The play opens with a beggar named Christopher Sly getting thrown out of a bar by a hostess. Sly refuses to pay for some glasses he broke, and the hostess leaves to get a constable. Sly drunkenly falls asleep.
The comedy begins with a poor beggar, already suggesting that social class and hierarchy will be important issues in this play.
A wealthy Lord enters, having just finished a hunting trip, along with several hunstmen. He notices the sleeping Sly and decides to play a prank on him. He wonders if the beggar would "forget himself" (Induction 1.43) if the Lord had him carried away to a bed, dressed him in expensive clothes, and gave him an entourage of attendants. He tells the hunters to do this and to address Sly as "your Honor" and "your Lordship." He tells them to pretend that Sly has been mad recently, and has forgotten that he was "a mighty lord," (Induction 1.68). They carry Sly off-stage.
This is the first example of a nobleman abusing or poking fun at a lower-class character. In addition, the lord's prank illustrates the fluidity of identity. By merely putting on different clothes and being treated differently by those around him, Christopher Sly will think that he is an entirely different person.
A band of traveling players (that is, actors) arrive. The Lord asks them to perform for a lord (Sly). He then orders a servant to tell his page Bartholomew to dress like a woman and pretend to be Sly's wife. The Lord exits, excited for the practical joke and hoping that no one will spoil it by giving away the joke with laughter.
Bartholemew dressing up as a woman illustrates that performance and appearances are especially important in displaying gender identity and gender roles. The lord's planning of an elaborate prank with costumes and fictional characters (such as Sly's supposed wife) mirrors the process of putting on a play like The Taming of the Shrew.