The UVic Writer's Guide

Poetic Justice

Poetic justice is a term invented by the critic Thomas Rymer in the late seventeenth century to describe the proper moral resolution that he believed drama or narrative should have. That is, unlike the often random justice in real life, literary plots should end with the reward of the good and the punishment of the evil.

Obviously, such an outcome greatly narrows the scope of literature, for one thing making tragic error (hamartia) and catharsis impossible. It is the kind of ending which Aristotle blamed people for preferring, ascribing its preference to their "weakness." In Shakespeare's King Lear, it is highly ironic when Albany tries to establish some kind of poetic justice while Lear grieves over the body of the innocent Cordelia:

"All friends shall taste / The wages of their virtue, and all foes / The cup of their deservings."

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Copyright, The Department of English, University of Victoria, 1995
This page updated September 23, 1995