From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
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, and when the humour 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. (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.
- "For 'tis the sport to have the engineer / Hoist with his own petard." (Shakespeare, Hamlet (III.iv.207).)
- 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.
- An interesting and unusual example of poetic justice is found in Dr Pradhan's Sahitya Akademi award-winning poem Equation where the economic-sexual exploiters of poor tribals in Kalahandi, (Orissa) get paid back in their own coin when they get afflicted with various maladies and sexually transmitted diseases.
- 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.
Examples in television and film
- 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 Back to the Future 2, when Marty McFly is on the roof top of Biff's Casino & Hotel, Biff issues a nod to poetic justice before admitting to killing Marty's father, George Mcfly, with the same gun he intends to kill Marty with.
- 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 or the original versions of Ocean's Eleven and The Italian Job.
- In the television series Avatar: The Last Airbender, several characters find poetic justice. This is most noticeable in the episode The Southern Raiders, in which a character who killed two main characters' mother lives with his own mother in retirement, who is angry and constantly berating and talking down to him.
- In the film Cruel Intentions, Kathryn, who has been holding up an image of purity, innocence, and popularity while actually being manipulative, deceitful, and two-faced, is exposed at the end of the film due to the diary of her stepbrother Sebastian, who had just recently died.
- 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...) ends up with most of the gang killed, the money scattered by the wind at the airport, causing the mastermind to be arrested just when he was about to flee the country.
- In the TV series 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?"