Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned


No one is angrier than a woman who has been rejected in love. This proverb is adapted from a line in the play The Mourning Bride, by William Congreve, an English author of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. (See also Music has charms to soothe a savage breast.)

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Words nearby Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

BEHIND THE PHRASE

What does Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned mean?

No, this one’s not a Shakespeare quote. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned is a proverb adapted from lines in The Mourning Bride, a tragic play by English playwright William Congreve first performed in 1697. The lines are said by the character Zara, a queen whose capture entangles her in a lethal love triangle.

The expression is interpreted to mean that no one is as angry as a woman who has been romantically rejected or betrayed. The saying is somewhat controversial, as some reference it to affirm the power of women, while others see it as a sexist stereotype of women as overemotional.

Where does Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned come from?

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned comes from the 1697 tragedy The Mourning Bride by the English playwright William Congreve. The play was popular in Congreve’s day, and it helped establish his career.

Some backstory on Congreve: he was born in England in 1670, and was supported in his early writing by the famous poet and literary critic John Dryden. Congreve found success at the ripe old age of 23, when his first play The Old Bachelour was met with acclaim. Congreve’s sharp writing helped shape the comedy of manners, a type of dramatic comedy that satirizes the manners and customs of social class, especially as they concern romantic relationships.

Back to the quote and The Mourning Bride: we hope you’re sitting down, because this drama is juicy. In The Mourning Bride, Almeria, daughter of King Manuel of Granada, secretly marries Alphonso, son of her father’s enemy. The newlyweds get separated in a shipwreck, and a disguised Alphonso gets captured by King Manuel. Manuel also captures the Moorish Queen Zara. To complicate matters, Zara falls in love with Alphonso and pretends to fall in love with Manuel. Ultimately, Manuel is mistakenly executed by his own orders, Zara kills herself, and Alphonso overthrows the government and is reunited with Almeria. Whoa.

During Act 3, Scene 2, Zara discovers Alphonso and Almeria together, and says in a fit of jealousy and vengeance:

Heav’n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn’d,
Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorn’d.

Zara laments the pains of love and romance using the duality of heaven and hell as metaphor and hyperbole. (Wow, that kind of sounds like a thesis statement, doesn’t it?!)

Now, let’s break down her language. Rage means “anger” or “violent passion.” Fury is similar, denoting an especially “wild anger.” Scorned, here, refers to a woman who was rejected or betrayed in love. A modern update might read:

Such a violent passion – like when love turns to hate – is unknown to Heaven. 
Nor does hell know as violent an anger as when a woman is rejected.

OK, we’ll leave the poetry to Congreve, but its sentiment is clear: Beware the woman who’s been snubbed by a lover. Her anger is a force to be reckoned with.

Congreve may have been influenced by a line from fellow playwright Colley Cibber, whose 1696 play Love’s Last Shift features: “He shall find no Fiend in Hell can match the fury of a disappointed Woman! Scorned! Slighted! Dismissed without a parting Pang!” And speaking of The Mourning Bride, the play also gives us the popular quote, “Music has charms to soothe a savage breast.” Yes, breast, but that’s a story for a different day.

Now, you may have noticed that the proverb we quote today isn’t exactly what Congreve wrote. The written record suggests Congreve’s verse was becoming popularly paraphrased in the 1800s. The substitution of hath, an archaic form of has, is found by the late 1800s, possibly meant to make the expression sound more elevated or authoritative by making it sound older.

How is Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned used in real life?

Today, people may quote the whole proverb or just parts of it. Some reference only the first part, Hell hath no fury, to characterize feelings of rage in general, regardless of gender and relationships.

 

Others reference just the second part, like a woman scorned. This is sometimes done to imply someone is acting irrational, overemotional, or “crazy”—like a woman who has been rejected.

Um, yeah, men don’t necessarily take rejection any better than women, folks …

 

Stereotyping women as overly emotional in this way is sexist. That’s why some people find Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned outdated or offensive.

 

Others, however, find empowerment in the proverb, interpreting it to mean women stand up for themselves—and you best get out of their way.

Congreve may have been surprised to learn that, hundreds of years later, his line is still applied to the many messes of romance. While it’s not considered Literature with a capital L, it’s still some serious drama. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned was notably quoted in 2015 on the family law reality TV show Lauren Lake’s Paternity Court.

Comedian Steve Harvey quoted the expression in his popular daytime variety TV show in 2016, in a segment about women getting back on their cheating men.

Further showing the reach of the proverb, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned has inspired a variety of titles in popular media. To name just a few:

  • Hell Hath No Fury is a 1953 crime novel by Charles William.
  • Hell Hath No Fury is a 2006 Clipse hip-hop album.
  • Hell Hath No Fury Like A Woman Scorned is a 2014 American musical play created, written, produced, and directed by Tyler Perry.