News this week that the late Princess Diana may have conspired against her ex-husband by sending palace phone books to the press is a potent reminder of Congreve’s words “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” Long before he penned that line in his poem The Mourning Bride in 1697 another writer, Juvenal, had said,”It is always a paltry, feeble, tiny mind that takes pleasure in revenge.” Exempting his own sex, he went on, ” You can deduce it without further evidence that this: that no one delights in revenge more than a woman.” Clearly he was an unreconstructed male, but then again, he was a Roman. Is there any evidence that women seek revenge more than men do? Not at all. It is an emotion everyone experiences and understands.
“The penchant for revenge” says Michael McCullough, a Miami psychologist, “under certain circumstances is within all of us.” In fact, men will retaliate more than women, but they choose overt tactics. This, for example, is a classic sample of female justice.
Broken hearts and dreams are outside the remit of conventional justice, and this may be why women have perhaps been conceived to have cornered the market in the art form of revenge. Cads and bounders, cheaters and liars cannot be prosecuted despite the damage they do. Meeting at dawn with a pair of pistols has not been a historical option to settle such scores. Instant retaliation with a blunt or sharp instrument does not tend to be women’s way, although the exception of Lorena Bobbit does spring to mind. Even there, she had a long time to build up to her act of excision. Patience and imagination are more often features of their subtle techniques to extract some payback for wrongdoing, and in fact, there is neurological satisfaction for that, as shall be seen later.
Princess Diana was not intending to supply the British tabloid with access to internal phone numbers. Instead, she was allegedly aiming to show the size of the Prince Charles household staff as compared to her own, and the forces she thus felt assembled against her. At the core of the crisis she was in, was the long-term realization that the man she had married would always be in love with someone else.
Louis May Alcott, she of the homely story Little Women, wrote that, “There are fates more terrible than death, weapons more keen than poniards, more noiseless than pistols. Women use such, and work out a subtler vengeance than men can conceive.”
They do. But it doesn’t always go according to plan. When Vicky Pryce went sent to prison last year for accepting her husband’s speeding points on her driving license, many were reminded of a Greek tragedy. She was definitely aiming for that subtler vengeance. She told the editor of a Sunday newspaper that, “I definitely want to nail him, more so than ever really.” But because she was the one who made this revelation, it did come back to bite her. He, Chris Huhne, and she both got done for perverting the course of justice. He had left her after 26 years of marriage for a bi-sexual aide. She did manage to ruin her ex, but she got caught up in the trap she had laid for him and they both ended up in jail. Family revelations and private texts which should have never become public were exposed and used in evidence. “Revenge eats you up,” said Huhne afterwards, “It does worse things to you than the person you are trying to attack.” Pryce, who is of Greek birth, had turned into a Fury.
The Ancient Greeks had their very own goddess for revenge, Nemesis, and many strong female characters in Greek tragedy who extracted extraordinary revenges, perhaps none more ferocious than Medea. Then, Clytemnestra had a pretty good run. But they’re not the only civilization of old to have thrown up women revenge warriors. Vietnamese sisters, Trung Trac and Trung Nhi led an uprising for independence back in 40 AD. They were spurred into battle by the killing of Thi Sach, Trung Trac’s husband. With an all-female army 80,000 strong they beat back the Chinese and became rulers. A later counter attack saw them defeated and they both committed suicide but as revenge heroines go, they have earned immortality by a day in their honor, February 6th when their bravery is remembered. They paid with their lives for this tribute, but at least they did not have to pay with their children’s lives like Medea, or slay a husband like Clytemnestra.
Chiomara, a Chieftain’s wife from Galatia in 189 BC, according to the account by Polybius was taken captive by a centurion who “with a soldier’s brutality, did violence to her.” She managed to get his head cut off and wrap it in her dress. When reunited with her husband she threw it down declaring “Only one man who has lain with me will stay alive.” She got her revenge all right, but then presumably spent the rest of her married life with a man who was ever so slightly terrified of her.
YaVaughanie Wilkins went for visual revenge in her upset on learning that lover of eight years Charles Phillips was thinking of going back to his wife in 2010. Forking out $150,000 she paid for huge billboards in Times Square to out the fact that she and the former adviser to Obama had long been intimate. To highlight the point, she used the tagline “You are my soul mate forever.” Not content with informing the New Yorkers she also put up prominent posters in San Francisco and Atlanta. A link to a website led to further proof of the affair including love letters and mementoes. Phillips had to resign from his job and his place on the President’s council, but he is still back with his wife and son.
YaVaughnie did not give up entirely, she went on to make a documentary The Glamorous Lie which screened at the Harlem Film Festival in 2012, despite cease and desist letters form Phillips and his lawyers. Unlike her billboards, it was not seen by many.
Going on-screen to broadcast grievances was also employed by Princess Diana in her 1995 Panorama interview, her tit-for-tat televised response to Charles’s film with Jonathan Dimbleby where he admitted adultery. In both instances the actions were unprecedented, but they did nothing to alleviate the unhappiness. If anything, they probably just bolstered support for whichever camp viewers were already in and paved the way for the royal divorce. Revenge is so personal, that reaching out to others for sympathy is often fairly pointless.
On the big screen, the stakes have to be high for the drama to sustain three acts. Revenge is a great dramatic emotion to exploit. Betrayal can be a plot device as in Vanilla Sky or vengeance against attack like Kill Bill. Sometimes, as with Jodie Foster in The Brave One, the only solution to male violence is to counter it with even more and worse violence and going on a shooting spree. Foster again, in The Accused adopts different tactic, taking on her enemies in the courtroom. Julia Roberts in Sleeping with the Enemy learns to swim and fakes her own death and Jennifer Lopez in Enough becomes a fighter. Women revenger protagonists have to be pro-active in films, as sneaky plotting is not very exciting to watch. One of the scariest avengers in cinema history was played by Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. What began as a casual one night stand culminates into a twisted attack on a family’s pet bunny. Female revenge in the movies comes in many guises, but almost never with a Hollywood happy ending.
Back in real life, without the resources of screenwriters and camera crews, women still manage to create ways to wreak revenge. From the fairly tame cutting up and throwing out of clothes and precious possessions to the less obvious odiferous substances behind radiators and entire rooms sprinkled with water and mustard cress seed. One especially devious lady stuffed a curtain pole with prawns. Spray paint has become a weapon in modern times, with slogans on cars a favorite choice. The internet has also come into play, with sign up to dubious online chat rooms, and Facebook exposes. Having an ex who knows your passwords is now a real hazard.
It is found that the desire for revenge comes from the part of the brain called the dorsal striatum. It is the same place the desire for reward resides. Getting payback on someone perceived to have done us harm is a primordial instinct. From a feeling of powerlessness and hurt, revenge can bring a short-term satisfaction. This is a strange satisfaction as so often, as the cases above demonstrate, it brings little or no direct or practical benefit to the meter-outer. Ergo, it is thoroughly irrational from the point of self-interest. Passion may inspire revenge, but as in the old French saying “Revenge is a dish best served cold”, it is not the sole motivator. Rather, scientists suggest, it is the anticipation of the punishment that causes the biggest activation in the dorsal striatum. This may explain the lengths of time spent plotting before enacting the deeds.
A 2004 study at the University of Zurich corroborated other researches by showing that the thoughts and plans of revenge – the anticipation – was in fact a great deal more pleasurable than the doing,which often made people feel worse. Evolotionary psychology points to revenge being hard-wired as a survival instinct to deflect future harm, which is why it resides with the reward systems in the brain. Robert Bies who wrote the book Getting Even: The Truth About Workplace Revenge found that women are indeed more inclined towards covert sabotage. The academic work on revenge focuses on work and money. There is scant research in the field of relationship revenge.
There is no doubt that desire for revenge is as old as time, but is it, and can it ever be, sweet? Much of the prevailing wisdom says not. “A man that studies revenge keeps his own wounds green” said Francis Bacon, and more recently, Frank Sinatra coined another well-known phrase “The best revenge is massive success.” These maxims are true for men and for women.
“While seeking revenge, dig two graves – one for yourself.” Years after those phone books were allegedly delivered to the offices of the now defunct News of the World newspaper, Clive Goodman stands in the Old Bailey accused of obtaining them by illegal payment. Reputations can go on being tarnished. The repercussions of revenge can be long-lasting and very often much more bittersweet than sweet. Another poet, John Milton, summarises neatly, “Revenge, though sweet, Bitter ere on itself recoils.” Paradise Lost, is just that, and no amount of revenge will ever get it back.
By Kate Henderson