Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (M.A.)



First Advisor

Gertrude M. Sibley


A complete study of the principle would take into consideration other literary types besides the drama, but since, historically, the drama takes precedence over those other types, and since the first important controversy on the subject arose in England in connection with tragedy, I have considered it best to limit the material undertaken here to that form of dramatic art. Further than that, the study will be limited to some of the leading tragedies of the Elizabethian age, excluding those of Shakespeare, for it was the use or misuse of poetic justice in these plays which formed the basis of the famous Dennis-Addison controversy in the early eighteenth century. Poetic justice had become a highly formalized idea by that time, and Addison became a defender of the liberties of the dramatist and insisted that the reputation of English writers of tragedy should not be injured by the enforcement of such an arbitrary rule as Den is and his fellow critic proposed. Since that time, the field over which the battle of the theory might be waged has decreased in size. Shakespeare is no longer condemned for having brought Desdemona to an unhappy death. The moder, especially, has turned from the old accepted idea of “whatsoever a man soweth, that shall also be reap”, and has taken a particular pleasure in turning it upside down. How we see that there is no planned plot for our lives. The narrow sense of tragedy that once held us when we saw justice overtake him who deserved his fate has given way before another sense of tragedy, one which apprehends that perhaps the greatest tragedy may be founded upon the very inscrutability of our lives. We no longer believe in the old dogma of poetic justice. Even so, poetic justice, whether it be modern or ancient, always has the fundamental problem of art with which to contend. That problem is, rightly enough, should it be the purpose of art to please, or to instruct? Dependent upon the answer to this question, is another problem: should the principle of poetic justice be accepted or rejected? Only this much may be said: it seems reasonable to expect that the absolute conformity to a strict form of poetic justice would injure the best interests of art and aesthetics as badly as the absolute violation of the doctrine would affect the conception of morality. A compromise seems inevitable.





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