Poetic Justice

divine comedy by seymour chwast

Poetic justice is a literary device in which virtue is ultimately rewarded or vice punished, often in modern literature by an ironic twist of fate intimately related to the character’s own conduct. English drama critic Thomas Rymer coined the phrase in ‘The Tragedies of the Last Age Considere’d’ (1678) to describe how a work should inspire proper moral behavior in its audience by illustrating the triumph of good over evil.

The demand for poetic justice is consistent in Classical authorities and shows up in Horace, Plutarch, and Quintillian, so Rymer’s phrasing is a reflection of a commonplace. Philip Sidney, in ‘Defense of Poetry,’ argued that poetic justice was, in fact, the reason that fiction should be allowed in a civilized nation.

Notably, poetic justice does not merely require that vice be punished and virtue rewarded, but also that logic triumph. If, for example, a character is dominated by greed for most of a romance or drama, he cannot become generous. The action of a play, poem, or fiction must obey the rules of logic as well as morality, and when the humor theory was dominant poetic justice was part of the justification for humor plays. During the late 17th century, critics pursuing a neo-classical standard would criticize William Shakespeare in favor of Ben Jonson precisely on the grounds that Shakespeare’s characters change during the course of the play. When Restoration comedy, in particular, flouted poetic justice by rewarding libertines and punishing dull-witted moralists, there was a backlash in favor of drama, in particular, of more strict moral correspondence.

The self-fulfilling prophecy can be considered an early example of poetic justice. One example of this is the ancient Sanskrit story of Krishna, where King Kamsa is told in a prophecy that a child of his sister Devaki would kill him. In order to prevent it, he imprisons both Devaki and her husband Vasudeva, allowing them to live only if they hand over their children as soon as they are born. He murders nearly all of them one by one, but the eighth child, Krishna, is saved and raised by a cowherd couple, Nanda and Yasoda. After growing up and returning to his kingdom, Krishna eventually kills Kamsa. In other words, Kamsa’s cruelty in order to prevent his death is what led to him being killed.

The story of Esther includes two instances of poetic justice, both involving Haman. Ultimately, Haman is executed on the gallows that he had prepared for Esther’s cousin Mordecai. Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ reads like a compendium of examples of poetic justice. Almost every episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’ features poetic justice, usually due to an ironic twist. Some caper films end with poetic justice, when a criminal gang’s takings of a well planned heist are lost in a manner that is usually not quite their own fault, in complete opposition to the perfect execution of the crime itself. A striking example are the last minutes of ‘Mélodie en Sous-sol’ (‘Any Number Can Win) or the original versions of ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ and ‘The Italian Job.’

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