Poetic Irony aka Poetic Justice

Poetic irony, or poetic justice, is a literary device which creates the image of an ideal form justice. It often occurs at the end of the novel or a play where the characters end with what is rather expected of them from the eyes of the reader. It is generally revealed or brought about by an ironic twist of fate, or “cosmic irony.” It gives the reader the feeling that “fate” has intervened and everything fell into place as it should have just as the reader or viewer may have thought the character was going to get away with their misdeeds.

In these situations, bad characters in the novel are rewarded with punishment that amounts to their deeds while the good characters are equally rewarded with what can be said as an ironic twist of fate, with good. It shows how literature can be used to convey moral lessons to society. This device is used by the writer to confirm with the moral principle in the society.

The phrase “poetic justice” was coined by Thomas Rymer, an English literary critic, in “The tragedies of the Last Age Considered” in 1678. According to Thomas, tragedy was to be changed how it was written. He was of the view that characters of moral decay be punished and those of good deeds to be rewarded. He saw the idea of plots having a moral lesson to pass on to the society.

Rymer critics were not limited to specific writers; he went ahead to critics Shakespeare on his novel Othello. Though with little support back then, poetic justice has taken shape over the decades, and many writers have employed it, including Shakespeare. His critics were at the times when the role of literature was that of providing a moral lesson to the reading population. Poetic justice was vital in encouraging people to remain morally upright to receive good rewards later in life.

Examples of poetic justice are typical in the current society and also in novels. For instance, in William Shakespeare’s King Lear, evil characters-Regan, Oswald, Goneri, and Edmund- are seen as thriving through the play. The good ones-Kent, Cordella, Lear, Gloucester, and Edgar go through suffering and disguise. The good character prayers are unanswered even after turning to God. At the end of the play all evil characters are punished for their deeds. Gordelia dies in prison, and Lear is overpowered by the grief of losing her daughter and dies. Edgar murders Edmund and Goneri kill her sister Regan by poisoning her.

In Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, Mr. Bumble enjoys torturing orphans. In the end, he and his wife become so poor that they live in the warehouse they once owned.

Poetic Justice definition in literature adheres to the universal code of morality that keeps society fabric. It stretches readers, also, develop the point that morality deserves commendation while evil is always punished.

Emotional feeling to the good characters that make them follow through the novel or play. Hence poetic justice offers relaxation and resolution.

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Irony Examples

In a general sense, irony is a rhetorical device that is characterized by incongruity in the real situation and what is expected. The deliberate use of irony, especially in literary works and speeches, is used to emphasize a point. It is a language that in some of its forms understates facts, denies the contrary of the truth, or states the opposite of the truth. In all it’s forms, it elicits a similar effect to the audience. There are many types of irony used as literary devices, but we shall focus only on three: verbal, dramatic and situational irony.

Verbal Irony Examples

When there is an incongruity between what is stated and what is. Generally, one of the two elements is an antithesis to the other, creating an ironic contradiction. Here are some examples of verbal irony:

  • A man looked out of the window to see the storm intensify. He turned to his friend and said “wonderful weather we’re having!”
  • Simple phrases, usually in the form of similes, with obvious incongruities ie: clear as mud, smooth as sandpaper, friendly as a coiled rattlesnake
  • In literature, Mark Antony’s speech following the assassination of Cesar is an excellent classic example. Mark Antony praises the assassin Brutus as an ambitious and honorable man while at the same time condemning him.
  • Exclaiming “oh great” after failing an exam
  • As pleasant as a tooth canal
  • As sunny as a winter day in Alaska
  • This steal is a tender as a leather shoe
  • The weather is as cool as a summer day in the Midwest
  • In the Scarlett Letter, Dimmesdale’s confession and discussion of his congregation that was meant to get him to be shunned only led to the people to so the opposite

Verbal irony involves speakers’ intentional contradictory propositions in his or her word choice.

Dramatic Irony Examples

Dramatic irony is much seen in plays and movies as a powerful plot device that directly involves the audience and spectators. Usually in the case, the audience have more knowledge than the protagonist, which allows them to see ironic situations more clearly.

Examples of dramatic irony:

  • In Shakespeare’s Oedipus Rex, the audience are aware that Oedipus’s journey to find the murderer will be fruitless because he himself is the murderer
  • In King Lear, the audience knows from the beginning that Lear’s loyal daughter is Cordelia, but Lear does not see this
  • In the Truman show, the audience know that the show for what it is, a show. However, Truman only learns this as the show progresses
  • In Romeo and Juliet, the former thinks Juliet is dead, buy the audience know that she only took a sleeping potion
  • In Othello, audiences know that Iago is plotting the downfall of Othello while Othello himself is unaware.
  • In Star Wars, the audience know that Darth Vader is Luke’s father, but Luke does not know until episode V
  • In Breaking Bad, Schraeder is looking for a crystal meth producer who happens to be his brother in law. However, only the audience knows this fact, not Schrader
  • In horror movies, the audience is aware that there is a killer in the house, but the character does not and they proceed to enter
  • In Hamlet, people know that Hamlet is not really mad and that he knows the full truth about his father’s murder.
  • In Toy Story, human characters are not aware that the toys speak and move while the audience is aware

Dramatic irony generally has great impact on the audience in terms of being engaged with the performance. By allowing them in on a secret or allowing them to have more knowledge than the characters, the irony keeps them anticipating.

Situational Irony Examples

This happens as a result of disparity between intention and results. As an ironic outcome happens as a result happens to be contrary to the intention. It is also called event irony an the outcome is sometimes humorous.

Examples of situational irony:

  • A marriage counselor filed for divorce
  • A teacher failed a test
  • Gunpowder was discovers in the process of looking for the elixir for immortality
  • In The Gift of Magi by O. Henry, the wife cuts her hair to sell it in order to have the money to buy her husband a pocket watch chain. The husband then sells the watch to buy her a hair accessory.
  • Fahrenheit 451 is in the top 100 banned books in the US
  • An anti technology website
  • A fire station burns down
  • A traffic cop got his license suspended due to unpaid tickets
  • A pilot with a fear of heights
  • A couple seeking divorce rediscover their love for each other run the process of filing for divorce
  • In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus’s father only fulfills the prophecy of him being killed by his own son after trying to avoid it and sending him away
  • Robbery at a police station
  • A post on Facebook about how useless it now is
  • Being thirsty in the sea
  • A fertility counselor struggles to get pregnant
  • A hungry cook
  • A shoemaker without shoes

Sometimes humorous, this type of irony is a useful literary device that can be used in everyday conversations.


Irony is a powerful tool in literature and writing. When used correctly, it has the power to connect to the audience on a whole other level that could not have been otherwise established. Verbal irony is a contradiction between the current situation and what the speaker explicitly expresses. The contradiction has the power to emphasize on the seriousness of the situation. In dramatic irony, the audience are given the upper hand in having a bit more information about the characters. In this case, they know a critical piece if fact that the character does not. Situational irony is one which entails a discrepancy between the character’s intentions and the outcome. The two usually contradict each other to create a humorous effect.

In literary works, and so abundantly in Shakespeare’s literature, the use of irony is used to create a powerful impact on the message. It creates an exceptional uniqueness in speech and literature when used by creating a sort of a puzzle in the reader and the audience’s mind. It has the same effect on speeches as well by driving the intended point home by employing he device’s contrasting nature. Above is an insight with this respect.

Posted inIrony

Ironical Is A Word

Contrary to popular belief, “ironical” is indeed a real word. Ironically, it has the exact same meaning and use as the word “ironic.” And yes, I know that probably isn’t the best use of the word “ironically.” Ironically, I don’t care.

Don’t believe me? Maybe Merriam-Webster will do a better job of convincing you. Here is their entry for “ironical.”

Definition of IRONIC

1: relating to, containing, or constituting irony <an ironic remark> <an ironic coincidence>2: given to irony <an ironic sense of humor>

Variants of IRONIC

iron·ic also iron·i·cal

Ironical vs Ironic

There seems to be a lot of confusion about the usage of this word, but I assure you that in all circumstances where “ironic” can be used, “ironical” can be used as well. “Ironical” is considered archaic, but its usage depends only on the preference of the person using it. It’s not so much “ironic vs ironical,” as much as “ironic = ironical.”

Examples of usage:

I was sixteen then, and I’m seventeen now, and sometimes I act like I’m about thirteen. It’s really ironical, because I’m six foot two and a half and I have gray hair. I really do.

Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Sallinger

If it’s good enough for Holden Caulfield, it’s good enough for me.

And let’s not forget this one from the fine film Good Will Hunting

Sean (Robin Williams): “Got this flyer the other day. Says, uh…, class of ’72’s having a reunion in six months.”

Gerry (Stellan Skarsgård): “Yeah, I got one of those too.”

Sean: “Why don’t you come; I’ll buy you a drink.”

Gerry: “The drinks at those things are free.”

Sean: “I know, Gerry. I was being ironical.” (emphasis mine)

<laughs are had all around>

end scene.

If that doesn’t convince you that ironical is a word, I don’t know what will.

Posted inIrony