Poetic justice is a sort of ideal justice, which the poets. and critics are expected to impart in allocating rewards and punishments to the characters they create. It is an ideal world of justice where crime and punishment exist bound more or less by a nexus of transcendental mathematics. Poetic justice as an idea, however, it is too bookish and fails to explain the wicked world in which men and women live and die. It thinks more of the world as it should be rather than the world as it is. The world of daily existence is a world where the wicked prosper and evil one thrive while the good is wasted and ignored. Such a world provides stuff for tragedies of Shakespeare who accepts the world as it is and King Lear’ is no exception to it.
King Lear is the finest specimen of deep tragédy in English drama, although it is not the most popular. Part of its lesser popularity is due to the prevalent conception of the ideal poetic justice in which the poet is alleged to fail in this play and particularly in the death of Cordelia. It is so cruel that Dr. Johnson could not simply tolerate the scene. It is a play in which the wicked prosper, says Johnson-the death of loving Cordelia was too much for him. It is also the reason why Nahum Tate’s re-written version of the play (1681) was preferred for well over a hundred and fifty years by the play-going public. Both the public and the critics seemed shocked at the revelation of pessimism so stark and unrelieved.
The concept of ideal poetic justice is unknown to Shakespearean tragedy, where the world is accepted as it is. Shakespeare is too ignore the going world where good and evil, love and hate reside side by side. As a true romantic again he knows that divine justice is not a matter of mathematical calculus. His tragic heroes suffer more than apparently seem their due and his Lear is truly a “man more sinned against than sinning.” His Kent is banished for righteousness and his loving Cordelia is disowned by a despotic foolish father. His bastard of an Edmund moves from triumph to triumph in the mundane world while the good, legitimate and loving son of Edgar suffers terribly throughout the play.
It is, however, the death of Cordelia that militates most against the idea of poetic justice. Why does Cordelia die? asks Bradley in his famous Shakespearean Tragedy and goes on–“I suppose no reader failed to ask that question and to ask it with something more than pain…..and even perhaps in tones of protest.” and then Bradley gives his reason of mystic justification for this shocking death by saying that the more unmerited her death, the more deeply we feel her absolute unconcern for it for she is what she is despite all the outward happenings. The killing of Cordelia is not explained but merely mystified. It is known that Shakespeare departs from his source with its happy ending where Cordelia is shown living even after the death of Lear and he certainly makes a departure for nothing. He does it to impress his essential tragic view of life, here as elsewhere.
As has been said already, Shakespeare is no believer in a bookish poetic justice. His book is the open book of nature where good and evil co-exist. But certainly in his world of drama and particularly in this play, it is not the wicked that prosper or goodness fails as extremely unavailing. There is no poetic justice here but there is no moral anarchy too in King Lear. There is justice-the justice of the Shakespearean universe. In this world which
is essentially moral, evil may triumph temporarily only to be destroyed in the end. Good people suffer only to purify themselves and others. Virtue may not be rewarded but evil is finally punished always. Nemesis ultimately overtakes Regan, Goneril, Edmund, and Cornwall while two good men, Albany and Edgar, are left at the end in full control of the situation, rendering as it were a partial poetic justice.
This discussion, however, can not be complete without a reference to the central idea of a waste of good in a Shakespearean tragedy. Shakespeare’s moral order conveys a continual battle between Good and Evil where destruction of evil! involves also partial destruction of the dearest good. That being the core of Shakespearean tragedy, the concept of so-called poetic justice is simply inapplicable to the Shakespearean world. In fact, in three great tragedies of Shakespeare, (Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear) the heroines are found to die for no fault of their own. Ophelia, Desdemona, and Cordelia represent the sweet bright presence and angelic innocence and none certainly merits her tragic death. But still, it so happens in the world, which is neither bad nor good. Shakespeare only tried to present in his tragic vision the spectacle of this world, “travailing for perfection, but bringing to birth
together with glorious Good, an Evil, which it can overcome only by self-torture and self-waste.” (Bradley). Conventional poetic justice is never his seeking but if it comes his way, Shakespeare is the last man to throw it away.