For Love or Money?
During the age when Shakespeare was writing, marriage was generally viewed more as a business relationship than a love match. Particularly among wealthy families, marriages were expected to increase the wealth and properties of the families involved, not satisfy the emotional needs of the prospective bride and groom.
Elizabethan women had little choice in husbands. Marriages were arranged by families to bring prestige or wealth to the families involved. This was especially true of the upper levels of society—princes and princesses married to form political alliances; the children of nobility married to increase fortune; and sons and daughters of landowners married to secure funds and increase land holdings. Women were expected to have a "dowry"—money, goods, and property that the bride would bring with her to the marriage. This was sometimes referred to as the marriage portion. The dowry would benefit the male. All the wife’s possessions and money, as well as the wife herself, essentially became the property of her husband. Children of lower class, poor families, were more likely to marry neighbors with whom they had developed friendship and, possibly, romantic feelings.
In The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio seeks a wife to improve his financial situation. He is upfront about what he wants out of marriage: he is in Padua to find a wealthy wife, and her wealth will make him happy. Despite all the warnings he hears about Katherine, he pursues her because she is wealthy. Before he is even willing to meet her, he gets assurance from her father that she will bring a large dowry to the marriage.
"Then tell me, if I get your daughter’s love,
What dowry shall I have with her to wife?" (2.1.126-127)
Only when he is assured by Baptista that, "After my death, the one half of all my lands, /And in possession, twenty thousand crowns,( 2.1.128-129)" does Petruchio agree to meet Katherine.
Baptista seeks to use his younger daughter to increase his own wealth.
He hears marriage "offers" from Gremio and Tranio (posing as Lucentio).
Tranio/Lucentio outbids Gremio and is promised Bianca as a prize
as long as his father "make her the assurance"—guarantee the income.
In the face of a society that views marriage as a business arrangement,
however, Shakespeare allows some of his characters to follow their
hearts. Lucentio and Tranio successfully dupe Baptista, and Lucentio marries
Bianca for love, not for money. Depending on different interpretations of the
end of the play, some have suggested that Petruchio and Katherine have developed an unlikely love as well, and end up winning even more money through her "performance" as an obedient wife. In any case, Shakespeare plays with
expectations of marriage as a money-making scheme.