be in the comfort of his own estate, while Sly doesn’t have that option. Christopher Sly lives the life he was born into, he can’t change what his birth status was and yet because of it he becomes the butt of a cruel joke.
Similarly, women in the play are treated the same why; they are expected to be a certain way and yet have no say over their own lives. This is shown particularly by Baptista’s control over his two daughters. Bianca, his youngest daughter is being courted by multiple suitors and yet Baptista refuses to let her go saying his eldest must be married first, “Gentlemen, importune me no farther, / For how I firmly am resolved you know: / That is, not to bestow my youngest daughter / Before I have a husband for the elder” (1.1.48-51). In Elizabethan times women had no rights and were often considered the father’s property until marriage, this is clearly shown by Baptista’s lack of compassion for his daughter’s needs and wants and his desire to marry Katherine before Bianca. Baptista knows that Katherine speaks too freely for a women and most likely is afraid that she will never be married, and therefore he will always have to care for her. By creating a scenario where Bianca, who wants to marry can’t not until Katherine, who has no interest in marriage, does he insures that he will be able to marry off both daughters to men of good standing and not be stuck caring for one until he dies.
For both Christopher Sly of the lower classes in England and Katherine and Bianca who are both women, their lives are preplanned by birth and random chance. This idea leaves the reader with an uneasy questioning of what will happen in the following scenes of the play when all three characters are forced to accept their birth status.