BENEDICK Do you question me, as an honest man should do, for my simple true judgment? Or would you have me speak after my custom, as being a professed tyrant to their sex? (1.1.162-165)
Benedick admits that he has a thing against the entire female gender and tends to go on anti-women tirades. However, he notes that he’s capable of "simple, true judgment" of particular women, which isn’t necessarily touched by his general woman-hating spiel. It’s interesting that he has two different lenses through which he can view women, while probably only one through which he views men.
Act II, Scene i
LEONATO Well, niece, I hope to see you one day fitted with a husband. BEATRICE Not till God make men of some other metal than earth. Would it not grieve a woman to be overmastered with a piece of valiant dust? To make an account of her life to a clod of wayward marl? No, uncle, I'll none. Adam's sons are my brethren, and truly I hold it a sin to match in my kinred. (2.1.57-64)
This is a brilliant statement from a gendered point of view. Beatrice first uses "man" in the general sense (as in mankind), but she finally comes around to admitting the gender inequality inherent in marriage. She plays on the notion that all mankind is ashes to ashes dust to dust, so it isn’t fitting that a woman should be ruled by a man (who is in the end only dust). The capstone to this deliciously incisive commentary is Beatrice’s assertion that all of Adam’s sons are her brothers, and she’d commit the sin of incest to marry them.
She doesn’t actually believe she’s a blood-sister with all men—incest is just the easiest way to write off marrying any man. In claiming all Adam’s sons as her brothers, and admitting that all humankind is dust together, Beatrice has threaded together the argument that men and women are kindred and equal—they are made of the same material (earth, dust), return to being the same after death, and together they are all God’s children.
It’s a fantastic insight that adds to Beatrice’s many reasons for not marrying—she is unwilling to be subservient to one of her equals (a man), which it seems she’d have to do if she were married. (It’s particularly juicy that Benedick also worries about giving up his independence and freedom by getting married. Though Beatrice has more cause to worry as far as losing freedom, we’re beginning to see Shakespeare draw parallels between the two characters.)
Act II, Scene iii
Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more, Men were deceivers ever, One foot in sea and one on shore, To one thing constant never. Then sigh not so, but let them go, And be you blithe and bonny, Converting all your sounds of woe Into Hey, nonny nonny. (2.3.64-71)
Balthasar sings that men are faithless dogs, but rather than chide them to be better, Balthasar’s song suggests that the remedy lies in women changing their paradigms about men. If women would simply decide to accept that men are awful, then they’d never get hurt by their cheating husbands/lovers (and men could continue to behave badly without any hassle). The notion here is that men should not have to change (a "boys will be boys" idea), women should change (their perspective on men) to accommodate their men.
BENEDICK One woman is fair, yet I am well; another is wise, yet I am well; another virtuous, yet I am well; but till all graces be in one woman, one woman shall not come in my grace. Rich she shall be, that's certain; wise, or I'll none; virtuous, or I'll never cheapen her; fair, or I'll never look on her; mild, or come not near me; noble, or not I for an angel; of good discourse, an excellent musician, and her hair shall be of what color it please God. Ha, the Prince and Monsieur Love! I will hide me in the arbor. (2.3.27-36)
Benedick lists off the qualities of an ideal woman; he says he can’t be tempted to love any woman unless she has all of womankind’s best qualities wrapped up into one. The woman Benedick dreams of is an idealized (and unrealistic) version of women. He must think pretty highly of himself to believe he deserves such a woman. Also, it’s interesting here that he doesn’t seem to be against the idea of marrying, so long as he’d by wedding a perfect girl. (Thankfully, he grows up and marries Beatrice).
Act III, Scene iv
HERO God give me joy to wear it, for my heart is exceeding heavy. (3.4.24-25)
Is it surprising that Hero’s not stoked on her wedding day? Not really, considering she’s never even really spoken to Claudio as far as we know. In addition, Hero’s been told what to do by her father for her whole life, and given what we know about old school marriage, she’s about to transition into being told what to do by her husband for the rest of her life. This is a function of her marriage, but it’s also a fact of her gender; women held a special role in marriage of being the ones that were taken by their husbands (both literally and figuratively), and that’s an awful lot to chew on.
Act IV, Scene i
LEONATO Dear my lord, if you in your own proof Have vanquished the resistance of her youth, And made defeat of her virginity—
CLAUDIO I know what you would say: if I have known her, You will say she did embrace me as a husband, And so extenuate the forehand sin. No, Leonato, I never tempted her with word too large, But, as a brother to his sister, showed Bashful sincerity and comely love. (4.1.46-55)
This is an important reminder that a woman’s virginity was central to making her marriageable in Shakespeare’s day. Leonato tries to cover for his child, saying if perhaps Hero gave her virginity to Claudio before the wedding, it was only because she was already thinking of Claudio as her husband. This is a crucial point: while women like Beatrice might be equal to men like Benedick in wit, there were still some areas of gender equality that had not yet been conceived of. A woman’s virginity was the crux of her marriage, and her future husband could reject her as worthless without it, no matter how wonderful or brilliant she was.
CLAUDIO Let me but move one question to your daughter, And by that fatherly and kindly power That you have in her, bid her answer truly. LEONATO I charge thee do so, as thou art my child. HERO O, God defend me! How am I beset!—
What kind of catechizing call you this? (4.1.77-82)
This is a difficult passage to read, as it’s the first instance where Leonato chooses Claudio’s word over his daughter’s. He demands that Hero answer Claudio’s question, indicating that he’s already trusting Claudio instead of defending his daughter. Ultimately, this episode is sickening because of our intuition that Leonato’s role—because he knows his daughter and her honor—is to stand up for her, not to indulge Claudio in this public spectacle.
Hero’s reputation is on the line, and in the end, as a woman, her word isn’t worth much against a man’s. This episode reminds us of the constant cuckoldry jests in the play. Though they were jokes, they seriously refer to the distrust men had for their wives, and we’d bet it also makes them hesitate to stand up for their daughters.
BENEDICK Surely I do believe your fair cousin is wronged. BEATRICE Ah, how much might the man deserve of me that would right her! BENEDICK Is there any way to show such friendship? BEATRICE A very even way, but no such friend. BENEDICK May a man do it? BEATRICE It is a man's office, but not yours. (4.1.273-280)
It’s interesting that Beatrice can’t enact her plan to avenge her cousin because she’s a woman. You might think she would’ve come up with some scheme she could do herself (because she’s so independent and strong-willed), but this seems one of those rare chances when Beatrice admits that she’s unable. There’s no discussion of why her plan needs to be executed by a man, but even for Beatrice there’s an implicit understanding that some work is done by women, and some by men.
BEATRICE Princes and counties! Surely a princely testimony, a goodly count, Count Comfect, a sweet gallant, surely! O, that I were a man for his sake! Or that I had any friend would be a man for my sake! But manhood is melted into curtsies, valor into compliment, and men are only turned into tongue, and trim ones, too. He is now as valiant as Hercules that only tells a lie and swears it. I cannot be a man with wishing; therefore I will die a woman with grieving. (4.1.329-338)
With Benedick as her only audience, Beatrice berates all men for being complete wimps. If Benedick didn’t get the picture before, he does now: Beatrice needs a manly man. Beatrice rails against what manliness has come to in these days of courtly pomp, and it’s not a flattering picture. It’s interesting that Benedick has spent all this time up to now indulging in similar rantings against all the courtly niceties of love (using Claudio as a prime example).
Now that Benedick has fallen in love, he’s provided a chance to prove that he’s different from other lovers who were transformed by love into sighing idiots (like Claudio). Especially now that Claudio has turned out to be faithless and cruel, Benedick can show that there are different ways to love than the stupid courtly formalities, which he’s not good at anyway. This could be Benedick’s big break.