By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’: this phrase has become proverbial, its origins less famous than its meaning. But even the meaning of this pithy line, which is so recognisable as to be shortened to the four words ‘hell hath no fury’ without its meaning being lost, is not without its surprising aspects.
But we’ll come to that, and why the ‘fury’ of ‘hell hath no fury’ is often misunderstood – or at best, only half-understood.
‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’: phrase meaning
The meaning of the phrase is at once easily understood and all-too-easily misunderstood. In common usage, ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’ means that nothing in the world – or even beyond the world, such as in the depths of hell – is as furious and capable of great anger as a woman who has been ‘scorned’.
‘Scorned’ here means ‘slighted’, ‘ridiculed’, ‘spurned’, or shown contempt or disdain. A woman who has been treated in such a scornful manner is capable of such anger that even hell, the fiery seat of evil, cannot match it for its destructive power.
But there’s another word whose meaning we need to consider. What does ‘fury’ mean in ‘Hell hath no fury’?
In the context of the phrase, ‘fury’ carries another meaning in addition to the usual definition (wild or violent anger). Because there’s possibly also a mythological meaning, or allusion, intended.
The Furies, or Erinyes (pronounced ‘i-rin-i-eez’, with the stress on the second syllable), were female deities in ancient Greek mythology. They were ‘chthonic’, meaning that they were associated with the Underworld, or Hades. They are sometimes known as the Eumenides, a term most familiar to us because it is the name given to the third and final play in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, his trilogy of tragic plays about Agamemnon and Clytemnestra and their children.
In the Iliad, his great epic poem about the final days of the Trojan War, Homer tells us that the Erinyes dwelt ‘under earth’ and took vengeance on men, especially men who had sworn a false oath.
So, because the Furies were both female and associated with the pagan underworld (or ‘hell’, if you will), it’s likely that when the phrase ‘hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’ was first used, ‘fury’ was intended to refer to the Furies, rather than simply a bout of uncontrollable rage.
Or, to put the phrase in slightly different words, ‘there is not a Fury, or member of the Erinyes, in Hell or the Underworld who is more formidable than a mortal woman who has been slighted (usually by a man).’
‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’: phrase origin
But when was the phrase first used? We have to go back to 1697, and a play which is not much read, or performed, now.
‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’ is one of two famous quotations from a largely forgotten Restoration play by William Congreve, The Mourning Bride (1697). The other line which is often quoted from Congreve’s play is ‘Music has charms to sooth a savage breast.’ This is often misquoted as ‘Music hath charms to soothe a savage beast’ (and ‘soothe’, in fact’, is often spelled as ‘sooth’ in printings of the play).
But curiously, ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’ is itself a slight misquotation.
The actual quotation which inspired the famous line ‘hell hath no fury’ is found right at the end of Act III of the play. Fittingly, the relevant line is spoken by one of the female characters: Zara, a captive queen, who addresses the words to a prison guard:
As you’ll answer it, take heed
This Slave commit no Violence upon
Himself. I’ve been deceiv’d. The Publick Safety
Requires he should be more confin’d; and none,
No not the Princes self, permitted to
Confer with him. I’ll quit you to the King.
Vile and ingrate! too late thou shalt repent
The base Injustice thou hast done my Love:
Yes, thou shalt know, spite of thy past Distress …
And finally, we come to three lines which conclude Act III of the play and form a rhyming triplet:
And all those Ills which thou so long hast mourn’d;
Heav’n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn’d,
Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorn’d.
In some editions of the play, the parenthetical line ‘(Hell hath no Fury like a Woman scorned)’ is added after this triplet, to form a quatrain (quadlet?).
The sentiment which is expressed in the phrase ‘hell hath no fury’ was already around when Congreve wrote The Mourning Bride. In fact, one year before his play was performed on the London stage, Colley Cibber’s play Love’s Last Shift (1696) had appeared, with the line, ‘He shall find no Fiend in Hell can match the fury of a disappointed Woman!’
But Congreve’s ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’ – or at least, the words he wrote which gave rise to that slightly abridged, pithier version – is the one that took off, while Cibber’s less punchy rendering of the same idea was destined to be forgotten, much like Cibber himself, whose name tends only to be known in the context of footnotes to the work of Alexander Pope, who mocked and satirised him.