Poetic Justice in Shakespeare's Othello

The term 'poetic justice' refers to the just division of reward and punishment to the characters. Any serious art is traditionally expected to make the audience feel that there is justice, at least in the world created by art. In the tragic play Othello, the issue of poetic justice is not fully satisfactory. This is because we feel that some characters are punished for no justifiable reason, though there is justifiability in the tragic end of the hero due to his own error of judgment or tragic flaw.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Othello's tragic end is justified because he has made a terrible error by doing injustice to the good people around him and trusting the bad ones. His fault is also that of being too gullible, doubtful towards people who are not at all likely to be immoral, hateful towards his most loving wife, and jealous towards a loyal friend. That stupidity is punished for, and we feel that his suffering is justified. Indeed, it is he himself who invites, or rather rushes to, his doom. Iago's punishment, we only hear that the gentlemen are 'going to' make it the maximum possible, is entirely justified, and we even want to watch him tortured. Roderigo also had to be punished in the way he is; and because he was suffering because of inefficiency, it is all right that he leaves this world. Similarly, Cassio also suffers due to his own silly mind; it is also justified that he is rewarded at the end because he is innocent and also efficient. One may say that Desdemona also deserved the opening of her eyes by means of some suffering, because ignorance and childishness cannot be fully forgiven. But, her murder shocks us. It is the wastage of the good in the battle against the evil. That Desdemona dies, even before she is proved innocent makes rather pessimistic about this world, and the human and divine scheme of justice in our lives. However, Shakespeare skillfully manages to make Desdemona so good that she willingly sacrifices her life for the love of her husband, to be murdered by him. Behind this, there is hidden the same chauvinistic attitude and feeling that a man may be excused if he 'realizes' his mistake after he kills his wife, and there lurks the same discrimination against women as the second class citizens, in the service of men. Nor is the death of Emilia by any means just; her death is sheer injustice, but here also, probably because she is a minor character, her death is not given much attention. There is no justice for women in the world of Othello; but there is no justice to women in this world either! Shakespeare only manages to show the reality, unwittingly, rather than arbitrate poetic justice to the characters.

Despite the lack of poetic justice for some of the characters, the poetic justice given to the major male characters, including the hero makes us feel satisfied at the end of the drama. It is that sense of justice given through the ultimate tragic realization and the self-destruction of Othello that the cathartic effect is achieved. We do notice how Othello tries to justify rather than feel guilty and ashamed; but the expression of his passionate love for Desdemona makes him tolerable. Whatever, Othello's end is justified as it was also inevitable.