Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Poetic (In-)Justice in Comedy *1

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Poetic (In-)Justice in Comedy *1

Article excerpt

Tragedy, Comedy, and Poetic Justice

The term poetic justice (or poetical justice) was first introduced in Thomas Rymer's The Tragedies of the Last Age Consider'd in 1677,2 summed up by Abrams as "the distribution, at the end of a literary work, of earthly rewards and punishments in proportion to the virtue or vice of the various characters" (Abrams 299-300). While discussing the history of ancient tragedy, partly based on Aristotle's Poetics, and before moving on to discuss the tragedies of the last age, Rymer declares that the "unequal distribution of rewards and punishments did perplex the wisest," and that "a Poet must of necessity see justice exactly administred, if he intended to please" (Rymer 22).3 Rymer's statement that the principle of poetic justice is of necessity for tragedy is highly questionable; he regards the outcome of ancient tragedy as "rewards" and "punishments"-which they were never meant to be. Tragedy's plot arouses in its audience, among other things, pity for the fate of the tragic hero, and such pity arises because the tragic hero is punished beyond what he or she deserves. Hence, tragedy illustrates, almost as a rule, a disproportionate distribution of punishment. In Abrams's apt formulation, Rymer's insistence on poetic justice would "destroy the possibility of tragic suffering, which exceeds what the protagonist has deserved because of his or her tragic flaw, or error of judgment" (Abrams 300). Rymer was not interested in describing tragic heroes or the actual emotional effects of tragedy. Rather, he was inter ested, first and foremost, in advocating tragedy's didactic, or theological-didactic, value and in expressing his disappointment when he could not find this didactic function fulfilled.4 This is the motivation behind his complex (and ultimately unconvincing) arguments about the place of poetic justice in tragedy.

Notwithstanding Rymer's arguments, the literary genre that seems to illustrate the principle of poetic justice most clearly is not tragedy but, rather, comedy.5 In comedy's happy ending the "good guys" (comprised of the loving couple and their party) are rewarded, and the "bad guys" (comprised of all those who had stood in their way) are punished. While we side with the loving couple, their desired union acquires a positive moral dimension: we like them not only because they are young and beautiful but also because their union is perceived as "the right thing to do," i.e. as morally justifiable. The pleasure that the audience takes in the happy ending of comedy, the reason why we leave the theatre smiling, is closely associated with the impression that justice has been served: the good guys and the bad guys both get what they deserve. If at a comedy's ending the loving couple were not rewarded (i.e. united with society's approval), or if a character who had threatened the lovers' union was rewarded instead, the very application of the title "comedy" to such a play will be put into question.6

A closer look at comedy's characters, however, reveals a more complicated picture regarding the relationship between virtue, vice, and a happy ending: comedy's good guys are often not entirely virtuous; and sometimes the only sin committed by comedy's bad guys is that they have been planted in a comic plot. Contrary to an audience's possible impression, comedy's happy ending is not based on solid moral grounds ("they got what they deserved") but on a powerful emotion, morally neutral, that drives us to side with the loving couple. Thus, my main argument is that comedy's happy ending often bestows on different characters rewards and punishments disproportionate to their actual virtues or sins.

Rewarding Flawed Characters: Shakespeare's Sir Toby and Bassanio

Suppose that we are given the following short descriptions of two characters: (1) a drunk who is also a conniving, egotistic leech; and (2) an irresponsible squanderer who puts at risk his loving friend and benefactor. …

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