BENEDICK The savage bull may; but if ever the sensible Benedick bear it, pluck off the bull's horns and set them in my forehead, and let me be vilely painted, and in such great letters as they write "Here is good horse to hire," let them signify under my sign "Here you may see Benedick the married man." (1.1.257-262)
Benedick equates marriage with being whipped, tamed, and cuckolded. Marrying would mean sacrificing his independence and breaking his pride, and Benedick finds the prospect of losing either foolish. It’s a strong enough intuition to sour him on marriage altogether.
BENEDICK Is 't come to this? In faith, hath not the world one man but he will wear his cap with suspicion? Shall I never see a bachelor of threescore again? Go to, i' faith, an thou wilt needs thrust thy neck into a yoke, wear the print of it, and sigh away Sundays. (1.1.193-198)
Benedick laments that marriage turns great men into pathetic idiots.
BENEDICK But I hope you have no intent to turn husband, have you? CLAUDIO I would scarce trust myself, though I had sworn the contrary, if Hero would be my wife. (1.1.189-192)
This is one of the first times that marriage is spoken of explicitly, and it’s presented as an object of unwitting deception. Claudio apparently has been as anti-marriage as Benedick, but now that he wants to marry Hero, he notes that even he can’t trust his own word.
Act II, Scene i
PEDRO She cannot endure to hear tell of a husband. LEON O, by no means. She mocks all her wooers out of suit. PEDRO She were an excellent wife for Benedick. (2.1.340-343)
As Beatrice tosses out Don Pedro’s marriage proposal, he realizes that the girl hasn’t married because she hasn’t found her equal in mockery and wit. As he wonders who could possibly stand up to her (and maybe by doing so, win her love), Benedick comes up as a natural choice. We’ve got to wonder whether he chooses Benedick because he really believes they could fall in love, or because he’d like to put Beatrice through a little suffering for not seriously considering him as a potential husband.
BEATRICE Just, if He send me no husband, for the which blessing I am at Him upon my knees every morning and evening. Lord, I could not endure a husband with a beard on his face. I had rather lie in the woolen! LEONATO You may light on a husband that hath no beard. BEATRICE What should I do with him? Dress him in my apparel and make him my waiting gentlewoman? He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man; and he that is more than a youth is not for me, and he that is less than a man, I am not for him. (2.1.27-39)
Beatrice denounces marriage in general, but you’ll note that she goes on to point out the particular flaws of particular men. We’re left to guess whether she is against the institution of marriage in principle, or whether she’s simply convinced she’ll never find the right man. (Or is her man-bashing a consolation prize because she hasn’t found anyone yet?) Lots of possibilities, but the point is, she’s not stoked about marriage.
BEATRICE Good Lord for alliance! Thus goes everyone to the world but I, and I am sunburnt. I may sit in a corner and cry 'Heigh-ho for a husband!' (2.1.311-313)
Beatrice jokes that she is unattractive and will never get a husband. (As though this were the sole reason she is still unmarried.) It’s also interesting to note that her "Good Lord, for alliance!" mirrors Benedick’s concern that he’ll never see another old bachelor—both of them seem to be sensitive to the fact that everyone is getting married, except for them.
LEONATO [to Hero] Daughter, remember what I told you. If the Prince do solicit you in that kind, you know your answer. (2.1.66-67)
Essentially, Leonato is saying, "You’ll know your answer because I told you your answer." Thus we add one more facet to the presentation of marriage in the play: it’s not necessarily an arrangement made out of love, but more like a transaction that can be worked upon and influenced by outside forces.
BENEDICK I would not marry her though she were endowed with all that Adam had left him before he transgressed. (2.1.247-249)
It’s notable that Benedick brings up marrying Beatrice, though no one else has even mentioned it. Stating so passionately that it’s not on his mind shows that, actually, it’s on his mind.
Act II, Scene iii
BENEDICK No! The world must be peopled. When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married. (2.3.244-246)
Benedick provides his first reason that marriage is actually quite necessary. Not for love or honor, but because it’s our duty to procreate.
Act III, Scene iv
BEATRICE 'Tis almost five o'clock, cousin. 'Tis time you were ready. By my troth, I am exceeding ill. Heigh-ho! (3.4.50-52)
Remember that the earlier Beatrice said she’d cry "heigh-ho," to find a husband. As Hero is off to her wedding, Beatrice likely itching for Benedick to be her own husband. Beatrice’s suddenly becoming ill mirrors her cousin’s sickness, but Beatrice seems to be sick for want of a husband, while Hero is about to be unwanted by a would-be husband.
HERO God give me joy to wear it, for my heart is exceeding heavy. (3.4.24-25)
It’s Hero’s wedding day, and she should be really excited, but she’s not. Some camps might interpret this to mean that her feelings foreshadow the ills that will befall her at her wedding. Those of us who don’t believe in psychics see some other, more practical reasons. She’s about to marry a man who she has not (at least not on stage) had a single conversation with. All the other characters of the play have spent a good deal of time talking about what marriage means to them, but we have yet to hear Hero’s thoughts on her own wedding.
MARGARET Of what, lady? of speaking honorably? Is not marriage honorable in a beggar? Is not your lord honorable without marriage? I think you would have me say 'Saving your reverence, a husband.' An bad thinking do not wrest true speaking, I'll offend nobody. Is there any harm in 'the heavier for a husband'? None, I think, an it be the right husband and the right wife. Otherwise 'tis light and not heavy. Ask my Lady Beatrice else. Here she comes. (3.4.29-38)
Margaret teases Hero while Hero is in bad spirits about marriage. Margaret’s celebration of marriage as honorable is couched in her bawdy allusion to sex, where one is made to feel a heavy burden (especially when one is lying under a husband). The base reality of sex is the starting point for Margaret to talk about honorable marriage, which makes marriage seem a little less stuffy.
Act V, Scene i
LEONATO I cannot bid you bid my daughter live—
That were impossible—but I pray you both, Possess the people in Messina here How innocent she died. And if your love Can labour aught in sad invention, Hang her an epitaph upon her tomb And sing it to her bones. Sing it tonight. Tomorrow morning come you to my house, And since you could not be my son-in-law, Be yet my nephew. My brother hath a daughter, Almost the copy of my child that's dead, And she alone is heir to both of us. Give her the right you should have giv'n her cousin, And so dies my revenge. (5.1.292-305)
This is preposterous. Leonato’s "punishment" for Claudio seems to be that Claudio gets a second chance at marrying into Leonato’s family. If Hero had really been dead, would this have been proposed as a solution? Does the play ever deal with Claudio getting off so easily? It seems like this punishment comments on marriage’s importance (that it could solve such a rift), but it also sheds some light on the role of women in marriages, especially as this "niece" is treated like an interchangeable part for the lost Hero.
Act V, Scene iv
BENEDICK Come, come, we are friends. Let's have a dance ere we are married, that we may lighten our own hearts and our wives' heels. LEONATO We'll have dancing afterward. BENEDICK First, of my word! Therefore play, music.—
This is a silly little scene that’s a bit bawdy: note that "light-heeled" is another way to say a woman is morally loose. Benedick teases that he’d like to dance with the women before the wedding, and make them light-heeled. Hence Leonato’s terse "Get married first!"
Benedick, perhaps to show that he’ll be mischievous even as a married man, insists on dancing first anyway. This is especially interesting given that Claudio has just teased that Benedick will have a wandering eye when married unless his wife keeps a close watch on him.
BENEDICK Friar, I must entreat your pains, I think. FRIAR To do what, signior? BENEDICK To bind me, or undo me, one of them.—
Though he loves Beatrice, Benedick still jokes about marriage, saying he’s not sure that their marriage won’t be his "undoing." This hesitation helps to make Benedick seem a believable character—he isn’t suddenly transformed into believing in marriage simply because he realized he’s capable of love. Again, the disconnect between love and marriage is evident.