Poetic justice

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Poetic justice is a literary device in which ultimately virtue is rewarded and viciousness is punished. In modern literature[citation needed] it is often accompanied by an ironic twist of fate related to the character's own action.[1]

Origin of the term

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 behaviour 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.

History of the notion

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. 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. (See Shakespeare's reputation for more on the Shakespeare/Jonson dichotomy.) 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.



It Shoots Further Than He Dreams by John F. Knott, March 1918

Television and film

  • In the South Park episode "Chicken Lover", Kyle declares, "It's poetic justice" after Officer Barbrady gets his job back as Police Officer once he learns to read. It's poetic justice in that he learned to read because of the Booktastic Bus driver, who was making love to the town's chickens in a plot to force Barbrady to learn how to read. Barbrady's newfound literacy then allowed him to catch the very same chicken-lover in the act.
  • The Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoons feature repeated instances of poetic justice, as Wile E. Coyote always sets traps for Road Runner, only to end up in the traps himself.
  • Poetic justice is referred to in The Simpsons episode "Boy Scoutz N the Hood." When Bart returns home from a Junior Campers meeting Homer asks "How was jerk practice, boy? Did they teach you how to sing to trees and build crappy furniture out of useless wooden logs?" The chair that Homer is sitting on then breaks and he declares "D'oh! Stupid poetic justice."
  • In the film Batman Returns, The Penguin informs his traitorous cohort Max Shreck, that he will be killed in a pool of the toxic byproducts from his "clean" textile plant. The Penguin goes on to wonder if this is tragic irony or poetic justice.
  • In the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indy's love interest Dr. Elsa Schneider is a Nazi agent. After this revelation, she tries fooling Indy and others saying, "I believe in the grail, not the swastika." Yet, she continues working with the Nazis and Walter Donovan. She tricks Donovan into drinking from the false grail and he dies a horrible death. In the end, poetic justice comes in the form of her death. She tries stealing the grail and triggers an earthquake. Indy grabs her hand before she falls into a bottomless pit. Yet, her greed overcomes her and she reaches for the grail again, causing Indy to lose his grip on her. Indy's father, Henry Jones Sr., sums her death up, saying, "Elsa never really believed in the grail. She thought she found a prize."
  • Disney films, most specifically animated films, often use poetic justice as an ending device (examples include The Lion King, Aladdin, and The Great Mouse Detective, among many others), with the hero being rewarded, and the villain being punished in ironic and, occasionally, fatal ways.
  • In the film, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, as well as in the short story and the musical, the titular character, Sweeney Todd, kills his customers with a razor blade. In a twist of the story, at the end, having assassinated the Judge and the Beadle, Todd is killed by Toby, a boy he kept with Mrs. Lovett, with his own razor blade, while Mrs. Lovett, who bakes the dead customers into meat pies, is thrown into her own oven to bake to death by Todd.
  • In the film The Killing, after a very carefully planned—and at first successful robbery—a series of unexpected side events (an unfaithful and greedy wife, a too weak suitcase...) results in most of the gang killed, and the money scattered by the wind at the airport. This causes the mastermind to be arrested just when he was about to flee the country.
  • In The X-Files episode "Darkness Falls", Mulder theorizes that a group of missing loggers are victims of attacks by extinct insects released from dormancy when the loggers cut down a 700-year-old tree. An environmental activist named Doug Spinney, who previously exposed the cut-down tree as one deliberately marked to be protected, then remarks, "That would be rather poetic justice, don't you think? Unleashing the very thing that would end up killing them?"

See also


  1. ^ Manuela Gertz (July 2010). Poetic Justice in William Faulkner's Absalom Absalom. GRIN Verlag. p. 4–. ISBN 978-3-640-66116-9. Retrieved 20 May 2013. 
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